They don't fully agree on the timeline or on what type of equipment will be needed. But biofuel experts say wide-scale production of fuel from forages is definitely coming, creating ample opportunity for custom harvesters to expand their businesses.

It's coming sooner than many people think, says Cole Gustafson, biofuels economist at North Dakota State University

“In the next couple years, these opportunities are going to be popping up across the countryside,” says Gustafson.

He and other experts advise interested harvesters to stay on top of what's happening in the biofuel industry, and contact people involved in biomass projects in their areas.

Some may want to factor it into new equipment buying decisions, says Ray Smith, University of Kentucky forage specialist.

“If someone is doing a lot of round-bale custom harvesting and is thinking about moving up to a midsize square baler, if that fits into his existing operation then that would allow him to be right on the ground floor of moving into biomass baling,” says Smith.

He's working with 20 farmers growing small acreages of switchgrass for generating electricity at a power plant. They're mowing and baling the crop themselves, using the round balers they already own or a demo mid-sized square baler from the university. He sees it staying that way until biomass demand and acreages get much bigger.

“When we get down the road I see it moving more and more to the midsize to large square bales just because of the economy of transport,” says Smith. “When we get to that point, since most Kentucky farmers can't justify owning large square balers, I think things will be wide open for custom harvesters.”

Smith thinks that'll happen in five years or so. But it's coming sooner in the Hugoton, KS, area, says Tom Robb, manager of institutional relations for Abengoa Bioenergy Trading. His company expects to begin operating a commercial cellulosic ethanol plant at Hugoton in 2011. Corn stover, wheat straw, switchgrass and other high-fiber materials will be the feedstocks.

Abengoa will do a portion of the harvesting with its own equipment, perhaps hiring custom harvesters to do some, too. The rest will be harvested by growers or by custom operators hired by growers. All those scenarios will be repeated as more biofuel plants are built, Robb predicts.

“I think there will be a good mix of things,” he says. “It'll be dependent on the business plan each buyer sets up.”

Big square bales will be the preferred packages at Hugoton, but Robb doubts that today's machines will withstand the rigors of biomass harvesting, which in some cases will take place 9-10 months a year.

“Right now, balers are made for farmers and cattle producers,” he points out. “We're going to need something that's much more durable. Equipment manufacturers are recognizing that and are looking at what they need to do to make industrial-grade machines.”

Completely new technology may eventually be needed, he adds.

“The square baler concept is 1800s technology, and all we've done is make it bigger, better and faster. I'm not convinced that is the ideal way to look long-term at what we need to be doing to bring biomass from the field to the plant.”

The ultimate biomass package may be something different than bales, agrees Cole Gustafson.

“The purchasers are going to be looking for products that are easy to handle,” he says. “In many cases, they'll be looking for the material to be either cubed or pelleted, so it can be handled with a variety of equipment they already have on site.”

One thing being discussed: truck-mounted cubers that could be moved from location to location processing biomass, he says.

Gustafson is working with a Jamestown, ND, group hoping to burn switchgrass and other perennial crops to generate electricity and heat. Details haven't been worked out, but he figures much of the harvesting will be hired. Timeliness will be an issue because North Dakota's falls are short, and the biomass and grain harvests likely will overlap.

Documentation will be important wherever biomass is harvested, another factor favoring custom harvesting, he says. Energy companies will sell carbon credits, so the farm and field that grow every crop will have to be recorded.

“Custom harvesters are good at dealing with paperwork that farmers don't want to do,” says Gustafson. “I don't know what system will be used, maybe it's pen and paper. But I suspect there's going to be enough business for them that they could mount a GPS unit on their harvester to document where the biomass is collected.”