Interest has spiked recently concerning the potential for sustainable and local production of perennial biomass crops to provide a reliable and high-performing supply of bedding material for the poultry industry. On November 15, 2016, a group of poultry producers, biomass growers, renewable energy advocates, and conservation agents convened in Lancaster, PA, to attend a "Biomass to Poultry Bedding Short-Course" led by the Penn State Extension Poultry team and aimed at this very topic. Technical information on the harvest and use of biomass materials as poultry bedding was shared, augmented with examples of new ventures with renewable bedding. This meeting allowed participants to come together to learn how each branch of this topic functions as part of the whole and see the work that has been done thus far in all sectors.
The broad range of topics covered various aspects of woody and herbaceous biomass production and harvest, use of the biomass as a poultry bedding material, and the potential to use the spent litter as fuel to heat poultry houses. Specific detail was offered regarding the production and harvesting of perennial biomass crops including switchgrass, miscanthus, shrub willow, and hybrid poplar, all of which are grown on agricultural cropland. Later, some specific producer and business perspectives were shared. A representative from REPREVE Renewables spoke to their company's model and successful efforts of growing thousands of acres of miscanthus for use as a renewable bedding material as well as the potential of these resources to be used in the poultry bedding market. Two broiler producers spoke to their litter burning systems and the potential they have seen with miscanthus, while a representative from Blue Flame Stokers discussed the use and success of biomass burners for poultry litter in the Northeast. There was also representation from the newly formed Association of Warm Season Grass Producers, whose goal is to establish a network of grass producers, companies, and supporting individuals to promote and develop market opportunities that incentivize growing warm season grasses in the region; the group sees poultry bedding as a key opportunity.
The conclusion of the meeting offered a review of the use and potential of renewable biomass bedding in the Northeast, but also highlighted remaining questions. Depending on management and logistics, in some cases, too-high production costs and delivered pricing of these new bedding materials can present challenges for those looking to sell these crops to poultry farmers with an eye on the bottom line. Second, the Northeast region is currently underdeveloped in terms of biomass crop acreage and widespread availability of processing equipment needed to produce a product suitable for poultry bedding. Finally, although the burning of biomass is a very promising venture, questions remain concerning the downstream fate of byproducts like ash or biochar product, either via disposal or value-added upgrading to other markets. This meeting's attendees and industry advocates now continue work that takes on these issues.
Follow up on these markets, businesses, and research projects by reaching out to Penn State Extension's Poultry team, Crops and Soils team, or Renewable and Alternative Energy team. You can also explore proceedings from the NEWBio Project or contact the Association of Warm Season Grass Producers.
Prepared by Sarah Wurzbacher and Amy Barkley, Penn State Extension Crawford County and Penn State Department of Animal Science