Project Update September 2013

Biofuel feedstocks as co-products on dairy farms: income and sustainability benefits.

Project Update. Period: to Sept 29, 2013

Chris Littlejohn, Bio-Protection Research Centre, P O Box 85084, Lincoln University. p: +64 3 325 3838 extension: 8639 Mob. +64 2108204285
Funders; Westland Milk Products and DairyNZ, + support from Agresearch

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Spring Update; Season Two

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Fig.1: Miscanthus plants September 7, 2013; paddock 22 Aylesbury farm.

Crop News

The first signs of re-growth started to appear at the beginning of September. Stems that senesced over the winter remained soft and did not stiffen to produce harder stems, as had been expected (Fig.2).

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Fig.2: Last summer’s stems after moving their nutrient content to the rhizome; paddock 22, Aylesbury Farm, Oct 7, 2013.[/mks_one_half]

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Fig.3: Leaf growth from the top of previously-senesced stems; paddock 22, Aylesbury Farm, Oct 7, 2013.

 

This may be a feature of first season’s growth or may have been a consequence of the relatively mild winter resulting in a slower rate of nutrient transfer. M. x gianteus (Mxg) is not harvested in its first season but when considering future harvest date research (Lewandowski and Heinz 2003) shows energy yield is reduced the later the harvest date, due to nutrient content decreasing as nutrients are translocated to the rhizome. Interestingly some of these stems greened up again in September and initially produced leaves (Figs. 3 and 4) but these died back during a period of frosty mornings.

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Fig. 4: Greening of Miscanthus stems; paddock 6, September 7, 2013 Aylesbury Farm

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Fig.5: Miscanthus shoots first appeared at the beginning of September; paddock 21 Aylesbury Farm.

 

Early September also saw the first appearance of new shoots (Fig 5). Frequent frosts and a lowering in soil temperatures kept any further regrowth in check until the end of September when significant sprouting and growth from the base of plants was visible (Fig.6).

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Fig.6: Vigorous growth from Mxg plants; paddock 6, Aylesbury Farm, Oct 1, 2013.

Whether this spring growth is again is checked by late frosts will be interesting to see. Zub and Brancourt-Hulmel’s (2009) research on crop production in Europe suggests frost tolerance is a breed trait that needs to be improved if Mxg is to be produced in colder regions. Their research indicates susceptibility to winter frost at temperatures below −8 °C for rhizomes and −3.5 °C for young shoots of Mxg can lead to significant plant losses and lower yields. Research by Lewandowski et al (2000) also indicates that in the first winter following planting, the rather shallow and under-developed rhizomes can often be damaged or destroyed by cold and or wet conditions. There are no reports of over-wintering problems in the second and subsequent winters. This year’s relatively mild Canterbury winter should prove to be a bonus to this season’s plant growth and well developed shelterbelts should be the outcome from those Mxg plantings in irrigated paddocks. This is providing that the damage caused to the centre pivot at Aylesbury Farm by the recent storm that hit the region on the September 10 (Fig.7) is repaired before water stress levels become too severe. The immediate area surrounding Aylesbury Farm suffered extensive tree damage, something that would not occur with Miscanthus shelterbelts at this time of year as above ground material would have been harvested or senesced. With harvested plots no stock shelter would be available but with senesced plants some shelter protection is still present.

If high Mxg yields of 30 Tonnes-1 ha or more are to be achieved in the Canterbury region then lasts years growth studies, where irrigated plants were on average a metre taller than unirrigated ones, indicates that irrigation is essential. The observations of frost effect on young growth also suggest that in particularly cold winters mulching may be necessary to mitigate any crop damage in the first winter.

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Fig.7: Damage to the Centre Pivot at Aylesbury Farm, September 12, 2013

Effects of Mxg plantings on biodiversity

Research in Europe (Semere and Slater 2006) showed that since perennial rhizomatous grasses require a single initial planting and tillage only at time of planting, and also no major chemical inputs, and where the crops are harvested in the spring and the land is not disturbed by cultivation every year, the fields were used as over-wintering sites for invertebrates, suggesting immediate benefits to biodiversity. Similar studies have also shown variable benefits for woodland bird species depending on canopy density, weediness and stage of growth. Winter weed control has been minimal in Mxg plantings on Aylesbury Farm and only the removal of any weeds at the base of each plant was performed once sprouting had been observed (Fig. 5). In the only one remaining Mxg planting on Springston Farm, which is partially irrigated, there has been no weed control to see if Mxg plants will push through the existing weed cover. This will give information on levels of weed control necessary to allow unhindered crop growth. All the remaining plots which were unirrigated and had poor growth last season have had blanket spraying of a broad leaved herbicide to remove weed so as to help initial growth of these weaker plants.

Research work over the winter months

Winter months have been spent analysing base-line data which will be used to benchmark any shelter effects in the coming seasons and preparing progress reports. Further soil analysis has been undertaken and soil moisture profiles prepared. This will form an important part of analysis of varying pasture water stress levels due to shelter effect. Bumble motels have been serviced and restocked with bedding material and baseline earthworm counts have been taken. A fifteen month progress report has been submitted to Lincoln University and this will be supported by a presentation on 20 Oct 2013.

DairyNZ provide funding support

One successful outcome of winter activities has been a successful funding application to DairyNZ for data-logging equipment. The allocation of $25,000 will be used to purchase real time monitoring equipment which will be used to assess pasture water stress using canopy temperature as an index. Plants suffering water stress will close their stomata which results in an increase in leaf temperature due to reduced evapotranspiration. This can be detected using infra-red thermometers and used to calculate stomatal conductance. Equipment will be set up to try and achieve this and a hand held porometer, which directly measures stomatal conductance, will be used to calibrate readings. The canopy temperature will then be used to directly indicate plant water stress levels in real-time and at the same time soil moisture levels will be monitored. This work will provide information on whether water stress levels are reduced by shelter and also provide information on optimising irrigation efficiency.

DairyNZ will also help promote methods of best practice for growing Mxg on dairy farms which will also be generated by this research. This contribution is very much appreciated and complements the support provided by Westland Milk Products.

Open Day

An open day has been organised for 20 February 2014 at Aylesbury Farm to provide information on the agronomy of Mxg, research results gained so far and to illustrate the shelter effect of Mxg as by then it should be 3 m high. The aim is to illustrate, using existing plantings, how miscanthus can fit into the dairy production system. Westland Milk Products and DairyNZ will be helping to organise the day. Specialists from DairyNZ, Westland Milk Products, Agresearch and Lincoln University will be present. DairyNZ will be assisting in producing publication material and a BBQ will be provided. A reminder will be posted nearer the time but please put the date in your diaries.

The future of Miscanthus in New Zealand

Negotiations and planning are well under way between Lincoln University and a Californian company to develop in New Zealand a small-scale, portable unit which makes 150 litres-1 hour of renewable diesel. The ‘drop-in’ renewable diesel can be made, through a catalytic process, from any cellulosic material, including miscanthus, cardboard, paper, straw etc. This product can be used as boiler fuel or for transport and has been approved by the state of California as a road fuel with no further treatment – unlike biodiesel from plant oils where transesterification is needed. Prof. Steve Wratten of the Bio-Protection Centre at Lincoln University and Peter Brown from Miscanthus New Zealand Ltd will have a meeting with the California Company later in October.

Chris Littlejohn

References

Lewandowski I, Heinz A (2003). Delayed harvest of miscanthus—influences on biomass quantity and quality and environmental impacts of energy production. European Journal of Agronomy 19, 45-63.

Lewandowski, I. , Clifton-Brownb,I., Scurlockc,J. and Huismand,W., (2000). European experience with a novel energy crop. Biomass and Bioenergy Volume 19, Issue 4, October 2000, Pages 209–227

Semere, T et Slater F.M (2007). Invertebrate populations in miscanthus and reed canary-grass. Biomass and Bioenergy 31 : 30 – 39.

Zub, H. and Brancourt-Hulmel, M (2009 ) Agronomic and physiological performances of different species of Miscanthus, a major energy crop. A review Agronomy for Sustainable Development, Volume 30, Number 2, April 2009 , pp. 201-214(14)

Blog Post – September 2013

An American colleague of mine who is involved in Miscanthus research and teaching said to me some time back that development of a Miscanthus industry is a business that takes quite some time to get going. For somebody as impatient as I am, it was frustrating to hear that, but she is quite right. So far this season, there has been considerable interest from a large number of different people who are interested in establishing Miscanthus as a trial to “see how it goes in their area”. That is really good and it spreads the ownership of Miscanthus over a large number of people – avoiding any possibility of monopoly ownership situations developing. However it can be a bit frustrating for anybody who already has confidence in the ability of Miscanthus to handle a wide range of climates and soils in New Zealand, and who also has identified multiple end use opportunities.

We are progressing well with sales targets for this season, but we still have plants available should we get further orders of any size. Even though we have had good success in planting Miscanthus during the summer in Hawkes Bay, we have concluded that it is probably best to set Christmas as the cut-off date for planting. Having said that, I am seriously considering using a very visible public site to grow a demonstration planting of Miscanthus with part of it being used to trial time of planting so that people can see what difference it makes.

In the past month or two, a lot of our focus has been on what is effectively a side business, which is the establishment of renewable diesel plants in New Zealand. Miscanthus New Zealand Limited was approached some time back by an American company called REEP Development LLC (REEP), which is half owned by a Kiwi, to see if we would be interested in use of Miscanthus through their proprietary process to make renewable diesel. This relationship has been developed over the last two years and is now getting very close to fruition with several companies and individuals interested in the possibility of establishing such a renewable diesel plant in their area.

This is very exciting technology partly because it takes cellulosic material such as Miscanthus, or sawdust, or wood chips, or cereal straw, and processes it directly into diesel which is a direct equivalent of mineral diesel and meets the existing mineral diesel specifications. It has even been approved in California where the regulations for such things are much stricter than in most other places in the world. But what makes it most exciting is the scale. It can be applied successfully on a scale that is small enough that it requires only 12 tonnes of dry matter per day as the feedstock. This an order of magnitude or two less than most other such biofuel production plants. It means that a trucking firm with access to this amount of biomass on an ongoing basis – 84 tonnes of dry matter per week – can set up such a plant in their yard and can produce just over 1 million litres of diesel per year, which is enough diesel to fuel 16 trucks – based on assumed logging trucks fuel consumptions.

In addition, REEP can arrange for 85% of the capital cost to be financed through a US government bank meaning that a New Zealand company could set up such a plant with a total outlay of only around $500,000 and a favourable five-year US government loan of approximately $1.6 million (NZ dollars). And the really wonderful thing is that with a healthy price of $100 per tonne of dry matter being paid to the grower (of Miscanthus) or the supplier (of the sawdust) – and with a diesel price of only $1.10 per litre (plus GST), the renewable diesel plant can pay off its loan and make a profit.

Biomass to Renewable Diesel Demonstration Plant – Italy

Design – 150Litres (40gal) /hour

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Power unit – Diesel generator. Diesel use – Local truck transport fleet.

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This may not seem to be very much on the subject of Miscanthus, but it is part of the wide-ranging work that we have been doing to establish real viable alternative end uses that will enable people to grow Miscanthus with confidence knowing that they have more than one potential or actual local outlet for the product that they will produce. And one of these plants could be run using no more than 200 ha of Miscanthus – something that is very achievable in most parts of New Zealand. I will periodically update things regarding progress in this field. If you wish to get in touch in relation to this, use the contact form on the website.

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Hawkes Bay Miscanthus – end of third growing season.

We are also right on the point of harvesting a significant area that is at the end of its second growing season. Part of this product will be used directly by the landowner as boiler fuel and part of it will be used for trials of a new in-field pellet machine that produces chunky pellets – 30 mm square – directly from the harvested material as it is being harvested. This will improve the transport cost significantly by creating a product that is denser to transport. The same contractor has a mechanical planter almost completed that will cultivate strips, plant Miscanthus plants automatically and possibly also spray for residual weed control at the same time.

It is really great to see such positive Kiwi innovation and lateral thinking being applied to issues that arise with a new industry such as the development and use of Miscanthus. We have also been having some fairly intensive discussions with key people at Lincoln University, who are already starting to attack several of the research issues that growing and utilisation of Miscanthus generate. If we can get the powers-that-be in the government funding agencies to recognise the value that can be created by encouraging development and use of Miscanthus, there will be sufficient research that needs to be done to keep many people occupied productively for their whole careers.

Blog Post – August 2013

You would really think that because it is the time of year when things are not growing, this would be the quiet time of year in the Miscanthus business. But it is in fact the time of year when we are trying to get people to firm up on their decisions about how many plants they are going to need in the coming spring so that we can produce enough plants to supply them, without overproducing. I sent our nurseryman an e-mail in May and said that at that stage we had orders for something between 60 plants and 80 million! The bottom number has come up significantly since then but there is still a lot of uncertainty about just how many plants we really need to produce for this spring.

It is interesting that the majority of serious interest from individuals seems to be coming from the South Island – notably Canterbury and southwards. I have no idea why this is the case but it does give the impression that South Island farmers are more progressive than North Island farmers. Lincoln University established trials last growing season on at least 10 paddocks on four farms in Canterbury and is planning to plant more this coming spring. These trials have so far exceeded our expectations. This may be some of the reason for the South Island interest, but we also have interest being shown from Otago and Southland – some as a result of people seeing this website and some as a result of innovative publicity produced by various small unique South Island based publications.

There is some increased activity now happening in the Waikato, particularly as a result of one agricultural contractor who not only has contacts with various landowners who are showing interest, but who is very innovative in his adaptation of machinery to meet the needs of establishing and harvesting Miscanthus.

We have been monitoring Miscanthus in Hawkes Bay on our oldest trial sites and have observed that the moisture content has decreased more slowly through this winter than we expected. Because of lack of experience in New Zealand, we do not know whether this will be the norm or whether it is a unique situation arising perhaps from the drought during the growing season with the plants retaining more water in early winter than they would normally do. We are monitoring closely and will make sure we do it even more intensively next year to see whether the same pattern emerges. It seems that for every question that we get answered there are five missions arising. Apparently this is the norm for research.

The initial reports from the Lincoln shelter research in Canterbury have been interesting and we now have approval from the researcher – Chris Littlejohn – to put his reports up on our website for the information of our visitors. This is research that is completely independent of Miscanthus New Zealand other than the fact that we supplied the initial plants and, along with many other people, provide some advice when this is asked for. We expect that these reports will be on the website before the end of August and as more reports come through we will get put them up as well.

Miscanthus research is also being carried out in New Zealand by Rocky Renquist of Bioenergy Cropping Solutions Ltd. When his results are published we will, with Rocky’s approval, either link to these results or will post the results directly on our website. This research is being carried out as part of a contract to supply biomass feedstock to the University of Canterbury Engineering School for testing through their pyrolysis process. In the process of growing this material, there is a lot being learned about the productive capacity of Miscanthus on different sites and its response to drought conditions. So far productivity results have exceeded our expectations by quite a margin.

Last week, Rocky sent me a report that has to remain confidential at the moment but he gave me permission to put up the photographs shown below. In relation to these photographs, he wrote:

Figure 1 shows the crop appearance at the Hastings research centre on 22 May, still in full flowering but two months past peak DM yield. The second photo in the figure is what plants look like after leaf shed, at the start of the commercial harvest window of June, July and August.

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Figure 1. Giant miscanthus on 22 May (still flowering) and 31 May 2013 (after a frost).

Blog Post – July 2013

June is the month that I always associate with cold damp weather which is characteristic of the National Fieldays. This year, my annual pilgrimage to the Fieldays found that although it was quite cold it was not damp and in terms of weather was quite a pleasant day. It was also different in that I was going there with the express purpose of having at least two meetings with people who had contacted me regarding serious interest in being involved in the Miscanthus industry. It made a bit of a change from most years when my objective in going has been considerably less clearly defined.

I also happened to meet with the associate minister for MPI – Jo Goodhew. She seemed pleased to have finally met somebody who initially did not know who she was. Inevitably I was asked by her private secretary how things are going with Miscanthus and when the Minister asked what Miscanthus was, I was able to dive in my bag and pull-out the latest Miscanthus New Zealand Limited (MNZ) brochure that I “just happened to have with me”.

Such opportunities come up when you least expect them and you have no idea as to whether they have been useful commercially until quite some time later. My view is that the more people who know about Miscanthus and the more people who have factual information that they can consider, the better for the Miscanthus industry.

In the past month I have had contact from a number of people wanting to purchase plants to establish trials of their own. One such person is keen on growing Miscanthus to provide cover for pheasants – as part of a commercial venture. Another is a very innovative agricultural contractor who is not only interested in finalising the development of some fascinating machinery for harvesting Miscanthus and other crops, but is also going to some effort to get significant areas of Miscanthus planted in his locality. If this is successful – and we expect it will be – it will provide him with future harvesting work. Since the Fieldays, I have spent two full days with him and if only a small proportion of his practical ideas come to fruition, they will have been very worthwhile days for both him and for MNZ.

At the same time Lincoln Ph.D. student Chris Littlejohn is doing some impressive work. He is growing Miscanthus on Canterbury farms to provide shelter from Northwest winds and is examining the ecosystem services and commercial benefits of doing so. We are taking steps right now to get his monthly reports put up on this website so that visitors can see a completely independent viewpoint on the development of Miscanthus in Canterbury. They will also see pictures of his first season Miscanthus that reached more than 1 m tall.

Somewhat to my surprise, even the Miscanthus that is being grown on an un-irrigated site is doing well, particularly when one takes into account the fact that these plants were planted quite late in the season. I am really looking forward to seeing how these develop over the coming year and everybody will obviously be interested in learning what ancillary benefits such shelter planting can produce. When the crop is harvested on these sites, I am anticipating that the resulting product of chopped up Miscanthus will be able to be used as bedding for calves on the same farm where it was grown.

That then leads into the whole area of using Miscanthus for stock bedding – something that was its original and continuing use in the UK. We have looked at the amount of animal bedding being marketed by farm merchandise companies and this market does look quite small (at present). However closer investigation with end users suggests that with the development of feed pads, and herd barns in which cows can be wintered, the market could be reasonably large while also being on a scale that can be managed with local production and supply. Over the next month MNZ will be investigating this further.

I have shown below, two photographs, taken recently of a four-year old stand of Miscanthus just off Fairfield Avenue, Huntly. The first photograph shows the variability that has occurred to some extent in this Miscanthus as a result of the intense summer drought. Some of the plants were only in the order of 2 m tall while others were at least 4 m tall.

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The other photograph shown below is another part of the same site that also shows a larger than normal degree of variability but which gives a better impression of the quantity of biomass that has been produced by this crop in spite of the drought. These plants are in the process of dropping their leaves right now and it is interesting to see that while some have had completely dropped their leaves, others retain quite leafy tops. At this particular spot, the plants were planted at the spacing of 1.25 m x 1.25 m which results in a requirement for only 64% of the plants needed for normal establishment. We do not have access to the measurements from the harvest of this crop but at some stage it will be interesting to find out the impact of such wider spacing on the ongoing per hectare production levels.

As with all Miscanthus stands, the best time to harvest will depend on the balance between harvestable biomass and moisture content which tend to counteract each other as the winter progresses. Moisture content reduces as the winter progresses (May to August) while harvestable biomass is also reducing somewhat.

The innovative agricultural contractor whom I mentioned earlier is close to finalising a machine that will be able to harvest Miscanthus, or corn stover, and to turn it into pellets directly as it is being harvested. For some end uses this will be particularly helpful and will certainly make transport of the harvested material more cost efficient.

Project Update July 2013

Biofuel feedstocks as co-products on dairy farms: income and sustainability benefits

Project Update. Period: To July 3, 2013

Chris Littlejohn, Bio-Protection Research Centre, P O Box 85084, Lincoln University. p: +64 3 325 3838 extension: 8639

Mid-winter Update

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Fig.1: Senescence of Miscanthus giganteus (miscanthus) plants, 1.5 m high, at the end of June 2013; paddock 22 Aylesbury farm.

Crop News

Miscanthus plants are now starting to senesce and pass nutrients to their rhizome (Fig. 1). First year-yields are not worth harvesting and so the remaining woody stems will stay in place until new growth commences next spring.

Miscanthus planted in the irrigated paddocks of Aylesbury Farm achieved a maximum height of 1.5 m which is impressive considering the late planting and initial lack of irrigation. This growth was achieved from initially water-stressed plants in just four months. Expected height from growth over seven months was 1 m. Normally above-ground growth in the first year is not very extensive as most development is occurring underground in the rhizome. Strong rhizome development in the first year is very important in determining subsequent yield. The impressive above-ground growth achieved indicates the plants have equally impressive rhizome development and that next year’s growth should easily reach the anticipated 3 m in height which is needed for testing the multi-functional nature’s services generated by its role as a shelterbelt and biofuel source.

Initially miscanthus was chosen for its ability to create shelter rapidly and of a significant height and also because of its ability to let the centre pivot to pass through it. The fact that it shows signs of providing exceptional yields is a bonus. The high yield and low input demand are the main factors why recent analyses conclude that miscanthus, in the (warm) temperate zone, is the bioenergy crop that seems able to deliver the highest net GHG mitigation. The highest net energy output was also found when peak, pre-senescence, yields were harvested. Sustainability of many first-generation biofuels – which are produced primarily from food crops such as grains, sugar cane and vegetable oils – has been increasingly questioned over concerns such as reported displacement of food-crops, effects on the environment and climate change. This increasing criticism has raised attention to the potential of so-called second-generation biofuels of which miscanthus, specifically M. giganteus, is an example. While second-generation biofuel crops and production technologies are more efficient, their production could become unsustainable if they compete with food crops for available land. The advantage of integrating miscanthus within the farming system is that the crop complements the existing farm production and is synergistic with it.

Presentations

In mid-May I was invited to give a presentation on my research to date at the Bioenergy Association of New Zealand (BANZ) Conference on ‘Unlocking additional revenue from traditional rural land use’ in Rotorua. This was well received and showed how well our research fits into the present direction that ‘future farming’ in New Zealand should be taking. Farmers can be conservative in terms of change, and adopting new farming systems will mainly be achieved only if farmers can be confident in the financial benefits and outcomes of doing so. With the (perhaps token) commitment of governments to reduce carbon emissions, the need to develop bio-energy crops to replace fossil fuels is a necessity. The advantage of using miscanthus is that until carbon credits etc. become a viable market, the crop has existing multiple uses, as feed or bedding material, shelter, wildlife and pollinator habitat and as a useful agro-ecologically based marketing tool.

Pasture Yield Analysis

Sheltered areas of the paddock potentially have higher pasture production and quality. Part of this research is to investigate if this is the case. Pasture samples collected from miscanthus-sheltered and unsheltered areas of paddocks throughout last season are being analysed for digestibility, nutrient and energy content. Results will be used to determine base data for comparing any changes next season resulting from shelter. Thanks to Samuel Dennis’s team at Agresearch, yield maps based on pasture height readings collected last season using a C-Dax pasture meter have been produced. An example of one of these is illustrated in Fig.2.

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Fig.2: Grass yield expressed as plant height from paddock 22 on Aylesbury farm 22 Jan 2013.

Every black dot represents a pasture height record from the C-Dax pasture meter. Concentrated readings are taken from the area immediately enclosed by the miscanthus shelter and from an equivalent-sized control area from the open paddock. The rest of the paddock is measured by towing the C-dax up and down the paddock at 10 metre intervals. The height readings are used to generate a map of pasture height over the whole paddock as illustrated by Fig.2. These will be repeated immediately before and after each grazing event over the next two years. Results from six paddocks planted with miscanthus will be used, each with a control area at least 150 m away from any shelter and of equivalent size to the area immediately enclosed by miscanthus shelter. The control areas have been chosen to reflect as close as possible the physical features; soil depth, position relative to the centre pivot, proximity to paddock boundary and topography of the sheltered area. To interpret whether the presence of shelter has influenced pasture production changes relative to base values Before After Control Impact (BACI) analysis will be used. There will be six replicates with full irrigation. Three further paddocks with no or partial irrigation will also be measured.

Open Day

In July we are hoping to organise an open day at Aylesbury Farm. The aim is to illustrate, using existing plantings, how miscanthus can fit into the dairy production system. When the date has been finalised I will send an email to notify all recipients of this newsletter.

Thanks again to all the funders and helpers who have and continue to assist in this research.

Regards
Chris Littlejohn
Lincoln University

Blog Post – June 2013

Interest in Miscanthus is growing rapidly and Miscanthus New Zealand (MNZ) has had a number of enquiries from people wanting to order small quantities to establish tiny trial areas of Miscanthus on their properties. These will all be interesting but MNZ is conscious of the fact that they give little information on the possibilities for commercial scale planting. In some cases there are issues that arise in small areas that are insignificant in commercial scale planting – such as rabbit damage. In other cases there may be issues that are generally not a problem small scale planting that can become important in larger scale plantings – such as plant management between delivery and planting.

MNZ has also had approaches from two people who plan to plant significant areas of Miscanthus in the coming year or two and who want to start with a demonstration area this year.

These are all good moves and MNZ is happy to facilitate this. But we have had to put together a Miscanthus plant cost schedule that progressively increases the cost per plant for smaller numbers. This will be posted on the website soon.

At the other end of the scale, MNZ has been approached by the developer of a hybrid biomass processing facility that is to be based in Northland and that will require large quantities of Miscanthus feedstock material – several hundred thousand tonnes per year. They plan to offer landowners / feedstock suppliers a firm contract for a minimum of 15 – 20 years with a similar right of renewal included. At the moment this projects looks very likely to proceed. When it does, MNZ believes that it will compete on a commercial basis with almost all other land use options because of the certainty of future income that it will give to landowners. We are not aware of any other primary land use that can offer such long term certainty of demand and price.

MNZ has started discussions with potentially interested investment partners who have the capacity to help in funding and managing development of the capacity to establish sufficient area of Miscanthus to service such a project. Other potentially interested participants, including interested Northland landowners, should contact MNZ using the contact form on our website to express their interest.

For a number of reasons MNZ has in the past few weeks been moving its base of operations from in the vicinity of Rotorua to the Waikato. We are establishing an office in Te Awamutu and will have a new telephone number and physical address during June. In the meantime, MNZ can be contacted through my cell phone (027) 498 4241 by email to info@miscanthus.co.nz or by mail to our new postal address at PO Box 581, Te Awamutu 3840.

The following photograph – taken by Dr Rocky Renquist of Bioenergy Cropping Solutions Limited – shows one of the Miscanthus trials in Hawkes Bay, as it was on 31 May 2013. Much of the brown, recently senesced area nearest the camera had received some accidental irrigation during the 2013 summer drought, had grown well and had senesced after the first frosts as expected. The area that is still green was the area that was in general most affected by the drought but which greened up rapidly as soon as the rains came. It has yet to senesce. We will watch with interest to see when this area senesces fully.

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Blog Post – May 2013

The past month has finally seen the end of the drought and although it has been very hard on many people in the rural sector, it has given us some very useful information on how Miscanthus handles drought.

We were lucky enough in Hawkes Bay to have Miscanthus growing on two sites – one with a naturally high water table, and the other with a very well-drained soil. On this second site, part of the crop received accidental irrigation that was being delivered to the paddock next door. As a result we got a good picture of what happens to irrigated and non-irrigated crops on these soils.

As you would expect, although the Miscanthus is deep-rooted, if there is no rain, eventually the dryness gets down as far as the Miscanthus roots extend. The result is an interesting contrast between plants that by March were brown and in the order of 1.5 m tall – the area with no irrigation – and plants that by the end of March were still green and approximately 2.5 m tall – the area that had received some accidental irrigation. The contrast between these plants and those on the high water table site was also dramatic. Where the water table was high and the plants did not suffer from water shortage at all, they were still green and over 3.5 m tall by the end of the growing season.

In the Waikato, one site covered a range of examples which included very damp land at one extreme; well-drained but deep soils at the other extreme; and in between, areas where the plants were stressed from relatively early on.

We have data on nutrient levels for these sites, but only indicative data on production. However the indications are that where establishment and particularly initial weed control was effective, the plants performed extremely well until around the end of January when they began to show drought effects as shown in the photograph below.

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The first sign was some browning of the tips of the uppermost leaves, matched at the same time by some shedding of lower leaves near the ground. But even by the end of March, the plants on much of this site were still showing a large amount of green leaf area, which augurs well for the potential use of Miscanthus as a backup fodder crop in case of drought.

The picture below shows plants on this site near Tokoroa on 21 March 2013.

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These plants, at the end of only their second growing season, were a little over 2 m tall at the time the photograph was taken and it is easy to see the dried leaves near the base of the plant that had begun to be actively shed.

As soon as we have all of the data analysed regarding the value of Miscanthus for stock feed, we will be publishing this on our website so that farmers can get a good idea of how useful this plant would be as a backup crop for use in summer if drought should strike again. Then if drought did not eventuate, they would have a crop that instead be harvested in winter for use as calf bedding, or for use in stock barns or on feed pads.

April has also seen Miscanthus New Zealand giving presentations at both the Residues to Revenues conferences in Auckland and in Melbourne, which included some mention of Miscanthus, and just last week at the Tree Crops Association conference in Hamilton. All those presentations were very well received and have generated useful interest.

In next month’s chat I will be talking about a major opportunity in Northland which will require significant areas of Miscanthus to be established with a guaranteed market and a long-term supply contract available for growers.

Project Update April 2013

Evaluation and Enhancement of Ecosystem Services on Dairy Farms

Project Update. Period: To April 9, 2013

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Arrival of Autumn

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Fig.1: MxG plantings at Aylesbury Farm

Growth of irrigated plants has continued to be impressive at Aylesbury farm with some now over 1.5 m tall. Karetu farm received its first significant rainfall since February 6 on March 19 with 26 – 30 mm of rain over two days. This resulted in what were apparently dead MxG plants sprouting new shoots, indicating the robustness of this plant. Recent rainfall in early April brought about further new vigorous growth as illustrated by fig.3. In comparison the Poplar trees next to the MxG plantings, Fig.2, shed their leaves long ago and may not have survived.

The amount of new growth of the MxG plants at Karetu varies greatly as illustrated by figs. 4 and 5. Plants planted on November 27, 2013 have a higher number of plants exhibiting rapid re-growth compared to those planted on December 6, 2013. This indicates that planting earlier in the year would result in the majority of plants being able to survive summer drought conditions. What is surprising is that, even with planting so late, many plants have survived the drought especially considering the poor soil conditions found here. Fig. 6 shows the soil profile at the location of the MxG shelterbelt.This is typical of the Lismore soils found in this area which are characterised by very shallow deposits of silty loess covering a very stony substrate.

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Fig. 2: Poplar trees next to the MxG plantings at Karetu farm.

 

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Fig. 3: New growth from MxG plantings at Karetu farm.

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Fig.4: MXG plants at Karetu showing early signs of new growth.

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Fig. 6: Soil profile below MxG planting area at Karetu farm.

 

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Fig.5: MxG plants at Karetu showing recent rapid growth.

 

Weed control in MxG Shelterbelts

At Aylesbury farm, where MxG plantings have been constantly irrigated since 23 December, weed and MxG growth have continued to be vigorous. To investigate whether, in these conditions, weed competition limits MxG growth a small trial was set up. Eight similar sized areas in each of three of the MxG plantings were marked out. Four of these areas were sprayed, (Fig 7), with Turfix, a broadleaf herbicide not toxic to MxG plants, and four were left unsprayed, (Fig 6). After four weeks, over which time the MxG grew 1 cm a day, the height of twelve plants in each treatment plot were measured. This resulted in half of all the plants in each of the MxG shelterbelts being measured. The mean height differences between sprayed and unsprayed plots is illustrated in Fig. 8. The mean height of plants in the unsprayed plots was 104.9 cm and that of the sprayed plots was 105.3 cm. This indicates that well established MxG plants on irrigated dairy farms are vigorously competitive. It does not mean that weed control is unnecessary; in fact all plantings needed spraying in the early stages, especially to prevent smothering by fathen (Chenopodium album). However it does indicate that once a certain height is reached, and in the absence of other stresses such as drought, the deeper rooting MxG plant is less prone to the effects of weed competition.

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Fig.6 : Unsprayed area of MxG shelterbelt in paddock 21 at Aylesbury farm.

 

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Fig.7: Sprayed area of MxG shelterbelt in paddock 21 at Aylesbury farm.

 

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Fig. 8; Bar chart showing mean MxG plant height in sprayed and unsprayed plots 30 days after spraying.

Future implications of spray trial

In dense stands of MxG the rapid plant growth soon shades out any plants growing between the stands. In the case of shelterbelts which are narow linear plantings, there may be enough light penetration to allow the growth of desirable ground-covering plants.

One of these is Acaena inermis purpurea, (Fig 9), an endemic New Zealand plant species. It has been used successfully in vineyards where it spreads well, does not compete with the crop and delivers a wide range of ecosystem services including weed suppression as well as pollen and nectar for bees, pest predators and butterflies While the benefit for pest control on dairy farms is unclear its other attributes make trial plantings of A. inermis in future MxG stands a worthwhile addition to this research on the ecosystem services benefits of planting MxG shelterbelts on dairy farms.

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Fig.9: Acaena inermis purpurea

 

Media opportunities

The lincoln-based team consider that a media release covering the key points of the work to date may be appropiate and we are contacting Steve Attwood at Westland Milk Products to explore this idea. Of course we will not pursue any media links without the invlovement and full approval from the company.

Blog Post – April 2013

The past month has been characterised mainly by the severity of the drought that has affected most parts of the North Island and some of the South Island. We have Miscanthus growing in enough different places to begin to get a good picture of how well it handles drought. I find the results somewhat surprising because it is proving to be much more resilient than might be expected.

The earliest plantings in Hawke’s Bay – now two years and two months from the day they were planted – are thriving in spite of the very dry summer that they have had. This is apparently because their deep-rooted nature has enabled them to access a moderately high water table.

But I had to admit that this is not typical of other sites where the drought has impacted on the Miscanthus to varying extents, but still with better production than can be found on the adjoining pastureland.

The following two photographs show the most drought affected Miscanthus that I have found and the accompanying picture shows the pasture just over the fence. There is no question which is the site that has higher production and it also protects the soil better.

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The photo shows part of this stand as it was on 26 March.

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Having viewed the Miscanthus around the various local places where it is now growing, I could not help wondering whether farmers who were looking to bring low quality supplementary feed up from the South Island, might be thinking that they would have been better to have a portion of their land in Miscanthus. If they had done so, irrespective of what the intended product was when they planted it, it could now be providing their livestock with some feed in this very dry weather.

We now have data running from November through to the end of March on the feed value of Miscanthus from one site and will soon be having that analysed properly by an agricultural consultant. The objective will be to identify clearly for farmer clients just how useful Miscanthus can be as a backup feed resource. Once we have this analysis completed, I will certainly post some information about it on the website.

Peter Brown

Project Update March 2013

Project Update – To March 10, 2013

MxG Plant Survival

With no rain at all recorded at Karetu farm last month, this season has proved to be difficult for establishing MxG plants in areas without irrigation.

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Figs. 1 and 2 below from Edwards Road paddock at Springston, where MxG plantings receive some irrigation, illustrate this. Fig. 1 is of the southern fence line, looking east, which only just picks up moisture from the centre pivot. The MxG plants in the row next to the fence receive no water and although they are still alive they are only 20 cm tall. Plant height increases further into the paddock as they start to pick up moisture from the irrigator.

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Fig. 1; MxG plantings in Edwards Road paddock along the fence line not reached by the irrigator.

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Fig. 2.; MxG plantings in the Edwards Road Paddock looking north down the irrigated fence line.

The plants in the adjacent corner which receive a regular water supply from the centre pivot, as shown in fig. 2, are thriving and many of these are now a metre tall. It will be interesting to see how all MxG plants in this paddock develop and whether the drought-affected plants ever achieve a worthwhile dry matter yield over the next two seasons.

MxG Production and Habitat Creation

At Aylesbury farm, fig. 3, where MxG plants suffered initially when irrigation was not available, the plants are now thriving and are over a metre tall. Irrigation from the Centre pivot started on December 21, 2012 and the plants have achieved this height in just two months. Figs. 2 and 3 also illustrate the new habitat that these plantings have created on what was previously a prairie type landscape. MxG has a vigorous growth habit and thus there is possibly a reduced need for blanket weed control where it is planted. This will be tested by comparing the growth of MxG plants in sprayed and unsprayed areas to establish whether blanket weed removal improves MxG plant growth. As the MxG plant matures light, to the under-story canopy will be reduced in the centre of the plantings, possibly reducing plant diversity. However, MxG above-ground growth is largely absent in the spring and this may allow a diverse plant community to establish within the plantings earlier in the year. One benefit of this will be greater food availability for pollinators. Other ecosytem service benefits related to habitat creation of the plantings being monitored are improved nesting sites for bumble bees and resting areas for skinks. Although these environmental improvements may not impact directly on farm profits, they do send a signal to national and international markets that New Zealand dairy farms aspire to higher levels of functional diversity. The shelter effect on pasture growth is also, of course, important.

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Fig. 3; MxG plantings under the centre pivot in paddock 22 at Aylesbury farm. Bumble bee motels have been positioned here to assess if these plantings improve the occupancy rates of these motels on dairy farms. This will aid pollination success in nearby seed and other crops.

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Fig. 4; Edge of MxG planting adjacent to paddock 22, Aylesbury Farm, where shelter effect will be measured.

Collection of data

Collection of early baseline data to be used in assessing improvements in pasture production where MxG shelter is established has been taking place. This has involved recording soil nutrient levels, water application rates, soil moisture levels, pasture and MxG production, nutrient and water stress levels. Recording of pasture production from the paddocks where MxG is planted, using the C-dax pasture meter supplied by Agresearch, enables yield maps to be created, as illustrated by the attached file, paddock 21, which is of the pasture heights from paddock 21 at Aylesbury Farm on February 8, 2012. Using this technique will enable a spatial record of pasture growth over time to be created and this will be invaluable in assessing changes due to shelter effect.

This week soil analysis will begin to provide base values to find if there is a shelter effect over the next three years on soil nutrient levels. The following technique will be used:

Study Area

Paddocks have been planted in their north western corner with MxG creating three sampling areas. 1) Where the MxG plants are growing. 2) The area of the paddock immediately influenced by the shelter effect from the MxG. 3) A control area where there is no shelter effect and which is of the same size as 2).

Soil Sampling

Soil sampling will be carried out in each paddock planted with MxG over the next two weeks to get a base value for each area and will be repeated at the same time of year over the next two years. Fifteen cores will be taken along the sampling diagonal coming out from the shelter and these will be homogenised. This will be repeated at an equivalent location in the control area. One sample from this mix will then be sent to Hill Laboratories for analysis.One sample will be kept for in house analysis. This will be repeated for the control area and also 15 cores will be taken from where the MxG is growing.

Soil samples sent to Hill will be fresh soil and will be analysed for the following; pH, CEC, calcium, magnesium, Olsen P, potassium, sulphate sulphur, volume weight.

Soil samples to be analysed in-house will be air-dried at 30 degrees centigrade and stored for analysis later. Drying will continue until the soil weight has stabilised. These will be analysed for total carbon and total nitrogen using a CNS analyser.

Thanks

Thank you to everyone helping me to continue this research, in particular Chris Pullen, Westland Milk Products, for the continued funding and support, Samuel Dennis and his team at Agresearch for allowing me to use their equipment and for assisting in collation of data and creation of yield maps, Mark Williams and his staff at Aylesbury farm for their help and co-operation and Dave Irvine and Marv Pangborne for letting me use their farms.

Blog Post – March 2013

This is the inaugural issue of what will be a monthly update of activity in the world of Miscanthus New Zealand Limited. Our first two and a half years have been very busy as we move from having 34 plants that we imported in tissue culture, to supplying several hundred thousand plants to landowners who were keen to grow Miscanthus.

Along the way, we have learnt a lot about what works well and where problems are likely to arise. Our systems have improved so that problems and risks are minimised and we have been very pleased with the initial growth rates achieved, particularly those in Hawke’s Bay where we thought that the fry climate might mean that there would be difficulty getting Miscanthus established successfully.

Initial sampling in Hawkes Bay indicated that actual production at the end of the second growing season was in the order of more than twice what we had been assuming and this augured well for the overall economics and for growing Miscanthus on a commercial scale.

The number of sites on which we have Miscanthus growing has been expanding and we are now looking for new sites in Northland where there is rapidly firming demand for Miscanthus biomass product, sufficient for us to need to get 7000 or more hectares planted. The challenge will be being able to identify sufficient suitable land and to get the landowners sufficiently interested to make the initial establishment investment to enable this particular project to be a success.

At the same time, there is considerable interest from around Lake Taupo, because the Lake Taupo Protection Trust recognises Miscanthus as being a crop that significantly reduces nitrogen run-off into the lake. In that situation, our challenge is to get end users of appropriate scale in the vicinity of Taupo to become sufficiently interested that they will offer long term contracts for purchase of the Miscanthus product.

Interest has also recently come from Southland with the thinking being to use Miscanthus as shelter crop to protect pasture from the cold southerly winds that dairy farmers have realised significantly reduce pasture growth. This is a different issue from the use of Miscanthus for shelter in Canterbury and the whole structure of how this is managed will be different. But with Southland having such reliable rainfall and during the growing season having much longer day length than regions further north, it is very likely that Miscanthus will thrive in that environment even though the growing season is shorter.

These are just three examples of what we are working on at present. So the opportunities are out there. Now it is simply a matter of Miscanthus New Zealand Limited spending the time working with people to develop these possibilities to the point where they begin to function independently with the initial planting of Miscanthus acting as an advertisement that attract further planting.

Peter Brown

Project Update February 2013

February Update

This month has seen a continuation of last month’s dry and hot weather causing very dry conditions. This is being reflected in the occurrence of two severe bush fires near two of the farms where Miscanthus giganteus (MxG) has been planted. Fortunately at Aylesbury farm where all MxG plantings are irrigated this hot weather has produced ideal growing conditions.

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MxG is a warm season perennial grass that is a useful cellulosic bio energy crop due to its high yield potential. It is a C4 grass, as is maize , which means it is a very efficient user of water and grows better in warmer conditions. This has enabled it to survive at Karetu farm in the absence of irrigation and where the soil is poor. Lack of water at Karetu has started to cause visible stress in some of the weaker plants but this will become less of an issue as the plants develop and send down their deep tap root.

Reseach indicates that Miscanthus has a very low nutrient removal rate compared to other potential bioenergy crops. The plant reportably has a remarkable ability to turn only modest amounts of nutrients into large amounts of biomass. Testing of this during this research will include monitoring soil nutrient levels and MxG dry matter yields over the next three years. Of interest is that some MxG plantings, those on Karetu farm, will receive no additional nutrients and additional water supply whereas plants on Aylesbury farm will, due to being planted within the milking platform, receive nutrients supplied to the pasture. This is not deliberate but will be due to some fertiliser spread on the pasture reaching the MxG plots.

One of the potential benefits of MxG on dairy farms is that it is multi-functional. As well as generating ecosystem services through its role of providing shelter, which are being measured as part of this research, it can be used to produce silage, if cut early, or material similar to straw when harvested when mature. Nutrient analysis of plant material is at present being undertaken by Miscanthus New Zealand. The plant is certainly palatable as inadvertently tested when cows broke through fencing on Aylesbury farm when power to the fence was lost! A back- up system is now available to reduce the risk of this. Research indicates that regrowth from grazing is rapid providing the growing point is not damaged through trampling. This was certainly the case in this instance as the following pictures illustrate.

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Fig 1 Heavy grazing of MxG plants removed above ground vegetation

Progress to date

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Fig 2 Plants had a well developed root system facilitating rapid regrowth

Monitoring of soil moisture levels, water input and pasture production is now well underway. This has been possible due to the excellent co-operation and assistance from Samuel Dennis and his team at Agresearch. C-dax pasture meter readings are being used to monitor pasture growth. At present the aim is to monitor the control areas and eventual sheltered areas to try and ensure these areas are as similar as possible before the shelter effect develops next season. Whole pasture records are also recorded to provide furher information for this research and for Agresearch’s work on yield analysis.

Pot trials are now mature enough to enable testing of equipment to monitor expected shelter effects on plant transpiration and photosynthesis rates. Steven Stillwell and I will be testing equipment over the coming weeks.

Monitoring of bumble bee motels placed in six MxG paddocks has revealed that out of 48 motels placed with 4 compartments in each motel only one compartment showed any sign of occupancy. This is in line with expectations due to motels being placed towards the end of the bee nesting season and also bumble bees tend to crawl through patches of long grass when searching for nesting places. These are in short supply on intensive dairy farms and is one reason why plantings of MxG may lead to a higher occupancy rate of these motels in the future.

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Fig 3 MxG two weeks after grazing