Miscanthus – a crop with multiple markets

Most agricultural crops have a limited range of markets. As all farmers will know, this makes you vulnerable to changes in the market. If your farm gate milk price goes from $8 per kg milk solids to $4 per kg, there is not an awful lot that you can do about it. You have no alternative markets for the milk. A limited choice of markets therefore increases the grower’s risk.

That is one of the many reasons why growing Miscanthus is a very sensible decision to make. Anywhere you grow it there will be multiple markets available for the harvested product so the risk for the grower is significantly lower than with almost all other crops.

Internationally, the primary use for harvested Miscanthus is for boiler fuel. In the UK particularly, Miscanthus is used in large quantities for the generation of electricity. Its use is expanding in Europe and the USA is also moving ahead with Miscanthus use.

But in New Zealand, although Miscanthus has been used very successfully as boiler fuel, the largest use has so far been animal bedding. High quality, dust extracted chipped Miscanthus makes very high quality horse bedding. Miscanthus also makes excellent poultry bedding. Bedding for dairy sheep is another use where Miscanthus is extremely popular and it also conveys foot health benefits – as it does with horse and chickens. Calf bedding and dairy cow composting barn bedding are also areas where New Zealand use of Miscanthus is pioneering. Such uses are expanding rapidly. A separate article will be coming soon on use of Miscanthus for animal bedding.

Another major use is for commercial mulch. Lincoln University has done research on this with positive results. In addition evaluation trials of Miscanthus mulch have been carried out in relation to strawberry production, again with positive results. The fact that Miscanthus mulch is free of all seeds and lasts longer than alternative commercial mulch products – years rather than months – means that this is a potentially enormous market for the future.

Miscanthus is also being considered by a local mushroom grower who thinks that Miscanthus could well be the ideal base material for his mushroom growing operation.

The thing that ties all of these non-boiler fuel uses together is that supply of the traditional materials that are currently being used is becoming tighter. For example, barley straw is limited in the regions where it can be produced. It is also very dependent on the barley market continuing. Not only that, but when there is a drought in those regions the straw tends to be retained by growers for use as animal feed. So other users of barley straw have a very uncertain supply.

Similarly in some areas, the supply of alternatives such as wood shavings and wood chips is also becoming increasingly constrained. With the Bioenergy Association of New Zealand actively promoting the use of woody fuels that are carbon neutral or even carbon negative – which of course includes Miscanthus – it can be expected that the availability of wood shavings and wood chips will become even more constrained as demand increases faster than supply, as it surely will.

The fact that Miscanthus is versatile in the way it is harvested, the stage at which it can be harvested, and the way it is processed for transport and for use, means that it can easily be adapted to whatever are the predominant commercial uses in the area where it is being grown.

If harvested early and finely chopped, while it still has a relatively high moisture content, it makes an excellent bedding base for dairy cow composting barns. If harvested a little later into chipped form it makes calf bedding that quickly dries and that the farmers regard as superlative. Dairy sheep farmers like it partly chopped during harvest and then baled so that they can just roll it out with no further treatment needed. It can in fact be harvested at any later time right through to when the new shoots have begun to grow again. In general it becomes drier the longer it is left standing prior to harvest.

So the advantages of Miscanthus include the fact that it is a crop that not only has multiple markets; can be harvested at various times during the winter and early spring; and has a variety of high-value productive uses; but in addition it can be harvested at a time when the harvesting machinery is normally idle.

It is therefore well worthwhile for most farmers to establish at least a reasonable sized Miscanthus stand, either to provide themselves with a useful on-farm product, or to provide themselves with a steady reliable annual income stream that requires virtually no work once the crop is established.

The next information article will cover the fact that Miscanthus does not require high-quality soils and in fact tolerates poor soils surprisingly well. Do not miss it.

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