14 April 2000

Miscanthus fortunes rise

By John Burns

MISCANTHUS Elephant grass is a profitable reality – for those prepared to grow the crop for planting material at least.

Likely gross margin for contract multiplication is £1250/ha (£500/acre) a year, says West Country consultant agronomist and farmer David Croxton, who is also a major shareholder in crop developer Bical (Biomass Industrial Crops Ltd).

Demand for planting material could see bonuses on top of the contract price, says Bical, which is 60% owned by three shareholders and 40% owned by 24 farmers.

"The ideal rhizome grower is already used to precision work growing potatoes or sugar beet on deep soils with plenty of moisture," says Mr Croxton. "They will already have potato planters and potato or sugar beet harvesters, which can be used to lift the rhizome, and ideally a processing line as well."

Set-up costs include £3000/ha (£1200/acre) for rhizome to plant, plus fertiliser and herbicide in year one. Off-label approvals mean cereal herbicides can be used, but after 10 years experience of the crop Mr Croxton says he has not found any fungal disease.

The contract allows Bical to call for rhizome to be lifted after two or three years. To avoid spreading diseases and pests such as eelworms, soils are sampled before and after cropping and rhizomes power-washed before sale.

Volunteer trouble in following crops can be reduced by growing crops which allow glyphosate both pre-sowing and pre-harvest, says Mr Croxton. Linseed is ideal.

Although Miscanthus for industrial use can be grown on set-aside land, seed crops are not allowed. MAFF has yet to rule on whether rhizome multiplication is considered a seed crop, so Mr Croxton advises against growing for multiplication on set-aside. &#42

MISCANTHUSOPTIONS

&#8226 £1250/ha/year rhizome margin.

&#8226 2-3 year production.

&#8226 Commercial outlets too.

&#8226 £22/t contract for burning.

&#8226 15-20t/ha yields.

Commercial potential

Commercial Miscanthus contracts are emerging for a variety of outlets. Bical already has a contract to supply 8000t/year to the straw-burning power station near Ely, Cambs, at the cereal straw price of £22/t. It is also offering some contracts for producing Miscanthus in Cornwall for horse bedding, a market which could double the value per tonne and give a crop to rival wheat returns, Mr Croxton claims. Other outlets include game cover, chicken litter, specialist softboards and environmentally-benign materials for use in car manufacture. Paper production is a possibility. Yield from good soils with good rainfall, as in the West Country, can be 15-20t/ha (6-8t/acre). No crop is taken in year one and yield is only 50% in year two, with further growth depending on the amount of rhizome planted. Plantations could remain productive for at least 20 years. An ADAS crop at Buckfastleigh, Devon, was planted 15 years ago.

Yields of 20t/ha worth £22/t are now a commercial reality for miscanthus. Growers producing rhizome planting material could earn up to £1250/ha a year.

Real markets are

emerging for

miscanthus, says Bical.