Round hay bales in a field
Thursday 18th of July 2019 | Posted In: Use and Manage, Renewable energy, Comply

Sustainability compliance is far from just another hoop

It’s easy to think of sustainability compliance as just another hoop you need to jump through to get your Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) payment for your biomass project. Most RHI participants probably view it as an annoying inconvenience. However, if you fully engage in the process it can help you improve the efficiency of your farm operations, reduce energy use, save money and cut carbon emissions. 

Mick Drake of Nunnery Farm in Norfolk has properly embraced the process. He says: “Historically we haven’t taken much interest in which fields produce what, but the need to weigh hay bales as they come off the field is leading to interesting results. A field with a poor yield means something’s not right. In such circumstances we would test the soil for potash and pH. Low yields are often linked to poor soil not making the most of the nitrogen application. I’m no expert but it’s just what I’ve learned over time”.

Mr Drake has recently bought a moisture meter to measure the bale moisture content as the bales come off the field and after storage. The moisture meter cost around £300 but is already paying for itself. In some past years, Mr Drake has used electric fans to dry hay bales as he wasn’t sure if they were dry enough. This meant extra handling and additional energy costs. This year the moisture meter indicated he didn’t need to actively dry the fuel. He says: “Burning fuel with the correct moisture content has a colossal impact on the heat output”. It’s true, and the more efficiently your boiler can operate (which is a function of moisture content), the fewer bales you’ll need to get the same heat generation. This means that you might not need to register so much fuel and you’ll have more to sell or use on your farm for bedding.

We can provide SFR applicants with a Sustainability Recording Spreadsheet for recording production of straw bales and miscanthus chip and the heat output of their boiler. As long as they faithfully record the fuel used (a requirement of the RHI regulations) then this can be used to work out the efficiency of their boiler. A system achieving 70% efficiency would be par - lower than this is below par. If you are achieving less than 50% efficiency then you will be wasting fuel, producing more emissions than is good for the local environment and your boiler will need more maintenance and almost certainly have a shorter lifespan.

How many farmers know the efficiency of their tractor and trailer or baler? SFR requires users to provide this information. We accept estimates of diesel use but we actively encourage you to provide true results. If you do this you might find your tractor has a lower than expected mpg and might need a service which should help its performance, increase its lifetime and reduce exhaust emissions.

Mr Drake is so enthused by the new drive for resource efficiency that he has volunteered to run a trial along with his neighbour to look at the comparable diesel usage of one of his John Deere tractors and a Hesston baler producing round bales. Once farmers supply enough real data, then each applicant will be able to compare their own operations with best and worst practices – as opposed to the estimated data that is currently published on the website. This will allow farmers to take appropriate action if they find they are inefficient.

Giving more thought to average bale weight also pays dividends. The usual method contractors use to price the work is per bale. Mr Drake says “the old trick (contractors use) is don’t make the bales too tight and you will get more bales”. This will lead to additional transport for the farmer, but some boiler manufacturers actually recommend loose bales to get the correct burn and reduce emissions. In addition, if the moisture content is a little higher than normal, due to inclement weather at the time of harvest, a loose bale will dry better because of the greater proportion of air space within.

If you are baling yourself the tendency might be to go for a tight bale. This might save on transport but could lead to inefficient drying and combustion with the result that you end up burning more bales. Of course, if you are transporting the bales any great distance to a customer you’ll want a tighter bale but you should talk with your customer and produce the best quality for their requirement and charge accordingly. You’ll be doing right by them and by the environment.

So surprise, surprise – SFR registration can not only keep you on the right side of the Ofgem auditor but could also help make your farm more efficient and environmentally friendly. That sounds like a big win!