Summary Report: Agronomy Forum on Agricultural Biomass for Combustion Energy

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction and Context
  2. Presentations and Forum Highlights
  3. Conclusions Emerging from the Forum

This report summarizes the information and views expressed by speakers and participants at the forum.


What we currently know/understand

What we still need to know/gaps

Perennial grasses:

  • Over the long term, perennials present more opportunities than crop residues; annuals also have a role
  • Switchgrass is suitable on lighter, well-drained soils; Miscanthus prefers heavier soils
  • Prairie polycultures provide biodiversity benefits and benefit from long-term stands
  • Plug establishment methods for Miscanthus and suitable seeding methods for switchgrass
  • Most weed control issues can be addressed
  • Harvesting timing, equipment and methods
  • Miscanthus (sterile crosses) and switchgrass have low invasiveness potential
  • Impact on soil carbon/soil quality

Short-rotation woody biomass:

  • Good potential on marginal lands, fast growing, easy to propagate, good site adaptability, good breeding potential
  • Weed control (first year only)
  • Challenges related to accessing plant stock as well as planting and harvesting equipment
  • High establishment costs
  • Difficult to return the land to another crop after growing willow

Crop residues

  • Crop residues have a place but have sustainability, logistical and cost challenges; soil compaction, trampling and biomass quality are issues;
  • Residue removal may be increased by using cover crops, other organic soil amendments, etc.

Perennial grasses:

  • Minor use registrations of herbicides not yet available
  • Better understanding of weed control at all stages, especially post-emergent grasses (C3 perennial grasses)
  • Miscanthus hybrids and propagation methods that reduce costs, decrease the variability of stand establishment and enhance genetic diversity
  • Miscanthus and switchgrass establishment, harvest and yield on poorly drained, cold soils
  • Optimal use of cover crops
  • Optimal mix of polycultures and yields
  • Use of perennial grasses as part of long-term rotations
  • Technical aspects of storing undensified material
  • Effect of harvest timing on moisture, yield and winter survival
  • Monitoring crop susceptibility to diseases and insects
  • Effect on alternative uses
  • Reliable markets

Short-rotation woody biomass:

  • Life-cycle assessment (in progress)
  • Reliable markets

Crop residues:

  • What percentage is practically and sustainably available for removal given the need to maintain soil organic matter and nutrients, erosion protection, and long-term productivity of the land, while being cost-effective

Introduction and Context

The Agronomy Forum was hosted by the Steering Committee for the Project to Commercialize Agricultural Biomass for Combustion Energy. The purpose of this project is to coordinate the analysis of the feasibility of a commercial agricultural biomass industry for combustion energy in Ontario and, if feasible, set the foundation for the industry. The Steering Committee is co-chaired by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) and Ontario Power Generation (OPG).

As a key component of the Ontario government's Climate Change Action Plan, OPG is exploring the conversion of coal-fired generating units to firing, or natural gas co-firing, with biomass fuels including wood pellets and agricultural biomass. The cement industry, some agricultural operations (e.g. greenhouses) and others currently reliant on coal or natural gas are also seeking renewable sources of energy as a greenhouse gas mitigation measure.

The Ontario agricultural sector is increasingly interested in the value chains and business models associated with the utilization of agricultural biomass for energy generation. Consequently, there is a need to co-ordinate and focus the efforts of the agricultural and rural sectors, researchers and key partners to validate the long-term prospects of this business opportunity in terms of technical feasibility, economic viability and environmental sustainability.

The Steering Committee has three Working Groups composed of individuals in the forefront of this emerging industry: the Business Case Working Group, the Technical Working Group and the Environmental Sustainability Working Group. Working Group members are called on to share their expertise and provide insight to the Steering Committee. The Technical Working Group, led by René Van Acker of the University of Guelph, is focused on the agronomic, infrastructure and combustion challenges of agricultural biomass. The Agronomy Forum was organized by the Working Group.

Agronomy Forum Objective

The objective of the Agronomy Forum was to bring together Ontario-based researchers, growers, entrepreneurs and others to share research and business interests on agricultural biomass agronomy. Its purposes were to facilitate the Technical Working Group's efforts to understand the state of knowledge on agricultural biomass agronomy and to provide an opportunity to transfer knowledge and learn from a broad group of stakeholders across the province.

Speakers were asked to provide practical information on biomass production (both energy crops and agricultural residues), as well as a critical review of what is known and still needs to be known to understand the feasibility of growing and harvesting agricultural biomass. Participants were also encouraged to share information and help identify gaps that may need to be filled as the Steering Committee coordinates its analysis of the potential to commercialize agricultural biomass for the production of combustion energy in Ontario.


Registrants for the forum numbered 175. Approximately 100 attended in person at the Arboretum Centre, University of Guelph. Additionally, 60 individuals participated via webcast from their own computers and 15 participated via webcast from satellite meeting locations (Thessalon, Sturgeon Falls, Ridgetown and Kemptville).

A broad spectrum of people, mostly from Ontario, took part – university researchers, agricultural producers, agricultural industry organizations, consultants, biomass processors, potential biomass end users, financial institutions and government staff (federal, provincial and municipal). A few individuals participated via webcast from other provinces.

Presentations and Forum Highlights

Please note that the full set of speaker presentations is available here.

Below are highlights from each presentation plus a summary of input received from forum participants.

Perennial Grasses Panel: Miscanthus, Switchgrass, Polycultures – Growing, Harvesting, Storage, Sustainability

Dean Tiessen, New Energy Farms - Miscanthus

Dean is founder of New Energy Farms Ltd. and has been working with dedicated energy crops for over four years. He started by looking for a long-term economic solution to energy for Pyramid Farm's greenhouse vegetable operation in Leamington, Ontario. With offices in the UK, USA and Canada, New Energy Farms focuses on the development of long-term, sustainable feedstock solutions for various end-use applications.

New Energy Farms not only works with Miscanthus but many other dedicated perennial biomass species like energy cane, switchgrass, Napier Grass, and woody crops (e.g.willow), as well as annual crops like sorghum.

  • Miscanthus has many beneficial characteristics: e.g. low inputs (fertilizers, crop protection products), high yields and returns, few pest issues, positive energy balance, contribution to biodiversity, soil erosion mitigation and carbon sequestration (1 – 1.18 tonne/acre/year), use of regular harvesting equipment, sustainable yields for up to 20 years, efficient water use, opportunities for full value chain development from farm to end user, ability to grow in any region of Ontario (different varieties available)
  • Establishment costs range from $340 to $480 per acre; land preparation costs approximately $150 per acre
  • Yields higher on good soils; range in different geographies is reported to be 8 to 26 dry tonnes/acre; 3rd year Leamington crop is yielding 21-25 dry tonnes/acre
  • Heavier soils are best for Miscanthus
  • Currently planted from rhizomes but researchers are working on seeded varieties
  • Currently enough foundation material (rhizomes) to plant 80,000 acres in Ontario; New Energy Farms has foundation sites around the province
  • Late winter/spring harvest; 15-20 per cent moisture
  • Stored in bales that are covered with sheet of polyethylene to repel precipitation, depending on the end use
  • Base energy value is 16.9 million BTU/tonne of dry matter (17.9 gigajoules/tonne)
  • Value of carbon offset credits on the voluntary market is currently approximately $12/unit in Ontario; in the EU, it's 14 euros; research is needed to validate this
  • Miscanthus can be grown in Ontario, but a big hurdle is the need for market development and an understanding of the price that markets will pay
Don Nott, Nott Farms - Switchgrass

Nott Farms operate 2,800 acres near Clinton, Ontario. Don has been farming since 1967. Along with his wife and family, they operate a grain processing facility year-round. For relaxation, Don dabbles in growing switchgrass, currently at 345 acres.

  • Switchgrass is the most risk-free crop a farmer can grow. It has a high tolerance for temperature and precipitation extremes, is not susceptible to mould or fungus, outruns weeds, does not spoil in the field (in the swath), makes use of standard farm equipment (balers, forage harvesters, discbines), is carbon neutral, friendly to wildlife, prevents erosion, improves soil structure, and can be grown on marginal soils and in hilly areas
  • Soils should be lighter, with reasonable drainage; not good on wet soils; field-tile-friendly
  • Nine to 10 pounds of seed per acre are used to establish the crop
  • In Huron County, Cave-in-Rock variety is recommended; in first year, it may be planted with a cover crop (e.g. oats or wheat) as a weed control measure and to provide a source of income; no fertilizer in first year (would encourage weeds)
  • In second year, weed control and fertilization (40 pounds of nitrogen and potash per acre) are recommended; 50% yield potential
  • In year three, fertilization is optional; no herbicides are required; yield is 4 - 4.5 dry tonnes/acre on land capable of producing normal yields of corn, soybeans and wheat
  • Cut with four- to five-inch stubble in late fall and left in swaths on the field over the winter to enable nutrients and other elements to leach out
  • Harvest in April to early May; late harvest means chlorine, ash, phosphorus and nitrogen levels are reduced, making the biomass better for combustion; seven to eight per cent moisture; sharp stubble is hard on tires
  • Can store in covered storage, with bale wrap or in a traditional straw stack; if baled wet, will not heat up
  • Volumes available are still unknown
Kurt Vanclief, Willowlee Sod Farm - Switchgrass

Kurt Vanclief began farming in 1987 when he purchased his first farm in Prince Edward County and started cash cropping. In 1999, he and his wife began a sod farm, Willowlee Sod. They continued to cash crop on the side as well. Willowlee Sod Farms has grown quickly in its 10 years of business and has diversified to include landscape and snow services as well as its current endeavour in biomass.

  • Potential to produce and consume biomass in the local community is appealing
  • 70-acre crop established in 2006:
    • Year 1: no-till seeding of Cave-in-Rock with John Deere 750; no cover crop; seeded late May; heavy weeds
    • Year 2: harvest and baling in spring (1.5 tonnes/acre)
    • Year 3: broadcast urea and potash blend; no weed control – weed pressure virtually gone; swathed in mid March, harvested with forage harvester, stored in "Ag-Bag" (3 tonnes/acre)
    • Year 4: fertilized with urea; applied N from 0 to 200 lbs/acre; spot sprayed for dandelions; crop swathed in January 2010
  • 46-acre crop establishment in 2009:
    • No-till seeding with cover crop of barley
    • No fertilizer used
  • Constructing small-scale pellet plant
  • Challenges: balancing efficient production with capital requirements, keeping storage costs to a minimum, deriving an appropriate value in the marketplace, significant opportunity cost due to the long establishment period (cash flow issue); incorporating other types of biomass while maintaining quality, diversifying markets beyond heat
  • Industry challenges: need network of industry members, market stability to maintain product quality, furnaces that create end-user confidence, offering a system that encourages conversion from fossil fuels, knowledge of combustion and emissions, lower costs for transportation and storage
Bryan Gilvesy, Norfolk Alternative Land Use Services (ALUS) – Prairie Polycultures

Bryan Gilvesy is a graduate of the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario. He is the proprietor of the Y U Ranch and Chair of the Norfolk County Alternative Lands Use Services (ALUS) Pilot Project. The Y U Ranch, located in Norfolk County, produces beef certified by Local Food Plus, dealing directly with consumers in Southern Ontario. The Norfolk ALUS Pilot Project is an innovative, emerging program that envisions farmers as key environmental solution-providers.

  • ALUS pays farmers growing polycultures $150/acre for biodiversity benefits (e.g. habitat for endangered species like badgers and bobolinks)
  • Can include up to 52 different grass species; high diversity
  • Bryan characterizes what he is doing as harvesting solar energy
  • Roots provide carbon storage and fix nitrogen; potentially carbon-negative (i.e., carbon credit opportunity)
  • Planted in 15-inch rows to allow filling in
  • Clump grasses plus a range of flowers e.g. cup plant, compass plant (both of which are 10 feet tall) and Echinacea add energy density
  • Show Me Energy (a co-operative in Missouri) claims 6-7000 BTU/lb is achievable on grass only and approximately 8,000 BTU/lb on a grass/flower mixture
  • Polycultures do better in 20th year (long-lived); Walpole Island has 1000-year-old stands
  • Grasses thrive in hotter temperatures and are drought-tolerant
  • Since seed is "fluffy" (feather-like), a special seeder is used (no-till drill with extra seed box to handle fluffy seed and another box to hold seed that flows)
  • Emerges in late May (seed right before it turns 30°C); this helps reduce competition with weeds
  • Not sure what yields are; reports range from 4-8 tonnes/acre
  • Challenges include needing a better understanding of: soil carbon, use of legumes for nitrogen, the mix of polycultures that pelletizer will demand (i.e. standardization) and that will maximize yield, how invasion from cool-season species can be avoided, whether prairie grasses can be part of long-term rotations (to take advantage of soil carbon that builds up), and yields that can be expected
Bill Deen, Department of Plant Agriculture, University of Guelph – Overview of Perennial Grasses

Bill Deen is an Associate Professor in the Department of Plant Agriculture at the University of Guelph. Dr Deen's expertise relates to agronomy, physiology and functioning of field crop agro-ecosystems. In recent years, he has initiated trials to examine productivity, soil quality, and carbon and nutrient cycling in bioenergy crop systems.

  • Picture is still emerging and some aspects are still unclear; no need to wait for full certainty to proceed
  • Research is completed or underway to: compare different varieties of perennial grasses, compare herbaceous biomass to woody (poplar and willow), understand tall grass prairie agronomy, complete life cycle assessments, predict biomass availability, undertake Miscanthus vs. switchgrass comparisons, compare 26 Miscanthus genotypes, evaluate cold tolerance and develop weed control procedures
  • What we know about perennial grasses for biomass production:
    • Energy crops have more potential than agricultural residues
    • Residues have significant technical and sustainability constraints
    • Varieties are available for Southwestern Ontario with reasonable winter tolerance including avoidance of lodging
    • Suitable seeding methods are known for switchgrass
    • Experience is building with plug establishment methods for Miscanthus, but there is still some uncertainty
    • Understanding of pre-emergent grass and broadleaf weed control as well as post-emergent broadleaf weed control
    • Nitrogen will be required to maintain soil tilth
    • Fall and spring switchgrass and Miscanthus yield, moisture, nutrient content, nutrient removal rates
    • Miscanthus yields are: Nagara sp. between 16.5-19.5 dry tonnes/ha harvested in fall; 10 dry tonnes/ha for switchgrass (30% reduction when collected dry in spring)
    • Technical aspects of harvesting and storage
    • Techniques to eradicate Miscanthus and switchgrass
    • Low invasive potential of Miscanthus (M. sinensis and M. sacchariflorus) and switchgrass
    • Soil carbon/soil quality effects
  • What we don't know:
    • Minor use registration of herbicides
    • Post-emergent grass control, particularly C3 perennial grasses
    • Transitioning from a sod or pasture – is a crop year required?
    • Miscanthus propagation methods that reduce cost and decrease variability of stand establishment
    • Effect of land class and crop heat units on yield (particularly Miscanthus)
    • Miscanthus/switchgrass establishment, harvest and yield on poorly drained, cold soils
    • Technical aspects of storing undensified material (Don Nott working on this)
    • Alternative uses – livestock bedding, livestock feed, anaerobic digestion (producers need options)
    • Effect of harvest timing on moisture, yield and winter survival
    • Polycultures (all current work is focused on monocultures)
    • Varity development/enhancing Miscanthus genetic diversity
    • Susceptibility to disease and insects
    • Need combustion demonstrations – collect data, test a range of materials
    • Availability of financing options (harvest in spring of year four, followed by combustion)
    • Policy/program development – some incentive is needed to get biomass going like what's provided for solar and other technologies

Short Rotation Woody Biomass – Growing, Harvesting, Storage, Sustainability

Naresh Thevathasan, School of Environmental Sciences, University of Guelph

Naresh is Manager of Agroforestry Research and Development at the University of Guelph (U of G) and an Adjunct Professor in U of G's School of Environmental Sciences. He is the director of a project in India funded by the Canadian International Development Agency titled Open Distance Learning for Seed Technology, and the manager for another CIDA-funded project in Ghana, West Africa titled Agroforestry Practices to Enhance Resource-Poor Livelihoods.

  • U of G has approximately 55 acres of willow planted
  • 170,000 ha of degraded, marginal farmland for plantations within 100 km of Niagara and Essex counties; not targeting prime agricultural land
  • 100-km radius is considered the "economic growing zone"
  • Selection of equipment to minimize carbon emissions is important; Swedish Step Planter thought to be preferable; it cuts whips into 25 cm segments and jams them into the soil
  • Trials underway on agroforesty and monoculture sites
  • Land preparation should start the year before planting; post-emergent weed control required to get good establishment; no herbicides after second year
  • Hybrid clones being used; 15,000 stems/ha
  • Coppicing results in 40,000+ stems/ha
  • Fertilization every three years
  • Allow to grow for three years prior to first harvest; seven cycles are possible before replanting
  • First harvest yields – 6 dry tonnes/ha/year
  • First willow bale harvester in Canada used – from Quebec (Anderson biobaler) with a Fendt tractor
  • Allow to winter dry in field; in May, bales have approximately 12-16% moisture
  • Biomass was pelletized at Remasco in Kingsville, ON and used to heat greenhouses
  • Keeping track of all greenhouse gases associated with willow biomass production; no net on-farm carbon emissions
  • Leaf litter cycling is efficient method of nutrient cycling
  • Challenges: weed control during first year only, no commercially available supply of plant stock, availability of planters and harvesters, need for business model, need for conversion technologies
  • Poplar has high establishment costs, but may be good on very marginal land
  • To return land to another agricultural rotation, growers (e.g. in Chile) use glyphosate to kill the crop; willows will then decompose over next six to seven years

Agricultural Residues – Crops, Harvesting Logistics, Soil Sustainability

Ian McDonald, Applied Research Coordinator, Field Crops, OMAFRA

Ian McDonald is responsible for on-farm research and demonstration coordination within the Field Crops Unit of OMAFRA's Agriculture Development Branch. He is involved in scientific review, protocol and project development, data analysis, and reporting, among other functions within the branch.

Ian investigates crops and agriculture-based feedstocks for appropriate opportunities in the emerging bioeconomy including types, agronomy, economics and environmental benefits.

  • Crop residue includes corn stover, corn cobs, soybean stubble, cereal straw
  • Comprises only a small portion of total available agricultural biomass in Ontario
  • Theoretical volume in millions of tonnes is corn 5.37; soybean 2.12; wheat 2.24; forages 5.16; for a total of 14.9
  • Practically and sustainably available volumes are much less
  • Concerns over soil compaction, trampling, nutrient cycling, small window for harvesting given the timing of other cropping demands and weather, labour, equipment modifications to pick up residue (new equipment under development), contamination with soil and stones, storage and competing uses
  • Corn cobs can easily be captured during harvest
  • Break-even price ranges from $58 to $69/tonne
  • Competing uses include livestock bedding, mushrooms, vegetable mulch, industrial uses
  • Sustainability is based on soil organic matter, soil erosion protection, nutrient replacement, and long term productivity of the land
  • Winter wheat has 1.6 times as much biomass below ground as above
  • Minimum amount required to financially justify harvest is 500 kg/ha/year
  • To increase residue amounts, could increase rotation complexity, add cover crops, or add other organic amendments such as manure, biosolids, compost or biogas digestate
  • Research needed on long-term productivity of the land, amount of sustainable removal, true cost, and impact of removal on subsequent crop yields
  • See "Assessment of the Availability of Agricultural Biomass for Heat and Energy Production in Ontario" (Hilla Kludze, Bill Deen et al, University of Guelph)

Agricultural Biomass Opportunities in Northern Ontario

John Rowsell, Head, Northern Stations, University of Guelph

John Rowsell has lived in northern Ontario for 32 years. A Master's graduate from the University of Guelph, he has evolved from a lecturer in Soil Science at the New Liskeard College of Agricultural Technology to an agronomist who has administrative responsibilities for the research stations in New Liskeard and Emo. Northern Ontario is a big place – a vast and magnificent land – and he is humbled to be its servant.

  • Large expanses of limestone deposits and clay belts in Northern Ontario
  • 4.4 million acres of Canada Land Inventory Classes 2 to 4 soils suitable for cultivation including biomass: 9.3% of Ontario's Class 2 land; 50.4% of Ontario's Class 3 land; 67.8% of Class 4 land
  • 2.2 million acres have climate limited soils (i.e. can't grow field tomatoes) which are suitable for canola and forage grasses, and in fact, are even better than Essex County
  • Stone free, lacustrine clay belt has fairly well drained soils
  • Lake Abitibi area is farmland in Quebec and forest in Ontario; Quebec aggressively pursuing agricultural development, while Ontario is not; this is a policy issue rather than related to soil or climate
  • Only 2% of the Great Clay Belt (Cochrane area) is used for agriculture; 80-100 frost-free days; crop heat units 2100 to 2700
  • Forages, spring cereals and canola dominate, with silage corn, soybeans and winter wheat on the rise; breeders producing earlier varieties that are well suited to the north
  • Working on reed canary grass, switchgrass and straw from spring cereals for biomass
  • Switchgrass tends to be very leafy; not getting as much stem as in the south (which is what is required for energy)
  • Competing use: mining industry uses straw for reclamation
  • Non-food canola could be used for energy; energy content is high at 28 megajoules/kg (compared with wood at 18 MJ/kg and coal at 32 MJ/kg); tested at CANMET Energy Technology Centre, Natural Resources Canada; clean burning

Discussion/Input from Participants

Participants at the forum were asked to add to the speakers' information by sharing their views on what is known and still needs to be known on agricultural biomass agronomy. Below is a summary of their input on biomass agronomy and other related areas.

What we currently know/understand

What we still need to know/gaps

  • Need for pre-emergent grass and broadleaf weed control, especially on marginal land
  • Proven harvesting techniques exist
  • May need to fertilize in first year, particularly on marginal soils
  • Storage options are known and available
  • Perennial energy crops have agronomic, economic and environmental benefits over annual energy crops
  • Annual crops do have a role
  • Energy crops hold more potential than agricultural residues due to sustainability and harvest timelines
  • Three-year or longer wait from planting seed/rhizomes to sale of crop poses significant cash flow issues
  • "Buy local fuel" may capture the public's imagination, like local food
  • Some research being done in Algoma on speckled alder; may have greater potential in the north
  • Need to look beyond switchgrass and Miscanthus; others have as good as or better potential
  • Cellulosic ethanol is also worth pursuing, although Canadian experience is limited
  • Effect of soil capability for agriculture and crop heat units on yields; more work on using poorer capability soils
  • Access to registered herbicides
  • Susceptibility to pests and diseases
  • More research on polycultures and optimal combinations of plants, use of cover crops, crop selection with low chlorine and potassium levels
  • More residue removal studies
  • Potential to use non-grasses e.g. canola, other oilseeds for energy crops
  • Methods of Miscanthus propagation; growers not familiar with rhizome separation and transplantation
  • Market development (end uses); need to look at heating systems used in Scandinavia and elsewhere in Europe
  • Economic analysis of the value chain; return on investment; how to cover costs until first harvest; current FIT price is insufficient to promote establishment
  • Tested combustion appliances
  • How combustion efficiency compares with other renewable energy technologies (GJ/tonne and $/GJ); comparison of decentralized power generation vs. centralized
  • How to achieve year-round supply given seasonality of harvest and of use (re: heat)
  • What fuel standard must be met?
  • Will public policy support?
  • Social acceptance (food vs. fuel)
  • Should energy crop production be directed to particular geographic areas?
  • More research on other high value uses of biomass e.g. biomaterials
  • OPG's future use of biomass in southern Ontario generating stations
  • Economical densification (cubes, pellets, wafers, pucks) to meet end users' needs
  • Lifecycle assessment, including a comparison of perennial grasses to forestry biomass
  • Energy crop impact on ground and surface water
  • Potential for organic certification
  • Research on carbon sequestration

Conclusions Emerging from the Forum

The knowledge base on the key issues related to agricultural biomass production and harvesting is building quickly. Growers can and are addressing agronomic challenges. Biomass production is low-risk from the production perspective, but market certainty must be in place for farmers to make the leap to this new opportunity.

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Author: OMAFRA Staff
Creation Date: 17 August 2011
Last Reviewed: 17 August 2011