Some of the low-quality hay that Garry Van De Weert planned to use as beef-cow bedding this winter will heat his farm home instead.
He’s one of five farmers who had poor hay turned into grass pellets by a mobile pelletizer operated by Hudson Valley Grass Energy (HVGE), Goshen, NY. Created to help farmers in four counties move toward energy independence, HVGE is a division of the Lower Hudson-Long Island Resource Conservation and Development Council.
The trailer-mounted pelletizing equipment has been under development for four years, and 2013 was its second pilot-production year, says project coordinator Bob Thomas.
“We’ve got the bugs out, made some improvements and we’re about ready to take it into full-blown production in 2014,” he says.
The main components of the mobile pelletizer, said to be the first of its kind in the U.S., include a hammer mill, buffer bin, steam generator, pellet mill, pellet cooling tower-shaker and diesel-powered electricity generator. A tub grinder for processing bales prior to pelletizing is transported separately.
Pellets made from mature grasses and weeds growing in no-longer-farmed fields could cut heating fuel costs and provide additional revenue for many farmers, Thomas believes. For pellet production, he says the forages should be harvested once a year late in the growing season.
“We like to have the hay lay in the field for four to six weeks. That way it leaches out its complex sugars and minerals and loses some of the thin, leafy material.”
High in fiber, the hay makes great pellets with nothing added except steam, he says. Grass pellets have as many Btus per pound as wood pellets, and are much less expensive than more popular heat sources.
“If you switch a residence over to pellet fuel, you should be able to save at least 50-70% off your heating costs if you’re currently heating with propane or heating oil.”
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But the pellets are 3-5% ash compared to 1% or less for premium wood pellets. That and other differences make a multi-fuel pellet stove a necessity when burning grass pellets, Thomas emphasizes.
The mobile pelletizer can process up to 2 tons of hay per hour. Currently funded by grants, HVGE charges farmers $75/ton plus $3 for a bag that holds up to a ton of pellets. For farmers who want to sell surplus pellets in smaller quantities, 40-lb bags are also available. Thomas says that size bag currently sells for $225/ton.
He hopes the demand for on-farm pellet production grows to where it can be done at a reasonable cost when grant money runs out. Besides farmers, he sees greenhouses and other small businesses as potential clients.
Van De Weert, of Goshen, grows 250 acres of hay, has a beef-cow herd and works full time off the farm. Last October, he mowed a 20-acre field of mature grasses – mostly reed canarygrass – tedded the hay several times and round-baled it 10 days after cutting.
He burned wood in his poorly insulated farmhouse for 13 years, and was looking for a heating method that was easier and safer for his wife when he was at work. Fuel oil wasn’t an option because of the cost.
“It would cost close to $2,000 a month to heat that house with oil,” he says.
He initially planned to buy a wood-pellet stove, but chose a multi-fuel model after learning about the mobile pelletizer project. In November, he had 5 tons of the grass made into pellets, along with 1 ton of weeds harvested on a neighboring farm. He figures heating his home this winter will take about 4 tons of pellets, and he hopes to sell the rest.
After looking at several multi-fuel pellet stoves, he bought a high-end model that holds 120 lbs of pellets. It cost $4,025 and installation, scheduled for late December, added $2,300.
“I can fill it and leave it alone for three days, and I’m told I’ll only have to dump the ashes once a week,” he says. “I’m sold on this idea, and with the stove I bought, I know it’s going to be fine.”
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