USA:Alfalfa joins feedstock choices for ethanol

Some day, hay could be fuel for more than horses and cattle. Some Agriculture Department scientists say alfalfa could be a feedstock for ethanol fuel and offset some of the environmental problems associated with corn,  reported “Kazakh-Zerno” IA with reference to the “DesMoinesRegister“.

The idea is to have Midwest farmers who now grow corn all the time or corn and soybeans in rotation to start growing corn and alfalfa. Critics question whether alfalfa could ever be an economical fuel crop for many farmers.

But alfalfa can, like soybeans, replenish nitrogen that corn takes from the soil and allow farmers to use less fertilizer on corn, reducing the amount that can wash off the land and pollute rivers and streams.

Alfalfa also could provide soil protection, limiting erosion, because the crop would be left in the ground for a couple of years before the field is replanted to corn.

“The philosophy behind a lot of this is that we do have these large national goals to produce renewable energy,” said Hans Jung, a scientist at the Department of Agriculture’s Dairy Forage Research Center in St. Paul, Minn. “They’re going to require massive amounts of biomass.”

Jung outlined the alfalfa-to-biofuels idea at a two-day conference on the subject in Johnston in June by seed company Pioneer Hi-Bred.

It’s not the type of alfalfa that farmers now plant on 21 million acres nationwide, but a super-sized variety that could be used for feed and for fuel. The leaves would be sold for cattle feed. The stems would be processed into a feedstock for next-generation ethanol plants.

A farmers cooperative, the Minnesota Valley Alfalfa Producers, plans to start construction next month on a facility that would grind alfalfa and make pellets that could be processed by an ethanol plant, a crucial step toward making any biofuel feedstock commercially viable. The pellets will be burned for power and heat.

The farmers do not yet have an ethanol producer to make the biofuel.

Ethanol producers, including Poet LLC of South Dakota, are working to reduce the cost of making the fuel from corn cobs, wood chips and other forms of plant cellulose, but they are struggling to reduce the cost to a level that’s economically feasible and to attract investors.

Even if alfalfa-derived ethanol is a little more expensive than gasoline, it’s better “than all those dollars leaving the community, going out of the country” for fossil fuels, said Keith Poier, a Montevideo, Minn., farmer who is part of the cooperative.

But the alfalfa-to-ethanol concept faces a number of potential problems.

Jung said one is that while the alfalfa leaves could replace soybean meal as a protein source in animal feed, they can’t replace the vegetable oil that’s pressed from soybeans and widely used in the food industry.

Soybean oil is also a feedstock for biodiesel, although in recent years it’s been too expensive for many producers because of increases in global vegetable oil prices.

Then there are problems that potentially plague a lot of alternative biofuel feedstocks for ethanol: How to produce the crops cheap enough that ethanol plants could afford to buy them yet valuable enough that farmers can afford to grow, harvest, store and ship them.

Also, is it possible to do that on high-priced, fertile Midwest acreage, when diverting land to energy crops would drive up the cost of corn and other crops?

Even if alfalfa can be perfected as an ethanol source, James Miranowski, an economist at Iowa State University who spoke at the June conference, doesn’t foresee many farmers in Iowa producing alfalfa who don’t grow it now.

Alfalfa, like other energy crops such as switchgrass, won’t be valuable enough to induce farmers to move away from their traditional corn-soybean rotation, he said.

Iowa farmers harvested about 920,000 acres of alfalfa last year, compared with 1.6 million in Wisconsin and 1.3 million in Minnesota, states that have bigger dairy industries.

Another question: Where will the money come from to fund the research needed to develop alfalfa as a biofuel crop?

Jung has been able to get money out of his department for the concept. Pioneer Hi-Bred, which sells seed for alfalfa as well as for corn and soybeans, isn’t working on the alfalfa-to-ethanol idea either, despite hosting the conference.

“We believe there is potential there, but there hasn’t been much investigation to date,” said Pioneer spokeswoman Bridget Anderson.

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