Giant Miscanthus eyed as long-term crop, chicken house bedding
Studied for years for a variety of uses, a perennial grass is gaining momentum as an alternative bedding source in poultry houses.
Two growers have made substantial investments in planting hundreds of acres of Giant Miscanthus, and one Delmarva poultry company has steadily increased its use in poultry houses in the last three years.
Giant Miscanthus is a sterile hybrid grass that can reach heights of 12 feet or more in its third year after planting, producing eight to 10 tons of biomass per acre.
Plantings are said to remain productive for 15-30 years, and the crop is often touted for requiring fewer inputs than the area’s traditional commodity crops.
As a crop, proponents say it is good for carbon sequestration, filtering nutrients from groundwater and biodiversity of wildlife.
As a bedding source, they say it is highly absorbent and has shown improvements in quality of chicken paws, bird livability and house floor dryness.
This fall, Mountaire Farms, which used about 300,000 cubic feet of miscanthus bedding last year, is planning to plant 74 acres of the grass on its Millsboro farm and is partnering with researchers from the University of Maryland and U.S. Geological Service to track the crop’s benefit to soil health and the environment.
“We think we’re going to have a great great story to tell,” said Bill Massey, Mountaire’s vice president of live operations.
In Caroline County, Md., David Tribbett started growing miscanthus five years ago planting it along woodlines where traditional row crops are less productive due to shade and wildlife damage. He said he was interested in it as a way to diversify his farm and use as a feedstock for his compost business, Mid-Atlantic Organic Resource Company.
His confidence in the crop has only increased and he’s since planted it over entire fields and this year he planted it on irrigated ground.
Including what he plans to plant this fall, he will have about 500 acres of miscanthus with plans to add 600 more acres in the next two years.
After the grass is established in its first year, Tribbett said he won’t spray herbicide or pesticide again, putting the land on track for USDA Organic certification, which “just opens up more opportunities down the road.”
He said he applies his company’s compost, which also uses hatchery waste from integrators in the region, to the fields after harvest.
“It’s a big circle that all the companies are on board and it’s going to benefit everything in the whole end,” Tribbett said.
In Dorchester County, John Luthy is growing more than 1,000 acres of miscanthus. He said he was encouraged by a friend in the poultry industry to start growing it two years ago and has plans to plant more and put up barns for storing the harvested chopped grass before it’s taken to poultry houses.
“I’m in it long term,” Luthy said. “It’s definitely a big investment and a long-term commitment. I think it’s just a great crop to grow.”
He said the cost of planting and getting the crop started is about twice that of planting corn but expects the inputs to fall considerably in the decades to come. He also found it a good option due to increased deer damage to his grain and soybean crops.
“Where it really shines is where you have good ground but the deer damage is so great because deer don’t eat this,” Luthy said.
The growers are partnering with with AGgrow Tech, based in Greensboro, N.C., which has the license to market the patented Freedom Miscanthus root stock, developed at Mississippi State University, to growers. AGgrow Tech also developed custom equipment to harvest, process and plant the rhizome. Harvesting the mature grass each year is done from January to March using silage chopping equipment.
With production in eight states, AGgrow Tech also markets miscanthus for industrial absorbents, textiles, biofuel, erosion control, and landscaping uses.
Travis Hedrick, CEO of AGgrow Tech, said the poultry market has been a good fit for miscanthus. In 2017, the company announced the planting of 2,300 acres of miscanthus in North Carolina to supply 1.8 million cubic feet of bedding to Sanderson Farms.
Hedrick said they also work with other poultry companies nationwide for using miscanthus for poultry bedding.
“We basically link the farmer to the downstream customer,” Hedrick said. “Not only is it a market but it has farmers associated with it. From an environmental standpoint, it’s a great practice for the Eastern Shore.”
Massey said Mountaire has been studying miscanthus as a bedding material in poultry houses for six years, starting at its North Carolina complex and then using it for “touch up” work in some Delmarva poultry houses where additional bedding was warranted.
Three years ago, they contracted with Delmarva farmers to grow miscanthus for bedding use. In that time, the company has increased from using about 100 acres to 1,000 acres worth of the crop, Massey said, covering about 8 percent of its annual bedding needs on Delmarva.
“We’re just rolling into it,” Massey said.
He said the company’s interest in miscanthus has increased as wood byproducts on the peninsula have become more difficult to source with fewer wood mills operating. Wood by-products will continue to be the company’s dominant bedding source, he said, but over several years, miscanthus could hold a much larger share.
“It has the potential to replace 40 to 50 percent of our bedding needs annually,” Massey said.
For all its promoted benefits, those involved in growing the crop locally said it’s important not to rush the crop’s progress. With the long-term nature of the crop, prospective growers need confidence that demand for it will exist in the years to come from multiple outlets.
“You can’t let the crop get ahead of the market,” Massey said.
Tribbett and Luthy both said miscanthus made sense in their respective operations because they already had some of the components to handle it, like storage, trucking and other outlets for the grass.
“I wanted to make sure I can build a market with miscanthus and then bring other farmers on board,” Tribbett said. “We’ve got a lot of hopes for the plant.”
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