Poultry bedding is a new market opportunity for growers of perennial warm season grasses, and some research has been done and is underway that explores this opportunity. Several studies have examined the performance of warm season grass as bedding, as an alternative to traditional pine shavings. For example, in the study “On-farm assessment of switchgrass bedding’ J. R. Moyle,, L. A. Brooks, B. A. McCrea and W. R. Brown studied the feasibility of using switchgrass as an alternative bedding material in commercial production houses over consecutive flocks. The use of warm season grass as bedding may have benefits over traditional sawdust bedding. J.D. Davis , J.L. Purswell , E.P. Columbus and A.S. Kiess, in their study “Evaluation of Chopped Switchgrass as a Litter Material” found that body weight, body weight gain, feed consumption, feed conversion, carcass weights and mortality were not different between switchgrass bedded poultry and traditional pine shaving-bedded poultry. However, the incidence of foot pad dermatitis was significantly decreased with switchgrass litter. In the 2016 SARE Graduate Student Grant entitled “Renewable alternative bedding for commercial broiler chicken production”, Amy Meyer of Penn State will compare willow and switchgrass bedding in a poultry house. The bedding materials will be processed at the poultry farm and not in Page 3 of 10 the field. Preliminary results have demonstrated that chopped perennial grasses perform very well as bedding for poultry. Similarly, the University of Delaware Extension and the University of Maryland Extension, in collaboration with the Conservancy and Chester River Association (CRA), and Perdue poultry, conducted several field trials to study the viability of switchgrass as an alternative bedding material. These tests involved delivering baled, unchopped material to poultry farms, where it was ground at the point of use, resulting in significant dust generation and additional complexity to the already busy schedule of the poultry farmers. Commercial success of perennial grasses for bedding likely depends on the cost effective collection and delivery of pre-chopped material in a format that is easy for the poultry farmer to use, both for large poultry operations that seek to minimize labor costs, and for smaller farmers who would not be able to justify the cost of chopping equipment or the associated labor and hassle. Chopping grasses is not a new phenomenon, and there is a variety of implements and devices available on the market to carry out this task.
However, chopped grasses are almost exclusively used on-site, and are generally designed for forage / animal feed systems. The unique needs for bedding production (typically a drier and smaller sized product), have yet to be studied, and guidance on this process would be invaluable for farmers looking to produce switchgrass bedding for poultry bedding. This need has not gone unnoticed, however, and a Value Added Producer Grant has just been awarded to Ernst Seed will to explore large-scale in field preparation of perennial grasses for poultry bedding. This study will utilize high end equipment to chop and bale warm season grass for shipment. This is a valuable study and has merit for farms with large acreage able to support the use of large equipment, but this approach will not work for small plots or marginal land, which should be the focus of switchgrass production in the region. Thus, an opportunity and need exists to find lower cost, smaller scale, locally appropriate methods for producing this sustainable bedding material. This information would be a valuable tool for the development of switchgrass production in the region, leading to economic and environmental benefits for the region in the form of increased income to farmers and the positive impacts on water quality, soil quality and wildlife habitat that are associated with native perennial warm season grasses.
If instead, the warm season grass could be chopped at the time of harvest, dust and crop litter would
remain on the field rather than accumulating at a central processing location, circumventing some of
the safety hazards otherwise presented. But even after processing, moving low-density chopped
bedding material to an end user is difficult for the farmer to do in a logistically and economically
efficient way. Strategies are needed to improve both processing and transportation logistics.
Specialized baling machinery is currently being developed and tested to accomplish in-field
chopping and densification of warm season grasses, but these high-tech solutions may be too
expensive for smaller-scale warm season grass producers. Lower-tech, lower-cost approaches are
needed for those producers to gain footholds in a promising market.
This project will utilize existing equipment that a small farmer would consider accessible and
affordable to process warm season grass for poultry bedding. We will use this work to identify
solutions that not only prioritize in-field chopping for the reasons outlined above, but which also
eliminate the need for baling and streamline the processing logistics. This will reduce the equipment,
time, and labor costs associated with the processing requirements for this market.
Examining the fields of warm season grass in March I found the winter matted the crop more than usual.
Because of the matting, standard mowing equipment would not cut the grass. We used a New Deal flail cutter. The knives of the machine lift the grass off the ground and cut it into 6”-12” pieces.
Mowing occurred from April 14 till April 16. There was rain April 17 delaying the raking process. There was rain almost every other day up through May 3. As a result raking was required numerous times to dry the material for baling.
We used a thee wheel “wheel rake” to rake the grass into windrows. Initially, two mowing rows were combined into a single windrow. When raking to dry the rained on grass, we waited until mid-afternoon. That allowed the material to dry on top. Raking tuned the material so it would dry on the bottom.
We intended to use round balers to collect the material from the field. Because of the rain and excess raking the material became brittle. It would break and not form into round balers. We used a New Holland small square baler to collect the grass. This meant an increase in manual labor. The small bales were loaded and unloaded by hand. Because of the brittle nature of the grass, more was left on the ground in the field. We were however, able to collect enough to for processing. And additional material was provided by the participating farmers.
Tub Grinding (Hartpence Farm)
We hauled small square bales from Wood Crest Farm to the Hartpence where the tub grinder was located. Using a front end loader bucket bales were fed into the tub grinder. We were able to feed 6 bales at a time. The tub grinder was equipped with a ¾” screen. The grass was ground until it was small enough to pass through the ¾” openings. From the grinder, a conveyer moved the grass to a forage wagons. The forage wagons were off loaded into super sacksg and the floor of the build housing the paper baler. Samples of the material were sent to Penn State University for particle analysis.
Paper Baler (Hartpence Farm)
This machine is normally used to package shredded paper for shipment to a recycling facility. The grass material for this process came from Wood Crest Farm. We ran it through the tub grinder into a forage wagon and unloaded it to the floor of the building housing the paper baler. Using a front end loader, the shredded grass was loaded into the hopper of the machine. The machine compressed the grass. 6 wire ties held the bale together. The finished bale weighed 1514 pounds. Even though the grass was shredded to less than 2″ in length, very little came off the bale. The fork lift moved the bale to a storage building. Bale integrity was fine. There would be no problem moving a covered bale to a poultry farm location.
Hammer Mill (Reggie Farm)
Len Reggie provided material to run this procedure. Small square bales were sent by conveyor into a small bale buster. From the bale buster they entered a hammer mill. The mill was equipped with a ¾” screen. Hammers pounded the grass until it was small enough to pass through the screen. The hammer mill used a fan to push the material to a cyclone separator. The cyclone separator moved the air and dust outside and dropped the hammered grass into a super sack. Samples of the material were sent to Penn State University for particle analysis.
Through a process of trial and error, we learned a super sack could hold 7 hammered bales. The bales all weighed slightly less than 30 pounds. Thus, a super sack filled with hammered grass weighed about 200 pounds. The material moisture tested at only 6.2%. Moisture was not a major factor in the weight of the bag. The first, single operator, 7 bale run took 13 minutes 35 seconds to complete. We completed an additional 6 runs. A single operator was able to process 1500 pounds of material in about 1 hour.
Portable Grain Mill (McDonnell Farm)
Frank McDonnell provided material to run this procedure. The machine was designed to process grain. It is totally self-contained and portable. It will process other materials. It handled grass very well. Frank hand fed material onto the conveyor. He was careful not to load the conveyor with too much material. It was easy to clog the opening to the machines grinder. The unit has 8 different size screens. Frank loaded a ¼” screen. Augers and air moved the grass through the machine to the discharge port. From the grinder, the grass went into a self-unloading wagon. From the wagon, a coveyor moved the grass to a suspended funnel above a super sack. The filled sack was stored indoors.
Warm season grass that is matted down from the Winter weather can be cut efficiently with a New Deal flail cutter. When warm season grass is rained on and dried repeatedly it becomes very brittle and difficult to bale.
The screen in the grain mill at the McDonnell Farm was too small. The inline cyclone seperator was inefficient. This resulted in excessive dust in the bedding. The 4H group using the bedding complained about the dust.
Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary
On going; www.awsgp.org is the web address of The Association of Warm Season Grass Producers (AWSGP). Information about the SARE project is presented there. Details about the project are included in emails sent to Association participants.
April 12, 2017 International Biomass Conference; Minneapolis, Minnesota I did a presevntation at this event. The presentation included a portion on the SARE project. There were about 65 in the audience.
June 24, 2017 Wood Crest Farm, Wapwallopen, PA; I did a presentation discussing the state of the Farmer Grant, explaining the challenges and successes todate. I listed the additional tasks required to complete the process. There were 20 in attendance. June-24-Membership-Meeting
August 15, 16, and 17, 2017 Ag Progress Days, Pennsylvania Futrnace, PA; Members of The Association of Warm Season Grass Producers (AWSGP) participating in the SARE Project spoke with attendees describing warm season grass poultry bedding. They reported talking to over 150 attendees.
September 12, 2017 Wood Crest Farm, Wapwallopen, PA; I hosted a MABEX tour group at the farm. I spoke about the many uses of warm season grass including a description of the SARE Project and our progress to date. There were 14 on the tour.
September 13, 2017 MABEX Conference, State College PA; I did a presentation describingThe Association of Warm Season Grass Producers (AWSGP). As part of that presentation, I discussed the SARE Project and the advantages of warm season grass poultry bedding. There were about 70 in the audience.