Monday, September 29, 2008

Farming Warm Season Grasses for Fuel

Jeff Waldon, Executive Director of the Conservation Management Institute of Virginia Tech, made a presentation at the Virginia Biofuels seminar on August 5th on how warm seasons grasses can be used as fuel for boilers.  As we will see not all research into biofuels calls for turning switch grass and other warm season grasses into diesel fuel.  As Mr. Waldon explained they can be used directly as fuel at a lower cost per BTU than natural gas, oil, or coal and burn cleaner too emitting less sulfur and mercury.

Warm season grasses are those that—as the name implies—grow when the weather is warm. Orchard, rye, and fescue grasses grow hardly at all in the heat of summer saving their growth cycle for the spring and fall.  You can easily see this when you observe that farmers bale their hay in the spring and fall.  Contrast that with warm season grasses like switch grass, perl millet, sudan grass, and sorghum that grow in the heat of July and August, some of them growing with very little water at all.

In his presentation Mr. Waldon mentions some things which are obvious and some that are new. Prices for fossil fuel are increasing and prices for corn, soybeans, and wheat are spiraling upward.  The "Green power market is growing".  And Congress is moving toward tax breaks for renewable fuels and for caps on carbon dioxide emissions saying "the mood in Congress is borderline psychotic".  Grasses help with green house grasses because plants take carbon dioxide from the air and as their roots decay they put that carbon into the soil.  Carbon can persist in the soil in the form of humus for dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of years.  For this reason farmers can sell carbon sequestration credits to industry who can purchase credits as an offset to the CO2 emissions they vent into the air.  All of this spells opportunity for Virginia farmers who can plant grasses in marginal areas that otherwise might not be used for row crops.  He says, "We are in a boom cycle now but rural communities are in decline.  It would be good to put another cash crop out there."

Mr. Waldon singles out FDC Enterprises Grassland Services as someone who can assist farmers get started with warm season grasses.  He says, "They planted over 2,000 acres this past spring" using their industrial planting system."  Further, "They uniquely provide a warranty for their work.  Their planting success rate is over 98%."

One obvious problem with growing warm season grasses is how to harvest all this tons of stuff. Mr. Waldon says in Iowa, "They use these monstrous square bales.  But no one in Virginia is going to buy this size machine."  So he mentions two Virginia companies FarmPower and First Source Biofuels that can take round bales of hay, grind them into dust, and then haul it off in tractor trailers. 

One facility using warm season grasses is Piedmont Geriatric Hospital in Burkeville, Virginia. They are currently using wood sawdust to fire their boiler but are finding their costs increasing. So they are switching to burning warm season grasses at a potential savings of $500K year.  To produce this much fuel requires 1,680 acres of farm land with a planting cost of $600K.   Grass is more efficient than sawdust because it has less moisture content.  The hospital has some excess fuel now and gave some to Longwood University which is now looking at this system.

Another opportunity for Virginia farmers is Multi-Trade Group which is planning two hardwood fuel pellet manufacturing facilities in Southside, Virginia.  The business plans calls for 600,000 tons of warm season grasses per year to fire their dryers which would require 120,000 acres at a $30 million planting costs.  Payments to farmers each year will be $48 million.

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Saturday, September 20, 2008

Bacchus (Dionysus) The Latin and Greek God of Wine

People in the wine trade talk about Bacchus, the Greek god of wine. For example, there is a wine store in Washington, D.C. called the Bacchus Wine Cellar . is replete with wine books that have Bacchus in their title. And in Oregon there is a tiny vineyard called Dionysus, which is another name for the Greek god. But who was Bacchus or Dionysus and what is his import to the business and lore of wine.

No doubt there are those among you who are arm-chair classicists who have read Homer's "The Odyssey" or "The Iliad" which are good primers for understanding Greek mythology. If reading ancient poetry is not your forté then perhaps you saw the George Clooney movie "Brother Where Art Thou" which is loosely based on Homers work. Maybe you have even read the Euripides play "Bacchae" which tells the story of Dionysus. To clear up the matter of this name, Bacchus is Latin for what the Greeks called Dionysus or Bahkos. You could also say that Dionysus is the Greek god of wine and a Bacchante is a female follower of the Dioysian religious cult. According to the playwright Euripides, there does not appear to have been any male devotée of this faith.

Perhaps the best source of information on the life of Dionysus is the play Bacchae written by Euripides in 410 B.C. The play itself was given at what was called a Dionysian festivalthese were contests which pitted the work of one writer against another. The philosopher Neitzsche famously said in The Birth of Tragedy that modern drama originated with such festivals.

History suggests that the Dionysian cult is a religion that came from the Far East. While their religious festivals were indeed frenziedas the play reveals--it was not exactly a riotous fête lubricated with copious amounts of drink and sexual voyeurism. That is what the term bacchanalia has come to mean in certain definitions. For example, Euripides uses the word Maenad to refer to the women followers of Dionysus. This word means a frenzied woman who is part of a orgiastic ritual according to the American Heritage Dictionary. While we might consider this might the nymphet of Nabokovs Lolita, in her day she might have been considered as pious as a church going nun. Kind of like Julie Andrews of the 5th century B.C.

Euripides says Dionysus gave man the gift of wine. He found the vine growing wild, turned it into wine, and gave it to man. He writes:

He discovered and bestowed on men the service of drink, the juice that streams from vine. Men have but to take their fill of wine, and the sufferings of an unhappy race are banished, each day's troubles are forgotten in sleep---indeed this is our only cure for the weariness of life.

Dionysus was the son of Zeus, king of the Greek gods. Dionysus mother was Semele. In ancient Greek plays Gods often manifest themselves as men and they breed with mere mortals. Such was the case with Achilles mother Thetis. This is also true with Semele who was Dionysuss mother. In mythology Zeus sits at the top of the power structure among gods. His wife Hera was jealous that Zeus seduced Semele. So Hera zaps Semele with a bolt of lightning. Zeus snatches the baby Dionysus from the burning womb and sows him up in his thigh and then raises him until his birth.

In the play Dionysus sneaks in disguise into the kingdom of Thebes which is ruled by the King Pentheus. Pentheus warns the people about the presence of a fair-haired man who is attractive to the women.

Pentheus tells his people: "The rest of you comb the city and find this effeminate foreigner, who plagues our women with this strange disease [the Dionysian cult] and turns them into whores."

A herdsmand says of Dionysus: it was he who gave men the gift of the vine as a cure for sorrow. And if there were no more wine, why, theres an end of love, and of every other pleasure in life.

The women dash off to the mountains to worhsip Dionysus for they have fallen under the spell of this effeminate foreigner. Men are not allowed into their lair.

Pentheus says: They tell me, in the midst of each group of revelers stands a bowl full of wine; and the women go creeping off this way and that to lonely places and there give themselves to lecherous men

Dionysus tells the Maeneds that Pentheus has committed blasphemy by his failure to believe in Dionysus and his mockery of their religion. For that he must be punished.

The women are peaceful one moment and murderous the next. They fall onto a herd of cattle and tear apart with their hands.

Pentheus finds Dionysus in his midst still in disguise and throws him in jail. Dionysus tells the king that his god Dionysus will free him. He does exactly that for the walls of the jail crumble and Dionysus walks free.

Dionysus reveals himself as a god and takes the king to spy on the Bacchae, the women who are practicing the Dionysian religion, but warns him to stay away for they would kill any man. So Pentheus dresses as a woman. As they draw near to the Bacchae, Dionysus snatches up the king and puts him in the top of a pine tree. The Bacchae recognize the male intruder and rip the pine tree up by their roots and then the king tumbles out into the midst of the women.

Dionysus compels the women to punish the king: Women! I bring you the man who made a mockery of you, and of me, and of my holy rites. Now punish him.

The women fall upon the king and tear him to pieces.

The first woman who attacks Pentheus is his mother Agaue. In her frenzied state she does not recognize her son and tears his arms from his body. She marches back to Thebes to proudly display the wild animal she has caught still not knowing whose head she carries in her hand. Her father Cadmus says who is that whose head you hold in your hand Agau becomes lucid for a moment and shrieks in horror as she realizes it his her son.

Dionysus is not a benevolent god like the Christian and Jewish God. He banishes Cadmus, Agaue and the rest of their family for the blasphemy committed by their son and husband Pentheus. Cadmus he turns into a snake.

Another source on the life of Dionysus is the play The Frogs by Aristophanes. The Frogs are not characters in the play per se but are part of what is call a chorus. This is a theatrical device unique to Greek plays. The chorus is offstage and acts as a foil for the characters. They portend the future or respond to current events.

In the play Dionysus disguised himself as Hercules and goes down to Hell to rescue the two poets and playwrights Euripides and Aeschylus. (Aeschylus, the critics says, is perhaps the greatest dramatist of antiquity.) Pluto holds dominion over Hell and he deems a contest in which the two poets engage in verbal battle with each otherthe most eloquent speaker will earn his freedom. Its like that scene in Eminem's "8 Mile" movie where the rap artists do verbal combat with one another. Aeschylsus wins, gets to see the light of day again, and Euripides is left to mope about along the river Styx (which traverses hell).

For forward 600 years and we have Ovids poem Metamorphoses. This is of course written in Latin so the names of the gods are given in Latin and not Greek. For example it is Venus and not Aphrodite. As for Bacchus we learn that he is the one who gave Midas the wish of the so-called Midas Touch. This new-found fortune is horrible for Midas for everything he touches including his daughter turns to gold at the touch of his finger.

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Sunday, September 7, 2008

Chris Teutsch on Tall Fescue and Summer Annual Grasses

I recently interviewed Dr. Chris Teutsch of Virginia Tech at the Billy Bain Farm in Dinwiddie, Virginia during Virginia AG Day. (“Bill Bain Farm in Dinwiddie, Virginia”. That sounds like the opening line of a novel by Faulkner.) Virginia AG Day is the biggest annual farm show in Virginia. It's for conventional chemical farmers although an occasional organic vendor will have an exhibition booth.

I snapped on my tape recorded and asked Dr. Teutsch what he thought about endophyte infected tall fescue. Here are his comments and below that is the presentation he made to the crowd that has assembled.

“I guess we’re talking about rotavators. It think they certainly have a place. For transferring fall fescue pastures into something else the rotavator can work quite well. You can do it without chemicals.”

Asked about MaxQ fescue he says, “In this region we are in what we call a transition zone so we’re not really in the north and not in the south. Fescue is our best adapted whole season grass.”

“MaxQ has some attributes that are better than the traditional Kentucky 31. Its got the novel endophyte in it to give it vigor and hardiness and ability to withstand stresses and grazing like Kentucky 31. But it doesn’t produce the toxins that Kentucky 31 produces. So animal performance is much better.”

“Endophyte is a fungus that lives within the plant. Probably 90% of our stands in Virginia that are Kentucky endophyte are infected. It has kind of a symbiotic relationship with the plant. We don’t understand exactly how it works but tt gives it increased vigor. And in return the endophyte gets a place to live in the plant.

“Animals don’t dye from the endophyte generally speaking. Calf growth is slower on the endophyte infected pastures. A lot of people never see that because they don’t have anything to compare it to. They’ve always had Kentucky 31 and that’s you know.”

Summer Annual Grasses

Dr. Teutsch showed visitors 7 plots of warm season annual grasses. These include sample plots of 4 varieties of sorghum x sudangrass, pearl millet, and sudangrass. For a description of each you can download publication 418-004 from the Virginia Tech web site. Here is Dr. Teutsch in his own words:

“Some of the sorghum, sorghum-sudan have a trait call the brown midrib trait in it. The midrib will have a brown color to it. And that is associated with increased digestibility. So animals will tend to grow better off the brown midrib varieties. That is something important if you have calves or dairy annuals.

“Summer annuals as the name denotes have to be planted every late spring or early summer. So they don’t come back like a perennial crop would.

“The newest one we have here is teff. It originates in Ethiopia. It is fairly drought tolerant. It doesn’t grow without water. Everything needs some water to grow. We think where it has a place is going to be in the horse hay market. It could make a very good horse hay. Work with teff horse hay has shown it’s totally acceptable to horses. You don’t want to cut it too close to the ground. No closer than 3 inches. You can cut it multiple times in the year.

“Everything needs some water to grow. The one advantage that these warm seasons grasses have is they have a little bit different photosynthetic pathway than our cool seasons grasses. Its call the “C4 pathway” and that pathway allows those grasses to grow at higher temperatures. If you do get some water and it is 90 or 100 degrees those grasses are going to grow really fast. If we get some water on sorghum and it has a little bit of nitrogen on it is really growing to grow well. And it is going to grow fast and it can get away from you really quickly if your trying to make it into hay.

“These are real good for grazing with the exception of teff. One of the issues with teff is it has a shallow root system. The way the animals graze is they grab the forage and kind of yank it off and they can pull the plant up. So I think it has a better fit as hay than for grazing."

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Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Karl Dallefeld on the Monoculture of Tall Fescue

“Its my base philosophy and belief that it starts in the soil.”—Karl Dallefeld

Organic vegetable production has taken off in Virginia with so much interest in the buy local food movement. But as I drive around the Virginia Piedmont looking at pastures it is obvious someone needs to put forth the point that diversity in agriculture includes diversity in grass-based farming. After all here in Rappahannock County and elsewhere there are far more acreage devoted to horses, sheep, cattle, and goats than there are vegetables and even vineyards. Yet too many of these pastures are overgrazed deserts of barely palatable fescue grass which is an invasive weed that has become a monoculture. So let’s take a second look and consider that there must be a better way. To do this we turn to Karl Dallefeld an expert from the Midwest on forages. Here he explains how you can rip out all that endophyte-infected fescue and plant something more palatable to your livestock.

Karl Dallefeld runs the forage and seed division of Midwest BioAg, the soil consulting firm founded by Gary Zimmer, author of “The Biological Farmer”. Prior to that he was territory manager in charge of sales and education for Barenburg Seed. He and his son Kyle grass finish beef on their farm.

Is endophyte infected tall fescue bad for horses?

Yes. It is. What happens sometime you can get thickened placenta and basically the foal will suffocate in the afterbirth. They won’t be able to break through. Endophyte is blamed for mares drying up for milk. Their milk dries up. It basically stops their lactation or milk production. For cattle what it does it elevates their interval body temperature and cuts off their circulation to their extremities. So it may be 70 degrees out and you will see cattle trying to cool themselves in a pond. In extreme cases their hooves will come off because of a lack of circulation. The most visible sign is rough hair coats.

Does it affect their weight gain too?


How do you get rid of tall fescue and establish a better pasture?

[It takes] either one or two years. During the summer we have annual grasses, it might be sorghum sudan or hybrid sudan grass or Italian rye grass. Those are examples of what can be done. An example might be take your first grazing off in the spring and put in sorghum sudan or sudan when it is the appropriate time. Graze that and then till it under. Come in with winter rye or triticale [a hybrid of wheat and rye]. You can get a grazing on that in the fall. In the spring take another grazing or two and do your spring seeding and come back in with another summer crop. Then do a fall seeding of your extended pasture again. So you have two summers of a break crop flushing out the seed bank the Kentucky 31 or the tall fescue. Then you are going to have a clean pasture. You probably will not totally get rid of the 31 but you will suppress any of it with endophyte. Then you will have 7 years of dairy quality, grass-finish-beef high quality pasture.

In our pastures I believe diversity is a part of forage quality. Here [on his farm] I use a soft leaf tall fescue, meadow fescue, perennial rye grass, timothy, orchard grass. I like ladino clover, trefoil, red clover. On top of that I want to plant some forbs whether that be chicory or plantain. A common name [for plantain] might be “buckhorn”.

If you have millet that would be a great break crop to get rid of Kentucky 31, One thing to remember: this is a long process because no one should tear up all their ground in one year. Do 10-20% per year so that you don’t tear up all your forage.

What do you think of MaxQ fescue, an endophyte free fescue advertised in many magazines?

It has its place the further south we go the more relevant it comes. It is just as course and rough as Kentucky 31. We are losing forage quality. If all you have are a beef cow herd it might not be so bad. [He means cattle that will be shipped off elsewhere to gain slaughter weight.] For grass finished beef or dairy we need the highest quality forage.

How difficult is it to maintain a stand of alfalfa? [Alfalfa is a legume which is notoriously difficult to grow due to pressure from weeds and insects. It is high in protein and since it is a legume it adds nitrogen to the soil.]

If you can do it I think alfalfa is one of the better forages for winter feed and also for drought tolerance . [The] Ph needs to be at least 6.8. Calcium, phosphorous, magnesium [need to be at the correct levels]. Use a leaf hopper resistant alfalfa. Get [the soil mineral levels] up where your plants are producing more sugars so the insects are producing less damage.

What do you think of the practice of grazing tall fescue in the dead of winter? [Some people do this rather than bale it as a way to reduce costs and have a winter pasture. ]

That is one of the advantages of it because it will maintain its quality longer into the winter. Anytime you are not pulling a round bale or you are not supplemental feeding it is a dollar saved. I would prefer it be mixed with clovers and other grasses and have a higher forage quality to it. But that’s a good way to reduce winter feed cost for livestock.

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