Well to date the mixture of sun and rain we have had has been great for the Miscanthus and it is all looking very well, in fact it stands out as a sea of vibrant green amongst the golden corn fields. The areas that we were not able to cut due to the ground being too wet to hold the cutters are now continuing to grow at the same rate as the rest of the field, with the new cane growing up through last year’s crop.
This leads me on to this month’s topic of the issues, problems and challenges we have had with our Miscanthus. We planted our first field 10 years ago, using the Energy Crops Scheme for planting which all helped with the input costs and at that time we did this in conjunction with Bical.
One of the main issues we have with our crop is that due to the type of planters that were used ‘back then’ which were converted trailers with a belt system to take the rhizome down the to be planted, very Heath Robinson. At times these blocked and if the blockage was not picked up and cleared quickly, then gaps were left. These gaps have become known as 4×4 gaps where you have enough space to park a 4×4 and in places a 4×4 with a trailer!
These gaps present a number of issues:
- They reduce your crop yield and as this crop is planted for 20 years this becomes more significant over time.
- It allows weeds to grow in these patches due to the lack of leaf cover to suppress them and they also compete for water and look untidy. I am led to believe that the method and technology for planting has moved on significantly in the last 10 years and that Precision hand planting is now the more favoured method.
One way to fill in these gap is to ‘re-generate’ the crop and there are a number of ways to do this. We ripped up the existing crop with a deep tine cultivator, power harrowed it twice the 2nd time at 90o to the first, this was then followed with a heavy roll to push the rhizome back down. You have to ensure that the rhizome is not left on the top as the UV light will kill it, so rolling or using a press behind will help. The drawback of doing this is that the crop reverts to being a first year crop and you will lose the following season’s harvest. Therefore you have to weigh up one seasons loss against the volume you are losing over the lifetime of the crop.
In the first couple of years hares and rabbits can cause significant damage to the 1st year’s growth, so it becomes important to control them or at least to consider fencing vulnerable fields. After the first year they do not seem to present the same level of threat to the crop. In fact, I have been surprised just how many hares I have seen in ours. I think that this is partly due to the fact that while we grew grain we were a prime target for local dog men who wanted to have a run on a hare. Due to the timing and the way in which Miscanthus grows there is little opportunity for them as once we get to late April the crop is too high for them to see a ‘run’ and so they don’t come around.
The biggest challenge we had was Bical folding in 2007 and we are still reminded of this as that year’s crop was not collected from the farm and the remains of rotten heaps are still visible. The following year’s crop sat in stacks for 12 months and essentially we ended up sending 2 years together to Eley power station.
We survived these difficult years and still feel that for us it was the right crop at the right time. As for the market for biomass, well that is only set to grow with the introduction RHI and the use of biomass in plastics to aid biodegradability. There are also now a number of established companies buying miscanthus for bedding and biomass fuel, International Energy Crops and Terravesta to name but a couple.