Miscanthus Offers Guaranteed Farm Income
Above: International Energy Crops Ltd was set up, and is 80 percent owned, by the Wilson family for the production and supply of miscanthus rhizomes and to plant and establish the crop in the UK and abroad.
Miscanthus is a crop that lasts for 20 plus years, which is why it is so important to plant it properly,” says Keith Wilson, partner in farming and contracting company, the Wilson Farming Group and managing director of International Energy Crops Ltd.
Keith said he realised the importance of giving Miscanthus a good start when he was driving a forage harvester, harvesting the crop. He had noticed that most of the crops were very patchy with big gaps that were preventing the crop from producing its full yield potential.
Above: Miscanthus planted on the Wilson’s farm several years ago pictured from 9.0m above the crop. “It was obvious to me from many seasons driving the foragers that potential yields were being wasted because of the huge gaps in the crop caused by poor planting techniques,” said Keith Wilson.
The Wilson Farming Group was started by Harry Wilson in 1970 when he bought a trailed forage harvester and began offering a contracting service to local farms. With an emphasis on attention to detail the business grew. With its continuing success, four farms were purchased in the 1990s, three in Shropshire and one in Lincolnshire and now just over 1010ha (2,500 acres) are farmed by the company which is one of the largest agricultural contracting companies, hiring out a variety of farm machinery across the UK.
In 2003 the Wilsons recognised the potential of energy crops and began growing miscanthus on some of their own land on contract for an energy crop specialist. An issue with miscanthus is that it is very difficult to plant evenly, being grown from rhizomes which range in shape from straight twigs to small bundles, and in size from large finger to fist size. Once planted the crop requires very little attention apart from weed control during the first two years and topping after the first year’s growth, but as the first viable yields are not produced until the second season there is a two year gap between investing in the planting process and receiving any income from the crop.
As well as supplying the harvested miscanthus as energy fuel the Wilsons also began production and supply of the rhizomes for planting by other growers, investing heavily in the crop until by 2008 all the family’s land was growing miscanthus for multiplication with the exception of 100ha (250 acres) that is growing miscanthus on an energy contract. Rhizome multiplication needs soil of similar quality to potato land and the 100ha growing energy crops is either too heavy or has too many stones. In 2009 the company with which the Wilsons had their rhizome multiplication contract ceased trading and the family was left with a large amount of rhizome stock in production as well as the mature miscanthus being grown for baling.
“Having invested in the crop we had to try to recover our costs and get a return on the money we had invested. Because we could see a lot of areas where the production of the crop could be improved, we decided to start our own company, International Energy Crops, offering a professional service for the production, supply and planting of the crop to customers in the UK and abroad. We spoke with other growers around the country to discover their experiences of growing the crop.”
When Keith was considering his options he spoke with his agronomist, Brian Redrup, of Velcourt to ask his opinion of the crop. “I hold Brian and his knowledge and experience in great regard and his opinion is important to me,” said Keith. “Brian said much what I expected; that the crop had a poor reputation because of its patchy, uneven emergence, failed crops and crooked planting and that its general image wasn’t good. Basically Brian confirmed what I was thinking, that most of the bad aspects were actually something we could control and improve, and we started looking at ways in which we could optimise establishment, ensure strong vigour and make the crop more attractive to potential growers.”
“We knew there were crops in the UK yielding 20t/ha and we went and looked at some to see why these were doing so well compared to others yielding 10–15t/ha. Talking to the growers confirmed what we suspected; that the crop had been precision planted and care had been taken with the whole establishment process.
“Our business has always thrived on attention to detail and we looked at each aspect of what was involved in the crop’s establishment. We knew that the rhizomes had to be as fresh as possible for planting, had to remain moist from the time they were lifted and had to be treated with care right up to planting. All our rhizome stock is now sample tested for viability and vigour and also tested for moisture content. This is critical as once the rhizomes have dried they cannot be rehydrated.”
“We looked at the planting process and last spring converted two manned potato planters to ensure accurate precision planting. We know the seedbed is critical as the crop will be growing there for 20 years so we set firm parameters as to what was needed. As a guide the most suitable planting conditions would be similar to those required for maize – absence of large clods and stones and as little compaction as possible. The key is to ensure maximum soil to rhizome contact.”
The precision planting technique worked and the crops planted last spring are accurately spaced, allowing plenty of sunlight to get down to the base of the plant, but also optimising the population for yield, at about 16,000 plants per hectare. “We planted the crop with 92cm row spacing which allows easy access for farmers running tractors on 72 inch wheel centres. Although the only treatment needed after planting is the application of herbicides twice a year for the first two years, the whole process must be as straightforward as possible and if we can save growers having to alter wheel spacings then this all helps,” said Keith.
Above: Miscanthus planted this year with a precision planter.
Having seen the success of the precision planting technique the Wilsons have designed and are making, ten precision planters, each of which will be manned by four unskilled staff who will place the rhizomes into cups which then feeds them down for planting at set spacings.
Above: The first of the ten precision planters designed and manufactured by IEC to ensure accurate planting of its miscanthus rhizomes.
“We are offering supply and planting of the miscanthus rhizomes all over the UK and Europe and it fits very well with the rest of our business,” said Keith. “We aim for zero replanting and were initially worried about planting in heavy soils, mainly because of what other growers were telling us about poor establishment, but last spring we planted some very heavy carr clay land in Lincolnshire and the crop is growing well, with even establishment and a very healthy vigour.”
The Wilsons run 40 Fendt tractors on their fleet as well as 30 Claas Jaguar forage harvesters of various sizes. “We run four forage harvesters ourselves in the forage season,” said Keith, “and the rest are on hire all over the UK to farmers and contractors. Miscanthus harvest fits in very well for foragers which are usually idle between February and April. Last year we had seven machines working in miscanthus and would encourage local contractors to look favourably at this crop for spring work on harvesting and baling.”
Above: The Wilson farming Group began trading 40 years ago contracting with trailed forage harvesters. “We use Claas because of the excellent reliability and also the excellent back-up from Claas as well as our supplying dealer, Mill Engineers.” For miscanthus the harvesters are fitted with a paddle type drum which bends the miscanthus rather than chopping it and the crop is discharged underneath the forager and left in a swath to dry for six–eight weeks.
The market for the miscanthus is potentially huge and there are currently two main power stations using the crop. “Ely and Drax power stations will take as much of the crop as we can produce and growers are being offered guaranteed RPI index-linked prices for up to 10 years. This meant a 4.7 percent increase in price last year alone. Miscanthus requires just 450mm of rain per year and minimal attention and inputs so it offers a guaranteed income for the farm,” said Keith.
The main issue is that there is no income for the first two years, but Natural England will provide a 50 percent grant towards the cost of establishing the crop. The service provided by IEC includes the services of a farm business specialist who will help prepare the application for the grant to suit the particular situation as well as the services of its own agronomist to check suitability of the land prior to planting and visits to check the progress as the plants develop.
In addition, Keith has been working with a finance company that has designed various finance packages to assist those considering growing the crop, helping to finance the establishment and also to fill the gap between planting and the crop producing profitable yields. Eastern Counties Finance (ECF) is based near Cambridge and specialises in providing finance to farmers. As well as providing traditional finance packages for the finance of buildings and machinery, the company is keen to be involved with the new alternative energy projects and the energy crops. Matthew Smart is the managing director; “We see the agricultural energy business as being very exciting and there is a guaranteed market for the foreseeable future. Agriculture is a secure industry for us, and the wholesale funders are keen to lend to, and be associated with, these projects.”
ECF has been providing finance for traditional farm machinery as well as alternative energy projects for several years, and earlier this year became involved with miscanthus. “The issue with the crop is the gap between the investment in drilling the crop, and the return. Once the crop is producing its full yield then the income is virtually guaranteed and so the typical packages we offer allow full repayment of capital and interest over the first five years.
We will provide finance for the crop planting and establishment, and the grant available from Natural England is paid to the farmer after receipt of invoices for the work done, so this then covers the early repayments. Repayment is made annually in five equal amounts and by the time the final payment is made the crop is in full production and very profitable. We have three basic propositions – one to just provide finance for the establishment, another to cover establishment costs and produce a basic income and the third option is to pay the equivalent of the profits that would have been made during the period from wheat yields, but the packages are all tailored to suit the individual situation and are quite flexible.” Matthew said that a considerable amount of interest from farmers has been caused by the doubts over the continuation of subsidies after 2013 for the more traditional crops and the general feeling within the industry that subsidies are more likely to be paid in the future for green or energy crops.
According to IEC the future for miscanthus in agriculture is very secure; “As well as the energy fuel market, there are other opportunities for the crop and we are sure that as it is grown more widely these will develop further. Miscanthus is an ideal option for many farm businesses, being planted between March and June, after most other crops and harvested from March to April, before most other crops and before traditional silage making starts, allowing better use of foragers and other farm machinery. Once cut it is left for six–eight weeks to dry before baling. “Wet weather after cutting has no effect on the crop, miscanthus when cut does not deteriorate at all. Once cut, forget about it until it’s 15 percent moisture – it is that easy,” says Keith. “The size preferred by power stations is four feet by four feet but it can be flexible if the farm’s own baler isn’t a four by four, the stations being keen to work with the farmers and accommodate their needs. Another big benefit of dealing with the power stations is that they arrange the transport and will clear the stacked bales as quickly as needed. This is great for spring cash flow, with bales leaving the farm in April being paid for in May and because the power stations are keen to deal direct with farmers this results in the maximum return for the grower with no middle man taking his cut.”
“Because miscanthus is a 20 year crop we say it is 20 times more important to get every detail right than with a one year crop. It will compete with a wheat margin on high yielding soil and will outperform most other crops on marginal land. It has moved on now and become a professional crop for professional growers and good farming practices are now the norm. We want farmers to be proud of the crop and as the supplier and planter we want to help farmers produce crops that will achieve maximum yield, and that we can be proud of too. Our own crops, drilled several years ago with an automatic planter look patchy and we always feel we are missing out on yield just because the same care wasn’t taken with the rhizomes that we bought from, and which were planted by, the previous supplier. We want better than that for our customers.”
“Evenly established miscanthus will become the norm – just like any other crop, but only if we take care of the rhizomes and precision plant. There isn’t an acre of sugar beet or maize that isn’t precision planted and that is the standard we are determined to bring to miscanthus.”
Above: The team is pictured (l-r) Ernie Wool, Andy Lee, Heather Clapton, Steve Bacon, Charlotte Barrett, Keith Wilson, Paul Bolton, James Seaton, Nigel Parton, and Gary Harrison