Redwood Falls, Minn. — Every fall, Eric Woodford makes dozens of house calls to deliver bundles of joy throughout southwest Minnesota. In Woodford’s case, the bundles come wrapped in nylon net and weigh in at a cool 1,250 pounds.

For 10 years, Eric has operated Woodford Custom, Inc., a custom baling business, from his rural Redwood Falls farm. His crew harvested 14,000 corn-stalk bales last year, primarily for cattle feedlot bedding. They also produce thousands of hay bales each season.

The biomass harvesting has been profitable. But Woodford sees more potential in “corn stalks for other uses like bio-energy, ethanol and paper.”

Value in the field

Woodford says there is an abundance of unused crop residue that could be an inexpensive energy source.

Most corn stalks are plowed back into the soil for their nutritive value and to enhance soil tilth. However, there is often more residue than the soil requires, Woodford says. This residue could be harvested like a second crop.

For example, it takes roughly 150 pounds of corn stover to generate one million Btu — equal to the Btu-value of 11 gallons of propane, Woodford says. With propane selling for around $1.15 per gallon, a $25 bale of corn stalks weighing 1,250 pounds has an equivalent Btu value of more than $100. The value increases as the cost of propane and other fuels goes up.

“If you compare the value of a bale of stalks as a fuel source versus its nutrient value, it’s much better as a fuel,” Woodford contends. “Plus if it’s burned, the potassium and phosphorous are not lost and can still be land applied as fertilizer.”

Woodford has talked to several biomass users about supplying corn stalks as an energy source. He has also worked with turkey growers who are interested in using stalks to heat their production barns.

Woodford is working with AURI and the Center for Producer-Owned Energy to further evaluate the feasibility of using biomass to heat barns and other large-scale agricultural buildings. Woodford is also researching gasifying stover for heat and electricity.

“There’s no question biomass has value,” says Alan Doering, who heads AURI’s coproducts lab in Waseca. “The key is finding ways for the producer to be paid a fair value for the stover while still keeping it affordable for the consumer.”

Changing perceptions

Woodford’s custom-baling operation has grown from one tractor and baler that he owned in 1995 to his current four balers, multiple tractors — including one capable of reaching 45-mile-per-hour speeds — large field rakes and a self loading bale wagon that can load and transport 600 bales in a day. The specialized equipment is necessary because the harvest window is short.

But the window for corn-stover and other biomass, while just cracking open, could be wide open in the future.

“More growers are showing interest in biomass because they’re interested in saving money and utilizing more of what they produce,” Woodford says. “They want to control their costs and have a hand in their own destiny.”

For information on other biomass available in Minnesota visit: www.biomassexchange.org.