Economical, high-volume drying of forages and crop residues can open doors to a lot of markets beyond livestock feed, insists Tom Schechinger, Harlan, IA.

He and his brother John have designed a unique bulk dryer they say can do just that.

The Schechingers and several other growers and businessmen are involved in Biomass Agri Products LLC, a company formed to process and market biomass. They've already contracted for several million pounds of pulp to be produced from cornstalks and are negotiating on additional sales.

Most of their sales will require total drying of the product. Right now, they rely on a flash-tube dryer, commonly used in the wood industry to dry sawdust. It allows them to chop stalks first and then dry the ground material.

Much of what they're processing is field dried, but Schechinger foresees the eventual need to artificially dry wet stalks and other crops. A dryer with more capacity than the flash-tube unit will be needed. That's why he and his brother designed their dryer. They built a 2 x 7 x 15' working model, which was used last fall to dry cornstalks and is currently being used for hay.

Tom put together a blueprint for a full-sized dryer, but says dryers can be scaled to fit an individual operation. He says it might take several growers together to produce enough hay to keep a full-sized version running.

The dryer on his blueprint would resemble five railroad boxcars stacked on top of one another. It would be about 10' wide by 60' long and 50' tall. Wet hay or biomass material would be fed into the top compartment and dry material would be removed at the bottom.

Here's how the design works: Fingered rollers across the bottom of each of the top four sections cause bulky material to bridge, so the compartment can be filled. Turning the rollers allows the fingers to pull the material to the compartment below.

The bottom compartment has a perforated floor, like in a batch grain drying bin, with an air duct and a fan below it. The dryer could use either ambient or heated air. Like a grain dryer, it would blow air up through drier material first and the wettest material last. Schechinger says airflow would have to be matched to the bin capacity.

He says using this type of dryer could improve the value of forage crops.

"It can be brought in from the field before it's dry enough to bale, cutting field losses. And there's less chance the hay will be rained on," he says.

As it's brought in from the field, partially field-dried hay is conveyed into the top-most compartment and air is blown up from the bottom to dry it gently. Once the hay in the top compartment has dried a little, it's moved down to the next compartment using the fingered rollers and the top compartment is refilled. This process is continued until the hay reaches the bottom and is dry enough to be stored or processed further. As it comes out of the dryer, hay can be stacked loose, chopped, baled or compressed for transportation.

The Schechingers expect to build a full-size dryer when the company's biomass volume requires it. They see biomass production as a logical step for many forage growers.

"You already have a big investment in hay harvesting and baling equipment," says Tom. "Biomass crops, like switchgrass or even cornstalks, can be cut and harvested with the same equipment. That would give you one more harvest season in which to help pay for the machinery. And, too, we might be able to use poor-quality hay for biomass uses rather than as feed."

He sees a biomass dryer as a logical fit for a forage/biomass producer, too.

"It's a very efficient dryer and could handle just about any bulky crop," he says.

He thinks producers and marketers of high-value forages could make use of it because it will let forage crops retain a much higher feed value and give growers more control in making a consistent product.

Eventually, Schechinger envisions as much interest - and profit - in cornstalks as in grain.

"We can already use stalks to replace a lot of the forest products we're now using," he says. "Technology exists that enables processors to make ethanol from biomass as well. And we are finding markets for the fiber, the pith, the cob and just about every other part of the plant, too."