Crop Spotlight: Powering Biofuels with Corn, Soy and Sugar Cane
May 2, 2023
As fossil fuels grow more scarce, many people are looking towards more sustainable forms of energy. Enter: biofuels. Produced from various forms of biomass, biofuel offers serious benefits: it’s renewable and easier to source, which makes it less vulnerable to supply shortages. Plus, since it typically uses waste products such as inedible fats, oils and greases or residuals such as soy oil, it’s more friendly to the environment.
Biofuels provide advantages for growers, too. Mandates such as the Renewable Fuel Standard Program in the United States and the Biofuels Directive in the European Union already increased demand for certain crops across the world. As more applications for biofuels are discovered, that demand can only grow. Plant-derived ethanol is already found in 98% of American gasoline. Biodiesel and renewable diesel are already widely available as drop-in fuels. And biomass-derived Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) will soon be a viable source of energy.
A sustainable opportunity
The rise of biofuels puts growers at the forefront of a sustainable energy boom. To gain an advantage in the biofuel market, it’s important to pick the right crops for your fields and use the right methods to boost ROI. There are many crops that can be converted into biofuel; let’s take a look at some of the most prominent ones.
Corn is king
The sheer scale of corn farming already makes it one of the largest sources of biofuel in the United States. Americans grow a lot of corn—in 2019 alone, they planted enough corn to fill 69 million football fields. It’s also high in starch, making it excellent for ethanol production. That ethanol can be easily blended with gasoline, reducing the amount of oil required per mile in vehicles. Add up these factors and it’s clear corn is an excellent source of energy.
Soar with soy
With its rich with oil content (around 20%), soy is another attractive go-to option for growers. After selling the soymeal, growers can sell the oil for fuel, too, getting more useful material from every crop. It’s also easy to integrate into the existing energy market; soybean-based biodiesel can run in many existing diesel engines without modifications. Even better, as stated above, it has excellent potential as sustainable aviation fuel. And, like corn, it’s common. Growers have plenty of experience with soybeans; biofuel production gives them another avenue for profit with them.
Add a little sugar
Sugar cane is a high-yield, cost-effective source of biofuel. It has a low input requirement in terms of energy and resources. It also provides a two-for-one energy bonus: its cellulosic biomass and the resulting sugar can both be processed into fuel, yielding more energy per acre. From a sustainability standpoint, sugar cane itself is virtually carbon-neutral. As agricultural practices become more renewable, it can actually offset greenhouse gas emissions from other crops.
Experiment with others
Corn,soybeans and sugar cane may be some of the largest sources of biofuel, but they’re not the only ones. Crops such as canola, sunflowers, sweet sorghum and others are all promising sources of feedstock for biofuels.
Of course, as demand for these crops increases, consistently high yields become even more important. In a sometimes-uncertain growing environment, growers can gain an edge over the competition by embracing some best practices.
Meet the market, no matter what
Remember those millions of football fields’ worth of corn in 2019? Well, those yields were actually lower than those in 2018…and then 2021 yields were the second highest on record. Similarly, soy production dipped in 2018–2019 before rising to record highs in 2020. Such fluctuations in productivity can make it challenging to consistently meet the increased demands of a biofuel market. Fortunately, there are steps growers can take that can greatly increase your yield. That way, you can focus less on maintaining productivity and more on the ways you can benefit from biofuel. Keep these methods in mind.
Pick the right crop
Remember, you’ll get the best yield when you plant crops best-suited to your land. It’s okay if that’s not corn, soy or sugar cane—they’re popular options for biofuel production, but they’re not the only ones. Can you grow canola? How about miscanthus? Get as much information about your soil and conditions as possible to make an informed decision.
Irrigate with precision
No matter the crop you grow, it will have specific irrigation needs. Center pivot irrigation solutions like Zimmatic™ systems meet those needs. With center pivot irrigation, water and chemicals are distributed with more uniformity, ensuring every inch of your crop gets the irrigation it needs. Plus, your pivot system can work in tandem with technology solutions such as Zimmatic Precision VRI (variable rate irrigation) and FieldNET™ Advisor, which custom-tailor irrigation solutions to your field’s conditions and the needs of your crop. Rather than relying on flood irrigation, in which you flood one part of the field and let that water flow wherever trenches take it, you can control where water flows and where fertilizer settles.
Fertigate with manure
Biofuels are about sustainability—using every last bit of biomass possible, turning waste back into profit. And one of the most abundant sources of biomass in agriculture is cattle manure. It’s an old standby for fertilizing crops and a valuable resource for fueling the future and the latest trend in fertigation. Fertigation–enriching water as it runs through your irrigation system– is a well-established way to distribute fertilizer. Farmers are increasingly turning to manure for this. It’s abundant and rich in nutrients. By running manure-rich water through your pivots, you can fertilize and irrigate at the same time, again using all your resources in the most efficient way possible.
Fuel the future
There will always be a place for diesel-powered vehicles, but demand for biofuels will only increase as time goes on. The world is seeking energy solutions that are easier to find, cheaper to produce and cleaner to use. Growers can provide those solutions, earning great ROI and contributing to a healthier future at the same time.
Speak to your nearest Zimmatic dealer about FieldNET™ and Zimmatic irrigation solutions now; you never know what your crops might fuel in the future!