Cob Harvest Makes Strides

December 10, 2009 06:00 PM

Scott Weishaar surveys the long row of biomass harvest equipment ready for demonstration and cracks a smile.

"The equipment companies have stepped up to the plate,” says Weishaar, vice president of commercial development for Poet, the nation's first cellulosic ethanol producer. Poet recently hosted a biomass harvest field day at the site of its future cellulosic facility, which will use corn cobs as feedstock.

"They have made great strides in cob harvesting equipment since our field day last year,” Weishaar says.

Poet and the farmers contracting to provide cobs for cellulosic ethanol production are banking on this harvest equipment going commercial starting in 2010. Poet is currently working with 14 local farmers to contract for cob collection this year and hopes to at least double the number of farmers it works with next year.

"This process is ready,” says Jeff Broin, Poet CEO, regarding cellulosic ethanol production at its Emmetsburg, Iowa, facility. "We're making cellulosic ethanol today, and we're making it in a manner that is going to be profitable.”

Baled cobs buzz. The newest entry into biomass harvest technology is equipment that harvests and compresses cobs, husks and leaves into square bales. Several equipment manufacturers, including AGCO and Case IH, are developing equipment to package biomass into 3'x4' square bales up to 8' long and 1,500 lb.

AGCO is developing a one-pass system that marries its Challenger combine with a Hesston Series large baler to bundle cobs into square bales. The system requires just one pass through the field for grain and crop residue harvest. In addition, it provides a biomass product that has minimal dirt compared with other collection and storage options, says Dean Morrell, AGCO product marketing manager.

"Large square bales are efficient to stack, store and transport,” Morrell explains. "We believe this system will be easily adapted to other sources of biomass such as cereal grain. It also provides a clean, superior corn-stock-based after-feed or bedding for beef and dairy operations.”

Another benefit of the bale is that it densifies materials and makes the logistics of handling biomass a little easier, says Sam Acker, Case IH director of harvesting marketing. The company is developing and conducting field trials on a harvesting system that teams a baler behind select combines.

"The baler option for biomass harvesting would require the least amount of labor during harvest because the machine is just dropping bales onto the ground that can be picked up later,” Acker adds.

Many systems.
Aside from biomass baling, machinery companies are developing several systems for collection of cobs.

One system is called corn cob mix, or CCM, where combine modifications allow for the corn and cobs to be collected together in the grain tank, transferred to grain carts and then separated by trammel screens. Cobs are then piled at the end of the field for collection by a third party, while grain is transferred to market.

Combine manufacturers that are involved in the CCM method of harvest include Case IH, Claas Lexion and John Deere. Demco and Unverferth, grain cart manufacturers, and Wildcat, a manufacturer of trammel screen systems for cob separation, also have CCM harvest equipment. Oxbo International Corporation offers a dump cart for cobs.

John Deere is working on a prototype dual-stream harvesting system that harvests corn and collects cobs in one pass. The system is undergoing field testing, says Dean Acheson, manager, solutions development, John Deere Agriculture and Turf Division.

"This method provides a high level of flexibility during harvest, allowing the farmer to collect grain and cobs while spreading the additional residue back on the field. If a customer changes over to soybeans during harvest, as an example, the changeover on the prototype machine is very seamless,” Acheson says. "Our goal is to provide a harvesting option that minimizes the impact to the producer's current harvesting operation.”

The whole cob.
Another cob harvesting method is whole-cob collection, which uses a towable cob cart behind the combine. Case IH, Vermeer Manufacturing and Redekop Manufacturing out of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, are working on towable cart systems for cobs. With the combine's chopper disengaged, the cobs come out of the back and go on a conveyer belt that carries them to a separation process. Cobs then go into a cob cart and noncob stover is blown into the field.

The towable system works well for farmers who don't have much available labor because it requires only another tractor driver and cobs can be dumped at the end of the field.

Vermeer currently offers its CCX770 Cob Harvester for rental to biomass facilities across the Midwest, says Jay Van Roekel, Vermeer segment manager. The wagon-style cob collection system tows behind select corn harvesting combines to collect and unload cobs. The self-contained machine has a patented separation process that distributes husks and leaves back into the field and cobs into a dump box.

The adjustable engine revolutions per minute and fan speed allow farmers to adjust the CCX to match crop conditions and maximize cob yield. Van Roekel expects the machine to be available for purchase next year.

Waiting to exhale. Farmers have been patiently waiting for equipment manufacturers to refine cob harvesting equipment, but that patience may start to wear thin if commercialization doesn't begin soon.

Poet is expected to begin commercial operation of its cellulosic ethanol facility in 2011 and will require at least 700 tons of cobs and fiber per day to fuel its cellulosic plant. Long-term, Poet hopes to add a cellulosic ethanol production component to each of its corn ethanol plants located throughout the Corn Belt.

On the positive side, Van Roekel says, time and field trials have helped assuage the concerns of farmers who feared harvesting cobs would interfere with grain harvest.

"More farmers are warming to the idea of cobs and finding that collecting cobs along with grain is not going to throw a wrench in their harvest system,” he says. "Now, it's a matter of investing in the equipment and seeing some profit from cobs.”

Who's Who of Cob Harvest Equipment

Many equipment companies are vying for their place in the cob harvest market. Those demonstrating products at the Poet biomass harvest field day include:
  • AGCO: Challenger 680B combine with Hesston Series LB34 baler
  • Case IH: 8120 combine with cart biomass harvesting system
  • Claas Lexion: 595R combine with C512 chopping corn head
  • Demco: 1350 grain cart
  • Fantini: corn head
  • John Deere: STS combine with cob collection system attachment
  • MachineryLink: John Deere 9770 STS combine
  • Mil-Stak: PT/2010 pull-type bale wagon
  • Oxbo: dump cart
  • SmithCo: side-dump trailer
  • Stinger: 6500 bale wagon
  • Titan (Ken's Truck and Trailer): Titan Walking Floor trailer
  • Trinity Trailer: The Big Jim
  • Redekop: H165 cob harvester with Redekop C180 cart
  • Unverferth: Brent Avalanche 1194 grain cart
  • Vermeer: CCX770 cob harvester

Funds for Farmers Who Harvest Biomass

Matching fund payments are on the way for farmers who want to get started in harvesting biomass. The federal government is working to jump-start biomass feedstock harvest through the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP), established in the recent farm bill.

There are two parts to BCAP, says Jonathan Coppess, USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) administrator. The first is annual rental payments to qualifying producers who want to grow new bioenergy crops—from switchgrass to poplars. These funds will help bridge the gap between what they are growing now and energy crops they want to grow in the future, Coppess says.

The second part of the program is a collection, harvest, storage and transportation matching payment. The payment provides a dollar-for-dollar match per dried ton of biomass delivered to a conversion facility, up to $45. The funds are available starting this year, Coppess says. For more information, visit your local FSA office.

In addition, a new grant increase to Poet totaling $20 million will help put cob harvesting technology in the field. The grant increase will play a key role in establishing corn cobs as a viable commodity and setting the stage for corn cob harvesting across the U.S., says Jeff Broin, CEO of Poet.

The additional funds will be used to develop the feedstock infrastructure for cellulosic ethanol production. Poet will work with equipment manufacturers to help speed the process of getting cob harvesting technology into farmer fields around Emmetsburg, Iowa, the site of Project Liberty, the 25-million-gallon-per-year cellulosic ethanol plant that will be attached to the current grain ethanol facility.

"With this grant, we'll be able to help farmers take advantage of this new revenue stream while helping our nation realize all the benefits of second-generation ethanol,” Broin says.

You can e-mail Jeanne Bernick at

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