woody biomassFive renewable energy projects received NextGen energy grants from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) in 2015, with each focused on using woody biomass to replace propane as a heat source in areas of the state lacking access to natural gas.

Woody biomass, which consists of forest management byproducts, such as the limbs and leaves from trees and woody plants, is a major potential source of renewable bioenergy.

The grants are part of the MDA Agricultural Growth, Research and Innovation program, which provides funding to help create agricultural jobs and profitable businesses. Projects that received grants in 2015 include Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior, Chippewa in Cloquet, Whitewater Gardens Farm in Altura, Minnesota State University-Mankato, Grand Marais Public Utilities Commission in Grand Marais and Viking Co. in Albany.

“The selected projects cover various sectors of the state, as well as different technologies for biomass heating,” MDA Commissioner Dave Frederickson says.

Viking Co., a family farm that received a grant of just over $149,500, is conducting an experiment using two identical two-story broiler chicken facilities, each covering approximately 42,000 square feet.

Started in August 2015 and spanning over 23 months, the experiment compares and contrasts one barn heated with liquid propane against another barn heated with a wood-chip- fired forced air furnace. Both barns contain between 48,000 and 51,000 chickens, and each flock spends just over six weeks in the barns, where temperatures range from approximately 70 to 90 degrees during the course of their stay.

William Koenig, who manages Viking Co. with his brother, John, says the air heated by the wood- chip-fired furnace contains less carbon dioxide than air in the liquid propane-heated barn. Plus, chicken litter appears to stay drier due to lower humidity in the wood- chip-heated barn, which reduces ammonia production and lowers the risk of chickens developing respiratory problems. Data is collected daily to document and qualify the project goals.

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“The higher we can maintain oxygen in these barns and the drier we can keep them, the healthier and happier the chickens are going to be,” Koenig says.

Koenig also notes that wood chips appear to be cost competitive with liquid propane, and he strives to use wood chips from local loggers, chippers and other sources to power his operation.

“I’m exploring using materials from the state and connecting with people in Minnesota’s forestry industry, should this be proven to be an economical, usable and manageable system for many other farmers,” Koenig says. “This would allow those in the forestry industry to increase their industriousness and their income by being fuel suppliers, and most certainly benefit animal husbandry.”

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