Lake County -- Biomass

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Snow Ranch

Jan 29, 2011, 4:37:14 AM1/29/11
----- Original Message -----
Sent: Friday, January 28, 2011 6:13 PM
Subject: Re: [tlc] Biodiesel / Sustainable Ag.

> Even though I exercise my prerogative to delete at will, I confess, I have
> enjoyed eves-dropping on the novel-length banter between two "mad
> scientists". I am an English teacher, so the scientific lingo boggles my
> mind.  But I wonder if the emphasis should be on MAD or SCIENTISTS...;-)
> I love it,
> peace,
> dallas

Oh yes, mad -- both insane and angry -- is certain.  Scientist is up for debate, depending upon whom you ask.  :-P
Back to energy! 
Below is a note from a new mad scientist design cranked out this afternoon and sent to a friend.  Problem with raising livestock and looking to expand is that you don't want to expand too much too soon.   You're at the mercy of nature.  A bad year on animals, bad pricing, etc....can't be easily stepped up or down in production.  Pasturing and running no equipment is the most profitable where hay prices stink, but, where hay is good, it can exceed livestock profits....with less labor, less confinement to property, less capital, less intense management, less risks and variables to production, etc.   Generally, when you live on smaller land, lease surrounding pastures, and run some point you have to start making your own hay.  Cost of outside hay is too high.  Year-round pasturing without dry hay is hard on some animals.   And, if you bother doing that and investing in equipment, it makes sense to produce and sell a bit more hay.  Planting and seed costs come into play.   Many factors, but, generally, an operations split between livestock and hay production provides a dual-pronged commercial attack that is complementary.  They hedge each other.   When animals are bad years, hay is often good.  When hay is bad, animals are good.  A complimentary split lends to long-term stability.   If you have leased pastures and the owner must sell, or goes into foreclosure, or whatever....even on long-term contract....having an ample supply of hay ensures you can pull back the herd, raise stocking rates for awhile, keep them alive and move to other pastures or thin them down with minimal loss....not severe loss.
I was initially tempted by the area's ample, natural rangeland (neglected pastures) ....which goats love.....and which can be baled, but which sells for only about $70-$80/ Ton at best on the present market....and that's hardly worth the bother for all the wear & tear, depreciation of equipment, and fuss.  Better to plant high quality hay.   
Still, I have tried to figure out something to do with all that empty land in Lake County.  Vineyards and pear orchards folding up.  Grass overgrowing.  Unsuitable grass for premium hay (People might buy it at $3-$4/ bale, but it'll cost you near that to make it.) Not really worth baling for the hay bale markets....but....I think locals should take a look at the biomass potential for wood pellet fuels, cubed fuels for industrial boilers, and as pelletized feed, etc.  Only takes some water, calcium carbonate, crop oils, and compression to make a pelletized or briquette fuel that also doubles as suitable cow/ sheep/ goat feed.   Fussy horse people don't like it, but commercial meat and dairy operations would, and it can always be mixed with other feed to raise nutrition content.   Contrary to popular belief, the natural rangeland grasses out here and all over California have excellent protein and energy content.  It's nice mix of protein and carbs thanks to all that annoying Foxtail (wild barley grass)....especially where cut green.  Animals can either eat more of it to gain nutrition, or it can be supplemented.   Doesn't matter.  People talk of noxious weeds in it, but mine eat it all...all the time.  Foxtails & weeds in it spook the owner of a fancy and beloved horse, but commercial livestock are an acceptable risk there and we haven't had a problem with foxtails on livestock in 7 years of their grazing natural pastures with ample foxtail.  Some bloat cases and loss that could have been from weeds and clover boggling digestion at times, certainly, but those losses are less than what it would have cost on imported feed.  They love the stuff.  It's mostly problematic for dogs and their paws, not hooves.  You hear stories of foxtails getting in horse noses and all, but smaller livestock don't breath in with such suction....nor do cows much.   It works fine as feed, but has considerably higher dollar value as a new Lake County crop to augment pears and wine (or Pot!)....if only the ops cost can be dropped some.  Makes a good use for those vineyard clippings, too....if grapes don't sell.
Below are some ideas on that.  Won't have the chance to work it up, but maybe some of you will in hunger for cash and energy independence using biomass.  And maybe you'll get a little industry going out here, open up marketing channels, get a co-op going, and... by the time we get into'll be all the easier to join in.  
Kind of a caveman way of heating homes and industry, but it's a commodity crop insufficiently exploited.  Renewable energy.  Can be clean burning with better binders.  Takes a long time to grow trees.   Tree-huggers usually don't like killing trees, but mowing grass and clearing fire danger in the county is something people can do.   It can be all the more profitable if you don't bother with tilling and planting costs, and just process what's annually on the fields.   You could probably even draft up a grant proposal on something like this and build a nice machine to toot around the county....kind of like street sweepers in the city.  Imagine a garbage truck going onto fields, pelletizing, and trailer trucks hauling out bins and replacing new bins.   A kind of WMI pasture operation.   That's expensive equipment, though.  Hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars in making something professional.  But, you could do it in your backyards, though, with purchased straw bales, collected sawdust, waste hay bales, any of such bales we want to sell later, etc....or bale your own....and return it to the stationary shredder / pelletizer or briquette machines.  I favor backyard/ farmer tinkering on higher volume pelletizers than can be bought commercially -- as the high capacity stuff costs oodles -- while the affordable stuff doesn't put out enough to make it worth the time.  Production needs to be stepped up per hour on any pelletizer....or the costs of labor and other overhead run too close to the profit margin.  If you step up production on the machine and minimize manual labor....then it's a worthwhile pursuit and investment.
Only real issue that can boggle it is the higher soot and ash content of the pellets as opposed to wood fuel.  That can boggle some of the sensors on the fancier wood pellet stoves, void warranties, raise greenie emissions grumblings, etc.   Better binders can improve that.   You can have one set of binders for feed grade / dirty burning pellets.   Another set of binders and production stock on clean-burning straw pellets for wood stoves & industry.   Something like that.  

----- Original Message -----
From: Snow Ranch
Sent: Friday, January 28, 2011 11:48 PM
Subject: Hay Baling Updates

Well, I've updated that spreadsheet with the following cost inputs:
Per 20 acres planted in Alfalfa or Timothy Hay.  No irrigation.   Only one cutting (First Cut) expected per year for a couple years since unirrigated. 8000 bales harvested/ year per 20 acres;  110 lb. bales.
Approx 20 hrs. custom hire @ $35/hr.............................................................................$700    [Our tractor]
20 hrs fuel x 0.75 gph x $6/gal (worst case) - 30% fuel economy boost on HHO.........$63
Alfalfa seeding @ 10 lbs/ acre (worst case) and $3.95/lb or $39.50 acre ..................$790   [$1200 @ $6/lb seed]
Hay baling costs -- mowing, raking, baling, stacking in field.....................................$24,587
                                                                                                                Cost per bale:   $3.27
                                                                                                               Cost per Ton:  $59.45
* Costs do not include general overhead, insurance, etc.  Just direct costs and equip. maintenance estimate.
Marketing:    Model can tolerate bale prices anywhere from $5/bale and up;  Less than $5/bale is still profitable, but insufficient profit long-term.  Minimum sale price on the alfalfa (or Timothy Hay) needs to be:  $91-$110/ Ton; All the better up to $164/ Ton.  Added to this is $30/Ton field squeeze, flatbedding, and transport to markets within 2 hours of Lakeport (Petaluma, Sacramento), so we need to see $121 to $194/ Ton FOB or more to be cozy. 
Is that realistic?
...First, can 8000 high quality alfalfa bales be made from 20 acres unirrigated out here (on previously planted lands that are fairly smooth and require no leveling or much fertilizer)?
2010 Market Factors:
California diaries buy 75% of California alfalfa hay.  The rest imported.   Price of milk has been down.  Dairies in Chapter 11 forced to buy hay hand to mouth.  Therefore, 2010 supply weakened.  Hay operators closed up and now hay is in shortage again.  Milk price likely to rise.  2010 price history was stable on Good, Premium, and Supreme alfalfa....ranging from $180 to over $200/ Ton. 
Peak Local Markets (week of 28 Jan 2011):     
South-Central Coastal areas highest................$250/T max (alfalfa, Supreme)
Tulare/ Visalia/ Bakersfield next highest..........$235/T (alfalfa, Premium)
Escalon/ Merced/ Modesto..............................$235/T (alfalfa, Good)
Petaluma/ NorCal/ Tracy/ Patterson/ Stockton/ Lodi/ Modesto....$200/T (alfalfa, Fair)
Sacto valley that price order........$190/T.
* Higher prices on bales less than 110 lbs (Retail grade bales).  Baler may need rechambering down to 14-15".
Timothy Hay:   $240-$260/Ton....Sacramento Valley; $357/ Ton....July market in Chino, CA.  
Market Timing:
Northern Cal / Intermountain Region markets best......JULY!, Aug, Sept, OCT!, NOV!, DEC!
      (generally increasing prices from July through winter and spring).
Timothy Hay......Southern Cal port cities where shipping is cheaper.......peak Japan demand in May to July.
Timothy Hay.....Peak retail markets......Mar, July, Aug.
Timothy Hay.....Sacto Valley.....Jun, Aug.
Petaluma peak hay prices......Feb, Apr, Sep, Oct, Nov, Dec, Jan.
Offshore exports of U.S. hay......peak demand in July to December.
** As U.S. Dollar continues to decline, the accessibility of U.S. hay, meat, and produce becomes more affordable to offshore buyers.  Increasing export demand can be expected with domestic supplies lower from hurting industries, folded up operators, and therefore....hay price increases can be expected, in my view.  This would be offset by the higher price of milk and possible pickup in the hay industry....potentially causing glut again...or at least holding things stable. 
CONCLUSION:   150 goats max and transition to a hay focus.....with production of Good to Supreme alfalfa and Timothy Hay however many harvests can be take off the small start-up production. 

To smaller degree (759 bales/ year).....mowing, raking, baling of the natural rangeland bales for my goats (not feed of daily Supreme alfalfa.  Maybe just 1 alfalfa bale every 3 days; Except during nursing)....allowing more sellable bales.
I have a junkyard leaf shredder here which needs engine overhaul or electric motor installed.
Considering one of these alfalfa cubers, or stationary pelletizers......capable of about 384 lbs/ hour of biomass pellets or wood pellets.  Lots of scams and bad equipment on the internet reselling low-grade Chinese equipment, but the higher grade equip. from China will do both biomass pellets or those from sawdust.  Takes about 5.2 hrs to produce 1 Ton of pellets.
@ $6/ gallon diesel (PTO running the pelletizer).....that's @$23.40 diesel per Ton.
Present price of a good pellet binder runs about $20/Ton  [figure on it doubling]
Feed bale costs (rangeland non-sellable bales) are $51/ Ton.
Temp agency labor is $82/ Ton.
...Cost of sacks not included (sale by bucket or truckload instead).
Pellet cost per ton:    $198
Sellable value:           Wood pellets go for around that or more per ton.  Up to $300/Ton.
Issues:                       Wood pellets tend to burn cleaner.   Biomass pellets can clog and boggle sensors and
                                   pellet stoves with soot.
                                   There are other, more expensive machines that make alfalfa cubes or biomass cubes, largely
                                   for sale of that compressed briquette to industrial boilers.  I think the market would be smaller,
                                   though there is the alfalfa cube market.   Pound per hour production is much higher, however,
                                   on cubers rather than pelletizers.
Profitability?              Maybe $25 to $50 per ton.....but only a bit over 1 ton producable per day.
                                   ....about $700-$1500/mos value there.
                                  Average wood pellet stove home consumes 2 to 5 tons per year.
I have been thinking that this whole thing of stationary shredding and pelletizing or briquette making is somewhat wasteful.   It's the best method, for now.  But, in the future, if we could somehow make a low-cost machine to just mow from the field, suck in the already shredded grass (lawnmower bag style), and run it through a screw auger and extrusion dies....the pellets could go straight into bins.   Vehicles could remove the bins from the field like they do with wine grapes.   Cover the bins.   Sell those delivered by the ton (with bins rented) to consumers.....or run into a hopper and 50 pound sacks for pallet shipment.
Like this:
....Like would take some weld-up of things and fab of parts, but something could be built from maybe a couple thousand dollars in materials.  Add some water, calcium carbonate, and vegetable oil during the extrusion process for binder. Mower doubles as the shredder.   The whole rig there will probably have to be flipped inverse with the roller or screw auger being driven by tractor PTO and the mower trailing last, but it could be done. 
....Anyhow, I'm thinking that might drop all that hay production and then stationary pelletizer cost w/labor, etc....while making use of the natural rangelands already neglected and transforming to a biomass fuel.   Just mow the area fire danger areas and collect he wood pellets.  Sell those locally and exported.   No planting costs.   Thinking a rig like this would knock off about $100/Ton in production costs, so anything above say $98/ Ton retail price on the straw pellet fuel for wood stoves and industrial boilers would be very cozy profit.  :-)
Not something I can take on at the moment and count on for 2011-2012 business, but maybe something we could work on and do together in time for future years.
I think the first step would be to make our own....high production stationary pelletizer at much lower cost than purchasing one....which can be fed shredded hay bales from a lawnmower or my chipper.   That'll put something in operation cheaply and in test production without extensive cost.   Sell some of those pellets to see how they burn.  Get some emissions feedback.  Use revenues there pay for building the portable rig. 
See, none of these commercial pelletizers are going to do the trick.  We need a giant pelletizer or an array of the little ones to step up the Tons/ hour throughput on the field.....else the tractor and operator are just sitting there for 5.2 hours in making 1 ton.   Really slow.  Really boring.   Really inefficient.   Stationary is best for start-up and test production.   But, a focus on a giant roller is what I'm thinking.  Screw auger style doesn't extrude enough volume, but a roller does.
....Thinking.....if we had a large enough piece of circular steel....from say a butchered propane tank.  Torch cut out the top for the feed in.  Torch cut out the bottom and replace with a thick, 1/2" steel plate that is specially machined as the extrusion plate.  Just drilled holes with flared countersunk.  Thousands of them, though.   That would take a long time to drill.  :-(   A machine shop would charge too much.  Might be best to just pay a laborer for a week and stock up on the titanium drill bits.  :-)  The extrusion plate is then bolted to mounts welded to the propane tank.    Next is the heavy roller.   I'm thinking it should be 5" well casing of steel.  Capped at both ends with plate....and those plates fitted with a shaft.  The shaft run through sealed bearings on the propane tank.  Now you have a spinning roller that can be given a flywheel and/or PTO connection.   The extrusion plate area would be about 3" wide x the length of the tank.   Multiple rollers and plates would make better production. 
From here, you drive the tractor, conveyor in the cut grass, the roller squeezes out the grass juices / blends with water and binder, and into the bin go the pellets.  On the field, as the bin is filled, another vehicle and operator remove and add an empty bin, and the operation continues.  If the binder is made of natural ingredients -- water, calc carb, corn oil, and grass juices....the fuel pellets can also serve as feed.
We don't have to have the whole portable rig all at once, but it would be good to get to work on the pelletizer and tank.
Now....if we could only figure out what scrap material exists out there already which might make a good extrusion plate.  Something with a lot of little holes in it already and with the metal thick enough....that could work.  But, what? 
What out there is made of 1/4 to 1/2" steel or aluminum with a grating that is pencil sized in diameter on the holes?
An alternative to the labor intensity of drilling, I am thinking might be a focus on sheet metal (steel) and plasma cutting.  A sign maker has those.   I know of one in Kelseyville.  Not sure on its accuracy.   Just like in transformer cores made of laminates of steel.....if the sheet laminates are cut and with precise holes.....they will stack and bolt together as a single plate that would be suitable as an extrusion plate.
I'll have to run a CAD file up on it sometime and send to my machine shop for an estimate (probably still very costly), but it would be easier to have robots do the plasma cutting. 
Alternatively, it might be easier to cast the extrusion from 1 sq. ft. plates.  A mold negative could be made from clay and hundreds of soda straws stuck into it.   Into that make a first extrusion plate of silicon rubber.   We use that to make a fiberglass mold negative....which is then a disposable mold used to make cast aluminum or steel version of the extrusion plates.    But, all in all, it might be easier to just have a guy drill and drill away on oodles of 3" x 6" plates on a drill press.  4"x6".   6x6".   Bar stock cut.  Whatever.   1/2" would be best.   Some good chamfer on the holes will also work. 
Anyhow, for the money spent on a Chinese rig....I think a much higher volume pelletizer could be fabricated from scrap with some machining and welding labor put into it.   From there, stationary operation.   Hand shredding of bale loafs and test production.   You can always sell wood stove pellets like that and take the machinery portable later, but...if the production speed per pelletizer doesn't match with tractor & baling speed and to go stationary systems.
For now, I think it best to focus on goats and alfalfa/ Timothy hay.   As profits come in, hire maybe a local high school kid with an interest in engineering/ fab shop/ mechanical/ drafting/ welding to do some part-time work on it.
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