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.

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.

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

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