The Origins of Giant Miscanthus

The genus Miscanthus includes approximately 20 species. The name comes from the Greek mischos meaning “stalk” and anthos, “flowers.” Grasses in this genus are called Maiden Grass, Chinese Silver Grass, Japanese Silver Grass, Susuki Grass, or Eulalia Grass.

Miscanthus is native to Asia. It is found in China, Japan, Taiwan, and Korea in meadows, marshes, hillsides, and abandoned areas, near active volcanoes, in poor soil and on mountainsides up to 1500 metres. It is a dominant species in Japan’s grasslands. Known as Susuki Grass, its blooms are considered a sign of autumn. Cattle use it for fodder and it is a main component of thatched roofs. Children make play toys out of the fluffy blooms, and its fibers are made into paper.

Miscanthus x giganteus is a sterile hybrid reaching heights of 3.5 – 4.0 metres each season, once it is established. It is believed to be a hybrid of Miscanthus sinensis, native to China, and M. sacchariflorus, native to Japan. In Spring, fluffy, fan-like plumes emerge and as Winter approaches the foliage turns from green to a deep burnt orange which fades to tan.

The Miscanthus being grown and used in New Zealand is a sterile, naturally occurring hybrid of two Miscanthus species whose ranges overlap in Japan. We have two clones in New Zealand – one that was obtained from the USA and one that was obtained from the UK – and both seem to be very suitable to New Zealand conditions.

Miscanthus – carbon negative and regionally beneficial

One of the many positives of Miscanthus is its ability to be used to make Renewable Diesel Fuel (RDF), a direct and complete substitute for fossil fuel diesel. With the RDF production process being significantly carbon negative – because about 15% of the dry matter that goes in, ends up as permanently sequestered carbon. RDF from Miscanthus is based on New Zealand biomass which allows for direct import substitution, improving New Zealand’s fuel security and reducing NZ’s international fuel bill. Independent life cycle analysis has shown that growing Miscanthus is carbon negative to the farm gate point.

With Miscanthus, once it is established, all the landowner has to do is visit the farm once a year to watch it being harvested. Because of its perennial nature and annual harvest once the Miscanthus crop is established there is almost no cost and no personal time required. In addition to a cash return in the form of renewable diesel, it’s use will provide farmers with an effective pasture shelter, animal bedding, feed supplement and boiler fuel.

Miscanthus is commercially viable, carbon negative, environmentally friendly and regionally beneficial. It can also significantly reduce nitrogen leaching from farmland. The potential benefits to New Zealand agriculture, New Zealand greenhouse gas emissions, of replacing imported diesel or imported crude oil to make diesel are obvious, as are benefits in terms of reductions in net carbon dioxide emissions through the use of this very low carbon technology.

 

For more information visit: miscanthus-the-plant-articles

Multipurpose plant has big future in Germany

Researchers in Germany are looking at ways beyond meat, grain or dairying for farmers to grow and profit from in future.

On a 200-hectare farm at Meckenheim, 15km south west of Bonn, scientists are investigating how plants can be used for everything from biofuel, to building materials, paper and medicine.

The University of Bonn’s ​Dr Thorsten Kraska​ says plants such as virginia mellow, cup plant, princess tree and jerusalem artichoke can all be used for multiple purposes before being burned as biomass.

These crops can play a key role in sustainable farming in the future because they have multiple uses.

Kraska told journalists visiting the farm as part of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists 2016 Congress the miscanthus plant excited him the most.

From the grass family, the plant had more than 30 different uses, including animal bedding, soil substitution, fuel and as a building industry material. Burning it should always be its final use.

“Don’t use your biomass plant just for energetic purposes. It should be for a material use and then later on, when you can do nothing else, then you can burn it.”

Miscanthus had a low 1:15 parts energy input to output ratio. In comparison, rape seed and maize plants had an energy input to output ratio of 1:3 and a maximum of 1:5.

It could grow more than two metres high and would overgrow nearby weeds, eliminating the need for herbicide, he said.

“It can grow up to five centimetres a day when the conditions are right. In mid-summer now, in July, we can make a measurement in the morning and in the afternoon and find clearly that the plant is growing.”

Soil fertility also increased after miscanthus was grown because it was largely a hands-off crop. No chemicals were sprayed because the plant took care of any weeds and attracted few insect pests. It needed to be harvested once a year in early summer and required about 30kg of nitrogen every second year, he says.

Miscanthus’ roots were able to fix nitrogen and those varieties that did not utilise its leaves when harvested returned about eight tonnes of organic matter to the soil when its leaves were broken down.

About five tonnes a year of CO2 was also sequestered in the soil and 30 tonnes was sequestered in the air from an average yield per hectare, he says.

Kraska estimates biomass plants could substitute about one million litres of oil currently used by farmers within a 15-kilometre radius of the research farm to remove unwanted biomass.

Miscanthus came in different varieties, with differing stem to leaf ratio and biomass potential.

Those with a higher leaf to stem ratio were less efficient for combustion because the leaves contained minerals that might corrode the inside of the oven.

But these varieties were ideal for building materials because the leaves contained a high level of silica. The stems were ideal for insulation.

“We are looking at very different varieties, and I get the feeling we are just at the beginning.”

The variety planted at the research farm is a sterile miscanthus spread by re-planting its rhizome – the stem that keeps growing, sending out roots and shoots from its nodes.

Worldwide, miscanthus yielded about 20 tonne a hectare on average, although he was aware of regions growing 40T/ha and 10-12T/ha in colder climates.

But taking it from the laboratory to the farm posed challenges in Germany, where there was no large-scale market for it. All current plantings were on a small scale, with no associated industry in support.

It was a long-term investment and commitment for a farmer with no guarantee of a committed buyer for harvesting, Kraska said.

“For miscanthus, they have to stand for three years before you get the full yield and you have to spend roughly €2000 per hectare ($NZ3000) on planting material because there are no seeds available.

“So for the first three years, they are not making money out of it. You have to grow it at least 10 years for it to be successful on an economic scale.”

This was the main reason growing large scale miscanthus crops was not popular in Germany, where miscanthus stands were on a small scale and the plant was used as fuel for domestic heating or bedding material for livestock.

All farms had areas unsuitable for cropping but suitable for miscanthus. On hillier farms, it could be used to control erosion.

“The rule for miscanthus is that if you can grow any crop, you can grow miscanthus and when you have a hilly area it might be better because it has stable roots and rhizomes and can withstand [rain and flooding] there and avoid soil erosion.”

Despite the challenges, he sees huge potential for the plant in German agriculture. “The funny thing is that it’s potential has been known for 10-20 years.”

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View full article (written September 2016) by Gerald Piddock at https://www.stuff.co.nz/business/farming/83171242/multipurpose-plant-has-big-future-in-germany-and-new-zealand

 

Miscanthus poised to take off in New Zealand

Peter Brown  of Miscanthus New Zealand Ltd (MNZ) says Lincoln University, Fonterra and local government are taking a close look at the plant’s potential.

MNZ has stands of Miscanthus growing in Huntly, Helensville, Nelson, Darfield, and Taupo.

“I believe it’s poised to suddenly take off. I think the potential is absolutely enormous. My vision for the future is that every farmer in New Zealand with land of suitable terrain would have some Miscanthus on it, even if it is just for their own use for things like calf bedding.”

It is already being used commercially in England, parts of Europe and North America, he said.

From a commercial biomass perspective, it would give farmers a steady guaranteed income stream on top of their milk, meat or crop, Brown said.

It grows well in New Zealand in most areas. It is  best to grow it on flat to rolling country because of the difficulties of harvesting on hill country.

The type used in New Zealand were sterile hybrids of Miscanthus sinensis and Miscanthus sacchariflorus. The leaves were not used for commercial purposes yet, although they could be in future as mulch, or even as low-quality stock feed, he said.

New Zealand farmers were looking at a return of at least $800-$1400 a hectare a year after three years once the plant was fully established. It is already being used for bedding for racehorses, dairy sheep. calves and dairy cows and there is growing interest in it as a domestic or commercial mulch.

It costs about $5000 per ha to establish commercial scale areas Miscanthus, but this is an upfront rather than ongoing expense. Once established, the only extra costs incurred were in harvesting, he said.

It has not been grown long enough in New Zealand to know how long a rhizome could keep producing commercially worthwhile product. In the United States there are 25-year-old Miscanthus stands still in production and Brown sees no reason why Miscanthus would not do as well in New Zealand.

That meant establishment costs were minimal if a grower was looking at it as a long-term investment. Those costs also can be reduced if larger areas are planted.

Brown understands there are discussions in Gisborne and Hawke’s Bay around using it for erosion control on hill country and for stream protection in conjunction with native trees.

Fonterra has also been looking at Miscanthus closely and MNZ has a 2ha trial plot near Darfield on Fonterra land.

There, it is being tested as a potential biomass fuel for its coal-powered milk powder dryer. Initial trials showed Miscanthus burns quickly and inefficiently but needs to first be processed into a dense high quality pellets for best use as a fuel source.

A Fonterra spokesman said its Darfield plant had the means to co-fire its boilers with coal and another form of energy. Miscanthus was an option for fuel in the future.

“We continue to look at Miscanthus as an option for co-generation, but it is one option in five or six.”

Brown said a small amount of Miscanthus had been produced as a cubed pellet and work with Fonterra is continuing. The cubes mimicked coal and contained a similar level of energy.

He estimated about 20-30ha of three-year-old miscanthus would be needed for Fonterra to use it as 10 per cent of its boiler fuel over a five-day period. It would supplement coal as a fuel source rather than replace it.

In addition to using Miscanthus successfully through their boiler, Lincoln University has also studied the plant as a source of shelter for stock on South Island farms with centre pivot irrigators.

Professor Steve Wratten of the Lincoln’s Bio-protection Research Centre says that those irrigated trials had produced 30-40 tonnes of dry matter per hectare a year.

“Roughly speaking, the production is proportionate to the rainfall. If you are irrigating it and it’s getting lots of rainfall, you can get better production.”

Like many new ideas in farming, Brown knows it will take time for Miscanthus to catch on.

“Farmers are sometimes set in their ways and it takes time for new ideas to catch on and grow. They often begin through word of mouth or with a small number of adventurous farmers giving it a try, the neighbouring farmer then sees it and copies it. Before you know it takes off and becomes the norm.”

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View full article (written September 2016) by Gerald Piddock at https://www.stuff.co.nz/business/farming/83171242/multipurpose-plant-has-big-future-in-germany-and-new-zealand

Header image: Giant miscanthus grass growing on trial at a Kirwee dairy farm could be the future of shelter belts in Canterbury.

Article updated and corrected in places in April 2019

The Miscanthus Project – November 2012 to April 2014

November 2012

Research proposal approved – decided initially to concentrate on the eco-system service benefits generated from creating Miscanthus shelterbelts.

Ground preparation started on Aylesbury Road farm and Karetu farm. 48 bumble bee motels placed.

December 2012

Planting of Miscanthus in the first four paddocks took place.

January 2013

Three dairy farms planted with Miscanthus – a total of 10 paddocks being used to firstly investigate the growth potential of the plant itself and also to monitor its effectiveness in providing ecosystem services to dairy farms.

February 2013

Monitoring of soil moisture levels, water input and pasture production underway. Monitoring of bumble bee motels placed in six paddocks has revealed that out of 48 motels placed with 4 compartments in each motel only one compartment showed any sign of occupancy.

March 2013

We move from having 34 plants that we imported in tissue culture, to supplying several hundred thousand plants to landowners keen to grow Miscanthus. 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.

At Aylesbury farm, where Miscanthus plants suffered initially when irrigation was not available, the plants are now thriving and are over a metre tall.

April 2013

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. We now have data running from November through to the end of March on the feed value of Miscanthus from one site.

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 Miscanthus plants sprouting new shoots, indicating the robustness of this plant.

May 2013

We finally saw the end of the drought. As expected, although the Miscanthus is deep-rooted, if there is no rain, eventually the dryness gets down as far as the Miscanthus roots extend. 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.

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. We put together a Miscanthus plant cost schedule that progressively increases the cost per plant for smaller numbers.

MNZ has also 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.

July 2013

Miscanthus planted in the irrigated paddocks of Aylesbury Farm achieved a maximum height of 1.5m 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 1m.

September 2013

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, 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.

The first signs of re-growth started to appear at the beginning of September.

October 2013

The growing season for Miscanthus is well underway and even in areas that have not been harvested the Miscanthus is shooting up extremely quickly. Reports from Canterbury have indicated that while the Miscanthus started growing quite early, it does tend to get stopped by cold spells and then starts to grow again after the cold spell has finished.

December 2013

MNZ purchased the assets of the only other New Zealand importer of Miscanthus plants, making it the sole supplier of Miscanthus plants in New Zealand. So MNZ is now the owner of almost ten hectares of Miscanthus at three locations from North of Auckland to Canterbury. Also, significant harvested product in baled form now owned by MNZ and available for research and sale.

January 2014

Bumble bee motels were restocked over the winter. Previous research shows occupancy improves in season two and three after placement. Last season, no motels were used as nesting sites and this season only two out of 48 motels were occupied.

The Miscanthus that MNZ customers have established over the last few years almost all continue to thrive. The original Hawkes Bay planting was well over 2 metres by early December and the reasonably regular wet weather this season has helped in the development of the Miscanthus.

Use of the Miscanthus harvested product for fuel, renewable diesel, stock bedding, emergency stock feed, garden mulch and other more technological uses is all being actively pursued by MNZ staff and associates.

February 2014

In conjunction with Lincoln University, Miscanthus New Zealand Limited has been asked by a major New Zealand company to put in a proposal to look at undertaking some significant research into production and use of Miscanthus in an industrial setting.

April 2014

Expected maximum height at the end of season is 2-3m, despite early setbacks from no irrigation during the spring drought these Miscanthus plants demonstrated impressive growth rates.

A group from DairyNZ visited Aylesbury Farm to find out how Miscanthus can benefit dairy farms and become an integrated component of the farming system. A journal article on the ecosystem services and ecosytem dis-services provided by Miscanthus as a shelterbelt on dairy farms is being prepared with a view to submission late winter.

 

Tall grass proves its versatility

A tall grass touted as a multi-purpose wonder plant has proved its worth as a shelterbelt replacement for Canterbury dairy farms, says Lincoln University ecology professor Steve Wratten.

A North Asian grass closely related to sugarcane, Miscanthus x giganteus grows to 3.5 – 4m high and is used overseas for feedstock for biofuels, stock bedding and emergency stock feed.

Research by Lincoln University PhD student Chris Littlejohn, supervised by Wratten and originally funded by Westland Milk Products, looked into the performance of six L-shaped trial plots of Miscanthus grown on a dairy farm at Aylesbury, about 30km west of Christchurch.

On dairy farms where traditional shelter belts have been removed to make way for pivot irrigation, Wratten says Miscanthus can act as windbreaks and be harvested for supplementary income.

Wratten said they identified 15 specific benefits such as shelter for animals and increasing biodiversity as habitat for the likes of skinks and bumblebees.

Not only do cows appreciate the shelter, the research confirmed that pasture itself does better in the lee of the miscanthus. In windy conditions the stomata of green plants – the tiny ventilation holes in the outer skin – close up and throttle the plant’s metabolism, but the shelter provided by Miscanthus mitigates that effect.

Separate plantings of Miscanthus along about a kilometre of the farm’s road boundary are now testing the ability of a soil fungus known as Trichoderma to help plant growth.

In a randomised trial in which different sections of the plot got different blends of the fungus, or none at all, some sections are already showing good results in what Wratten says was poor stony soil previously full of broom and eucalypts.

With Miscanthus capable of yields of up to 40t DM/ha, Wratten is now seeking funding for trials on converting the harvested grass into renewable diesel.

While the diversion of productive land for biofuel production could be controversial, Wratten emphasised that as a by-product of its other uses, Miscanthus renewable diesel would be a truly renewable resource that need not compete with food production.

The only New Zealand supplier of the plant is Miscanthus New Zealand Ltd, whose managing director Peter Brown said it had been “a long slow process” getting Miscanthus accepted since he began propagating it from plants imported in 2010. “But people are starting to get serious about it.”

Miscanthus is a long-lasting perennial, the tops browning off in autumn and the grass renewing itself in spring from underground rhizomes. As a sterile hybrid, it can only be propagated vegetatively so seed-borne spread is impossible and it is considered very unlikely ever to become a pest.

Because it is palatable to stock, grazing would take care of any rhizome spread beyond the fenced plantings on dairy farms. Brown says there has never been a recorded spread beyond planted areas anywhere in the world.

Fonterra has a 2ha trial plot of Miscanthus at its Darfield plant, where it has had a dramatic effect on reducing nitrogen leaching from the factory effluent sprayed onto the pasture.

Lysimeters below the Miscanthus recorded nitrogen levels dropping away as soon as the grass was properly established, Brown said. “It is less than 0.1kg/ha. It’s a dramatic change.”

Brown said Fonterra had previously investigated dried Miscanthus as a fuel for its milk drying plants but it proved too light and fluffy for compatibility with its coal-fired furnaces.

However, Brown said his company now had samples of cubed miscanthus, machine-pressed into lumps of about the same density and size as coal.

The machinery to produce significant quantities of the cubed material was not yet available, but Brown hoped that Fonterra would eventually conduct a full trial. Although that’s not likely to be this year, Brown believed it would be successful and could lead to Fonterra planting miscanthus on a commercial scale at its Darfield and Clandeboye site­s.

The country’s total planted area of Miscanthus might then at least double from its current estimated 45ha, Brown said.

Tony Oosten, programme manager, energy and utilities group at Fonterra, confirmed that Fonterra was looking into Miscanthus as a fuel but large-scale plantings were only a possibility at this stage.

He said that a trial of the cubed miscanthus material would have to consider not just how well it was handled by the feed systems but also its burning characteristics, including whether it produced corrosive ash or undue amounts of hard deposits known as clinker, in the furnaces.

Meanwhile, Brown said another use for Miscanthus well-suited to the current quantities planted in NZ was as bedding for livestock including horses and goats. A poultry farmer was currently keen on a trial.

“I know that’s going to go well because that’s what a lot of our colleagues overseas are using it for.”

Brown says Miscanthus was also useful as mulch, and a trial on a Kerikeri feijoa orchard was showing promise in combating the guava moth pest.

 

Written by  Nigel Malthus – Rural News (09/03/17) – with minor corrections

 

Updated comments from Miscanthus New Zealand Ltd August 2018:

In the Lincoln shelter trials in Canterbury, pasture growth in the sheltered area increased by 14% meaning that this growth increase more than made up for the area taken up by the Miscanthus shelter strips.

It seems very likely that Fonterra will be planting at least 10 ha and perhaps 30 ha of Miscanthus this season. Two other dairy companies are also already committed to being directly financially involved.

Other farmers are looking to plant at least 20 ha of Miscanthus this season, most of them for their own use as bedding or mulch.

The bedding uses have now expanded to include dairy sheep – a use that has suddenly become the major customer for existing Miscanthus supplies. The dairy sheep farmers are also planting significant areas of Miscanthus to provide in time, their own future supply.

A recent interesting development has been use of Miscanthus in dairy cow composting barns, where it performs extremely well – perhaps better than the traditional sawdust that has been used in these plants until now. Miscanthus New Zealand thinks that this sort of cow and farm management system is likely to be the way of the future for sustainable and environmentally friendly dairying in New Zealand where animal welfare is also a prime consideration.  And unlike sawdust, with Miscanthus, the farmer can grow his own bedding supplies really easily.

Miscanthus Overview and its use as a Wind Break and Biofuel

Miscanthus is a high yielding crop that annually grows over three metres tall. Similar in appearance to sugar cane, it produces a crop every year without the need for replanting. Miscanthus is used for feedstock production for energy and non-energy end uses. It is a valuable crop, offering major benefits to many sectors, inside and outside of agriculture. It can also be used as animal bedding material and can act as an emergency feed supply during droughts.

Miscanthus grass forms a thick barrier which acts as an excellent wind break and shelter for animals and pasture. Rich green summer foliage is topped by beautiful arching sprays of silky russet pink or white flowers. In winter the foliage takes on a russet gold colour, producing a thick bushy screen that, unlike other forms of screening, does not require pruning or any trimming.

Harvested Miscanthus material can be used to generate heat and power and may be used as a feedstock for advanced biofuels, outperforming maize and other alternatives. The outlook for bioenergy looks positive. It is expected that significant volumes of biomass will be required; some of which will come from energy crops.

The Miscanthus growth pattern is repeated every year for the lifetime of the crop, and the harvest gives an annual income to the farmer. In the first year of growth stems reach up to 1-2 metres in height. Harvesting takes place from the second year, during which the crop can be expected to reach a height of 2.5–3 metres.  In subsequent years, it can reach a height of 3-4 metres. The crop has a useful life of at least 25 years. Miscanthus is not invasive like pampas or bamboo. It is a sterile hybrid, so it cannot reproduce itself by seed.

Miscanthus is a perennial C4 rhizomatous grass originating from Asia. It will grow on a wide range of soil types, but higher yields are achieved on free-draining moisture retentive soils. From the end of year two, leaf litter and canopy closure will give effective suppression of most weeds. Harvesting is carried out during late Winter or Spring. The crop is generally harvested using a mower conditioner or forage harvester.  It is generally dry when harvested but if necessary, it can be allowed to dry in the field before baling.

The benefits of Miscanthus are that it is high yielding, environmentally friendly, easy to grow and is low maintenance. It is suitable for coastal areas and performs well in windy positions.

Blog Post – February 2014

Things were very hectic through January and into February. I do not think I really realised at the time we purchased the Taharoa C Block Incorporation Miscanthus assets, just how much work this would involve. Whereas we had previously been focusing on the production of plantlets with the aim of getting into rhizomes eventually, plus a multitude of end uses for the product once it was grown, we now suddenly you are in a position where we had become a Miscanthus grower with over 9 ha well into production. In addition, we now owned a moderately substantial tonnage of harvested and baled Miscanthus for which we had to find a profitable home.

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Miscanthus New Zealand Ltd Miscanthus stand in February 2014

At the time of purchasing these assets, I had based the pricing (mostly) on known returns so the challenge of course was to see whether these prices could be improved upon. We discovered that there were stumbling blocks, mostly put up by the former advisors to Taharoa – stumbling blocks that did not seem to us to have any positive purpose for anyone whatsoever and seemed to be based on a more “dog in the manger” attitude.

However I have been lucky to have very able assistance from a long term colleague who has been working extremely actively for Miscanthus New Zealand Limited and has been using his ability to relate well to people, combined with his extensive network through rural New Zealand, to get things done. In addition, Lincoln University’s Dr Steve Wratten has been a major support to the development and use of Miscanthus and he has provided a completely independent – and positive – viewpoint on the value of use of Miscanthus on farms.

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Miscanthus in summer – 22 January – not to full height

The research reports that are included on this website under the Lincoln Research Project https://www.miscanthus.co.nz/lincoln/ are produced under his direction by a Ph.D. student, Chris Littlejohn. They have been both learning a lot and teaching us a lot over the past year.

And lastly, in conjunction with Lincoln University, Miscanthus New Zealand Limited has been asked by a major New Zealand company to put on the proposal to look at undertaking some significant research into production and use of Miscanthus in an industrial setting. At the time that this chat was due to be published, there was a lot of discussion going on about how this would best be done, how much time it would take to do it, and what the cost would be. There will be no decisions on this until about June, but once these decisions are made, then to the extent that it is not confidential, I will alert readers to developments.

Blog Post – January 2014

Well with all the rush of activity immediately prior to Christmas, the monthly chat was noticeable by its absence. This was accentuated by my wanting to delay posting another message until some interesting developments had come to fruition one way or the other. The other significant player in the Miscanthus business in New Zealand – the Taharoa C Block Incorporation – indicated to Miscanthus New Zealand Limited (MNZ) that they wished to cease involvement in Miscanthus in the future. They approached MNZ to see whether we would be interested in purchasing their assets. Naturally we were very interested and negotiations ensued. What was to be a short, sharp discussion and agreement on a suitable price for the approximately 60 tonnes of baled Miscanthus and approximately 8 or 9 hectares of Miscanthus established mainly at one site but also at several other trial sites, became a six week negotiation. Another competing party was bidding for these assets so MNZ had to pay more than it really wanted to in order to secure them. But agreement was reached, the money changed hands and we are still learning just what we purchased. Luckily, MNZ has been pleasantly surprised so far and MNZ has found that several opportunities that it did not expect to pursue until some time in the future, are now potentially viable in the coming year.

We will keep you informed of developments in this area. The Miscanthus that MNZ customers have established over the last few years almost all continue to thrive. The original Hawkes Bay planting was well over 2 metres by early December and the reasonably regular wet weather this season has helped in the development of the Miscanthus.

 

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Miscanthus in Hawkes Bay 6 December 2013. Fourth growing season. (with 1 metre rule) 2

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Third growing season Miscanthus (with 1 metre rule). Weeded on right. Unweeded on left.

 

One of the results of our purchase mentioned above, is that we now have access to another clone – namely Illinois clone. We will be putting in trials to assess the relative merits of the two clones on various sites in New Zealand.

Use of the Miscanthus harvested product for fuel, renewable diesel, stock bedding, emergency stock feed, garden mulch and other more technological uses is all being actively pursued by MNZ staff and associates. So if you are interested in any of these, get in touch with us. And the growing plants are being use for shelter and also now even being planted as cover for pheasants. The ingenuity of NZ’s primary industry people continues to surprise and please me.

Blog Post – October 2013

The growing season for Miscanthus is well underway and even in areas that have not been harvested, the Miscanthus is shooting up extremely quickly. Three weeks ago at a site in the South Waikato area, the Miscanthus was already knee height and the change from one week to the next has been quite exciting to watch. Reports from Canterbury have indicated that while the Miscanthus started growing quite early, it does tend to get stopped by cold spells and then starts to grow again after the cold spell has finished. This is pretty much what we expected but it is interesting to see it being independently verified by the Lincoln research people. They have also established numerically, that Miscanthus performs much better in its first year if it is given good weed control. This past month has seen me take a trip to the USA, partly to follow up on the renewable diesel technology that I mentioned in last month’s chat, but also to go over to Illinois to meet researchers at the University of Illinois and to discuss various aspects of Miscanthus culture and use with them. I also visited Miscanthus growers and observed some very innovative multiple land use techniques combining Miscanthus and corn.

At the University, amongst other things I was shown 25-year-old Miscanthus that is still in production. I first saw this back in 2008 and to my eye it did not look any different now from what it looked like then. Unfortunately we visited the spot right at the very end of the day as the rain was starting so the only photograph I got of it (shown below) was not ideal.

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Miscanthus / corn mix on an Illinois farm

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25-year-old Miscanthus – in the background – at the University of Illinois

 

The two people in the photograph are Dr Tom Voigt – wearing the hat – and Eric Rund. Tom is the doyen of Miscanthus field research at the University and has a huge depth of knowledge about Miscanthus and what it is possible to do with it. Eric in turn could be called “Mr Miscanthus” for his part of the world because he is not only an enthusiast but is also a practical farmer and is not scared to try new techniques and work out how to make them commercially productive. This trip was a good example of how cooperative people who are involved in the Miscanthus business are with each other. The University of Illinois staff and the local growers have always been extremely helpful in providing the expertise to assist development of our activities in New Zealand. This particular trip was different from previous ones in that for the first time, Miscanthus New Zealand limited was able to provide the international experts, information that should prove to be useful to them. One of the researcher with whom I met – Dr Jack Juvik – has a Ph.D. student involved in breeding of new Miscanthus x giganteus crosses and it does seem that they are being very successful with this. As soon as they have competed any trials and established which ones have the best production, we will look to import some of these clones to New Zealand as well as the clones that we already have here. Things have been very hectic over the past month and as a result posting of this chat message is later than it really should be. The result is that although it may be shorter than the normal chats, it does set the scene for further developments in the coming months.

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).