Conference Highlights Growing Industry

A group of over 30 farmers from across Northern Ireland recently attended anaerobic digestion (AD) conferences in Omagh and Moira to learn about policy, crop agronomy and crop ensiling.

The event was organised by agricultural specialists Morton’s of Banbridge and guest speakers included John Burgess, KWS UK Ltd, Dr Thom Koller, ADBA, John Bax, Biotal and Jonathan Dunn, Morton’s.

The conference offered the opportunity for attendees to hear about the latest technical and policy developments and to share experiences on how to maximise revenues through raising operational performance.

AD is the process whereby bacteria break down organic material in the absence of air, yielding a biogas containing methane. The methane can be burned for heat or electricity generation. The solid residue of the AD process can be used as a soil conditioner, however its properties depend on the AD feedstock used. The UK target is 15% of all energy requirements based on renewable sources by 2020.

Opening the event, John Burgess, KWS Ltd discussed how operators of AD systems could improve performance levels by moving to hybrid rye varieties carrying more grains per ear. According to John, growers should focus on grains per ear, rather than plant height to increase wholecrop yields: “There is a balance to be had between plant height and grains per ear when seeking to maximise wholecrop yields. But with the ear contributing roughly 50% of the final yield variety choice and diligent use of plant growth regulators are essential.”

Meanwhile Dr Thom Koller, ADBA stressed how the AD industry holds a strategically important position in both the waste management and agricultural sectors, with the market constantly evolving to meet the needs and challenges of today: “There has been quick growth in Northern Ireland in recent years in AD, and NI now has more plants per capita than in England, Scotland or Wales. Whether this continues relies on financial incentives and in uncertain times, there is perhaps one certainty: post-Brexit, most growers will eventually receive less financial support from government.”

John Bax, Biotal advised that for an AD plant, silage must be stable across the year and to make good quality silage, it’s crucial to ‘drop pH of ensiled crop as quickly as possible and exclude oxygen’. Otherwise, there is a greater risk of mycotoxins, spoilage – which can be as high as fifteen percent – and reduced gas yield. Part of this is choosing a crop specific additive such as Biotal’s Energysil that will not only produce a good fermentation but a profile that will help in the methanogenesis pathway and increase gas yield.

Jonathan Dunn then looked at the choice of grass species and varieties and how they fitted their suitability for use in AD units. He pointed out that dry matter yield and quality were paramount to the production process, with specific advantages offered by Aber high sugar grasses such as AberGain, AberWolf and AberEcho.

Closing the event, Ray Morrison, Morton’s General Manager, said: “On behalf of the Morton’s technical team I would like to thank our speakers for an extremely informative update on AD. As fully trained agronomists, Morton’s are committed to keeping our team and ultimately our farmer customers up to date with the latest developments.”