Hay growers looking to get into switchgrass for the biofuels market may have competition in cotton-growing regions, according to a recent study. Two switchgrass harvest and transport methods were examined by University of Arkansas economists Michael Popp and Robert Hogan, according to Delta Farm Press. The researchers looked at the economics of using hay baling and cotton module building equipment for switchgrass harvest and developed enterprise budgets simulated over 12 years of production.

The study showed it was still more cost-effective for hay harvesters to mow, windrow, bale 1,000-lb switchgrass bales and wrap them in plastic -- just over $39/ton. Delivered to the plant, the cost would be about $52 per ton.

In the cotton module model, a forage harvester would chop switchgrass that would be blown into cotton boll buggies, dumped in a module builder, compressed and covered with a tarp. Module trucks would deliver modules to the plant. The breakeven to a producer: about $46/ton and $62/ton delivered. Part of the extra cost is because the module operation requires five operators to run the harvester, operate two boll buggies, man the module builder and put the tarp down. The researchers note that the module cost depends in part on the cost of module tarps -- between $100 and $125 each with a life expectancy of about three years.

But there's an advantage to the module system over round bales: switchgrass is already chopped when it gets to the ethanol plant.