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To maximize sugarcane harvesting, use the right blade

Published January 17, 2018
four blades
Four blades were tested to cut sugarcane. Left to right: straight, angled, serrated, and straight with laser clad underside. The serrated blade performed best.

URBANA, Ill. – You wouldn’t use the same knife to cut through a thick steak as you would to slice an angel food cake, right? Although that may be a ridiculous comparison, the same principle holds true when harvesting various crops. One blade doesn’t slice all. Researchers at the University of Illinois tested four blades to find the one that most efficiently cuts sugarcane.

“We were initially looking at harvesting miscanthus, switchgrass, and other biomass crops that use rotary cutters,” says Alan Hansen, lead author on the study and interim head of the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering in the College of Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences at U of I. “A standard straight blade creates an impact cut. But we wondered if the blade was slightly angled, if it would create more of a slicing action. We wanted to see if it was a better quality cut using a different shape. And if it used less energy in the cutting process.”

Hansen and his team connected with Kondex Corporation, a company that manufactures blades in the United States, to have blades made to match their specifications. Kondex also supplied two additional blades that they had designed themselves to include in the research project and obtain unbiased testing of the blades.

The research was conducted on a sugarcane field near Edgard, Louisiana. Four blade designs were tested: a conventional straight blade with a zero degree angle; a 30 degree angled blade; a serrated blade; and a straight blade with laser cladding on the back. The blades were evaluated for the quality of the cut and how much the blades wore down.

After harvesting the sugarcane, several characteristics were recorded: stem density, stem diameter at cutting height, stubble height, stem damage, and damage to the root system.

“Sugarcane relies on a regrowth called ratooning. It ratoons for four years. In the fifth year, the farmer replants.” “In order for the regrowth to take place, you need to cut it with the least amount of damage to the stem. If you don’t get a good clean cut, the stalk can shatter and inhibits the regrowth. Ideally, you want as clean a cut as possible and as close to the ground as possible so that the maximum amount of stalk is harvested. It’s quite a challenge to control the cutting blade height as the harvesting machine is running through the field because the ground isn’t uniformly flat.”

Hansen says the Louisiana farmer had already modified his harvester so that the blades were at an angle. “This means that when we installed the newly manufactured angled-edge blades, they were at an even greater angle.”

Although the researchers expected the angled blade to perform better, the angled blade actually caused the greatest damage to the sugarcane stems and the roots.

The serrated edged blade caused the least stem damage overall. The laser clad and straight blades fell in the middle.

Hansen says research to determine the best blade to harvest sugarcane grew out of a larger project that was exploring engineering solutions for biomass feedstock production. That project was divided into five tasks: pre-harvesting, harvesting, transport, storage, and a systems umbrella.

It may be surprising to learn that the United States is the world’s fifth largest producer of sugar. It is primarily produced from sugarcane grown in Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, and Texas.

Watch a short video of sugarcane being harvested, produced by the Energy Biosciences Institute.

The study, “Effect of four base cutter blade designs on sugarcane stem cut quality,” is published in American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers. The research was conducted by Md Abdul Momin, Paul Wempe, Tony Grift, and Alan Hansen.

This project was funded by the Energy Biosciences Institute of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The authors would like to thank Kondex Corporation for providing the cutting blades, Brandon Gravois from Edgard, Louisiana, for his support in conducting the field experiments on his farm, and Reajul Alam Chowdhury for his help with the statistical analysis of the data.

Alan Hansen is a professor and interim head of the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering in the College of Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois.


USDA reports provide some surprises

Published January 16, 2018

URBANA, Ill. – The USDA released a set of reports on Jan.12 containing information with implications for corn and soybean prices in 2018. The National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) released the final estimates of the 2017 U.S. corn and soybean crops and estimates of the stocks of corn and soybeans in storage as of Dec.1, 2017.  Additionally, the World Agricultural Outlook Board reports provide new forecasts for global supply and consumption levels during the 2017-18 marketing year.

The following discussion from University of Illinois agricultural economist Todd Hubbs recaps the information contained in the USDA reports and the price implications associated with them for corn and soybeans. 

“Soybean prices moved higher after the release of the reports on a lower national average yield,” Hubbs says. “An average U.S. soybean yield of 49.1 bushels per acre is 0.4 bushels lower than the previous forecast and trade expectations. The soybean production estimate for the United States in 2017 is 4.392 billion bushels, down 33 million bushels from the December forecast. The harvested acreage estimate of 89.5 million acres is up slightly from the previous forecast. Dec.1 soybean stocks of 3.157 billion bushels came in 22 million bushels below trade expectations and 258 million bushels larger than last year.”

According to Hubbs, the World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates report witnessed changes in the forecasts for major soybean consumption categories projected in the December report. 

“The soybean crush forecast increased 10 million bushels to 1.95 billion bushels, reflecting a strong start to soybean crush levels in the first quarter of the marketing year,” Hubbs says. “Export forecast levels decreased 65 million bushels to 2.16 billion bushels for the marketing year. The forecast for total use is 4.248 billion bushels. At 470 million bushels, the ending stocks forecast increased 25 million bushels, despite lower production, on weaker soybean exports.  The forecast for the U.S. marketing year average price is in the range of $8.80 - $9.80 per bushel, compared to last month’s projection of $8.60 - $10.00.”

World production forecasts for the marketing year increased slightly to 12.81 billion bushels on a larger Brazilian crop, Hubbs says. The Brazilian soybean production forecast increased by 73.48 million bushels over the December forecast to 4.04 billion bushels. The Argentinian soybean production forecast decreased by 36.7 million bushels to 2.06 billion bushels on reports of delayed planting and dry weather in many regions.

“The Brazilian soybean export forecast is raised 55 million bushels, reflecting the increased crop production levels,” Hubbs says. “Forecasts for Brazil and Argentina soybean exports are set at 2.77 billion bushels over the marketing year, up 19 million bushels from last marketing year’s estimate.”

Corn prices showed a muted response to the overall bearish news contained in the reports, Hubbs says.  The estimate for corn production in the U.S. in 2017 came in at 14.60 billion bushels. Production is up 26 million bushels from the previous forecast on higher national average yields. Average corn yield of 176.6 bushels per acre is 1.2 bushels higher than the previous forecast. The harvested acreage estimate of 82.7 million acres is down from the November forecast of 83.1 million acres. Dec. 1 corn stocks came in at 12.52 billion bushels. 

“The estimate is 90 million bushels above trade expectations and indicates a total disappearance of 4.39 billion bushels in the first quarter of the marketing year, 122 million bushels lower than the first quarter of the 2016-17 marketing year,” Hubbs says.

According to Hubbs, the WASDE report for U.S. corn forecast during 2017-18 reflected the impact of higher corn production levels.  At 5.55 billion bushels, the forecast for corn feed use and residual moved lower by 25 million bushels. The corn use for ethanol forecast stayed steady at 5.525 billion bushels for the marketing year. The forecast for feed, seed and industrial uses other than ethanol increased 10 million bushels for the marketing year to 1.47 billion bushels, partially offsetting the lower feed and residual number. The forecast for corn exports maintained the 1.925 billion bushels forecast in December despite weak export numbers through the first four months of the marketing year. Ending stocks forecast came in at 2.477 billion bushels for the 2017-18 marketing year, 40 million bushels higher than the December forecast. The lower end of the range for the U.S. marketing year average price increased by 5 cents from the December projection to a projected in a range of $2.95 - $3.55 per bushel.

“World supply projections for corn in the 2017-18 marketing year moved slightly lower due to a reduction in Southeast Asia and former Soviet Union production numbers that offset the increase in U.S. production levels,” Hubbs says. “Brazil’s corn production forecast stayed at 3.74 billion bushels. For the marketing year, Argentinian production forecasts stayed at 1.65 billion bushels despite numerous reports indicating the possibility of trouble with planting and soil moisture issues in many corn-growing areas of Argentina. The forecast for Argentina and Brazil corn exports added 100 million bushels during the 2017-18 marketing year above the 2016-17 estimates of 2.38 billion bushels. Given the current level forecast for South American exports, the evolution of crop conditions in the region may have implications for corn price dynamics in 2018.”

Hubbs adds that the reports provide support for soybean prices in the short term while corn prices should experience some weakness but stay in the range witnessed over the last few months, despite the larger crop and growing ending stocks.

“Corn and soybeans prices, in the near term, will reflect the pace of consumption and crop prospects in South America,” Hubbs says. “Corn prices will likely average in the middle to lower part of the range of the USDA’s projection while soybean prices show the potential for falling into the lower half of the projected range as we move through the marketing year.”



In sweet corn, workhorses win

Published January 16, 2018
sweet corn processing plant

URBANA, Ill. – When deciding which sweet corn hybrids to plant, vegetable processors need to consider whether they want their contract growers using a workhorse or a racehorse. Is it better to choose a hybrid with exceptional yields under ideal growing conditions (i.e., the racehorse) or one that performs consistently well across ideal and less-than-ideal conditions (i.e., the workhorse)? New research from the University of Illinois suggests the workhorse is the winner in processing sweet corn.

“Experts say the ideal cultivar would have exceptional yield regardless of the weather, and across a large area, but it’s unknown if such cultivars are commercially available,” says Marty Williams, an ecologist with the Department of Crop Sciences at U of I and USDA-ARS.

Williams says a number of crops have been studied for yield stability, a cultivar’s ability to produce consistent yields across inconsistent environments. The work has resulted in several recommendations about where to grow specific cultivars for the best results.

“Stability analysis is valuable, particularly given the increased weather variability we’re facing. However, previous studies always stopped with recommendations. No one appears to have quantified if such recommendations are followed. Our work is about how yield stability of individual hybrids actually relates to hybrid adoption in sweet corn,” he says. Although the focus is on sweet corn, the study is the first to link a cultivar’s yield stability with adoption in any crop.

Williams obtained data from an anonymous vegetable processing company, representing more than a decade of sweet corn hybrid assessment trials across the upper Midwest and the Pacific Northwest. He pulled the number of cases produced per acre – a yield metric important to processors that he calls ”case production” – from each trial, and then incorporated environmental data to calculate yield stability for 12 of the most commonly planted hybrids grown for processing.

Performance of each hybrid was related to all other hybrids across a wide range of growing conditions. This enabled Williams to assign each hybrid to categories of high, average, and low stability and high, average, and low yield. He found 10 hybrids were average for both stability and yield. A few hybrids had above-average yield or above-average stability, but none had both, suggesting the ”ideal” sweet corn hybrid does not yet exist.

Williams then analyzed another dataset representing nearly 15,000 processing sweet corn fields over a period of 20 years. He was able to calculate the acreage planted in each of the 12 hybrids from the hybrid assessment trial. Those 12 hybrids accounted for most of the acreage planted to sweet corn over the 20-year period for the processor.

Most hybrids accounted for 1 to 4 percent of the planted acreage. However, he found a single hybrid was planted on disproportionately more acres: 31.2 percent, to be exact. That hybrid was the only one exhibiting above-average stability across variable growing conditions.

In processing sweet corn, vegetable processors – not growers – choose the hybrid for each field. Processors need hybrids that lend themselves to machine harvest, ears that hold up to processing, and kernels that maintain quality as a finished product. Williams says vegetable processors also consider the capacity of their processing facilities.

“When sweet corn is ripe, it must be harvested. Moreover, unlike grain corn which can be stored prior to use, sweet corn must be processed and preserved immediately after harvest,” Williams explains. “Midwest processors want to have their plants running at capacity throughout the approximately three-month harvest window. A plant running significantly above or below that capacity is costly. I suspect a racehorse hybrid is problematic because it’s difficult to predict its performance when the weather deviates from ideal growing conditions, which is common in the Midwest.”

Evidence that vegetable processors prioritize stability could inform future sweet corn breeding programs, and, according to Williams, it could provide a sense of security for growers. “Growers are more likely tasked with growing a workhorse over a racehorse. That decision buffers them, as well as the processor, from less-than-ideal growing conditions,” he says.

The article, “Genotype adoption in processing sweet corn relates to stability in case production,” is published in HortScience.

Join University of Illinois Extension’s ‘Around the Table’ free webinar

Published January 16, 2018

URBANA. Ill. - University of Illinois Extension’s Family and Consumer Sciences team is starting 2018 with a free, four-part webinar series, “Around the Table.” The series addresses finance, nutrition, and family issues and will run from January through April. Each webinar will invite listeners to learn new information and gain skills to apply in their lives.  All are welcome to listen.

Wed., Jan. 24 | 12-1 p.m. CST | “How High Do You Bounce? Building Resiliency in Yourself and the Workplace”
Highly resilient people have the ability to adapt, recover, and grow stronger from adverse situations. Learn what characteristics these resilient people possess that help them create opportunities from challenges, and how you can also nurture and strengthen your resilience. Register at

Mon., Feb. 26. | 12-1 p.m. CST | “How to Save Money on Food”
Join the “Get Savvy: Grow Your Green Stuff” webinar series with the Student Money Management Center. Register at

Tues., March 20 | 12-1 p.m. CST | “Go Further with Food”
Whether it's starting the day off right with a healthy breakfast or fueling for physical activity, the foods you choose can make a difference. Learn how to adopt healthier eating styles, while reducing food loss and waste. Register at

Fri., April 20 | 12-1 p.m. CST | “Establish Healthy Credit”
Join the “Get Savvy: Grow Your Green Stuff” webinar series with the Student Money Management Center. Register at

Find us on Facebook at University of Illinois Extension: Around the Table and @KidsFoodMoneyandMore.

If you have questions, please contact Caitlin Huth, Extension nutrition and wellness educator, at or at 217-877-6042.

News Source:

Caitlin Huth, 217-877-6042

News Writer:

University of Illinois Extension

New study shows producers where and how to grow cellulosic biofuel crops

Published January 16, 2018
Herbaceous feedstocks
Mixed herbaceous feedstocks at U of I Energy Farm. Credit: Lauren D. Quinn

URBANA, Ill. – According to a recent ruling by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, 288 million gallons of cellulosic biofuel must be blended into the U.S. gasoline supply in 2018. Although this figure is down slightly from last year, the industry is still growing at a modest pace. However, until now, producers have had to rely on incomplete information and unrealistic, small-scale studies in guiding their decisions about which feedstocks to grow, and where. A new multi-institution report provides practical agronomic data for five cellulosic feedstocks, which could improve adoption and increase production across the country.

“Early yield estimates were based on data from small research plots, but they weren’t realistic. Our main goal with this project was to determine whether these species could be viable crops when grown on the farm scale,” says D.K. Lee, associate professor in the Department of Crop Sciences at the University of Illinois and leader of the prairie mixture portion of the study.

The project, backed by the U.S. Department of Energy and the Sun Grant Initiative, began in 2008 and includes researchers from 26 institutions. Together, they evaluated the bioenergy potential of switchgrass, Miscanthus, sorghum, energycane, and prairie mixtures in long-term trials spanning a wide geographical area. Due to shortages in plant materials, Miscanthus and energycane were grown on smaller plots than the other crops, but researchers say the new results are still valuable for producers.

“Although making real-world decisions and recommendations based on performance data from small plots is less desirable than from field-scale plots, we feel comfortable with the Miscanthus results since they were based on 33 data sets collected from five sites over seven years,” says Tom Voigt, professor in the crop sciences department at U of I and leader of the Miscanthus portion of the study.

Crops were grown for five to seven years in multiple locations and with varying levels of nitrogen fertilizer. Although most of the crops are known to tolerate poor soil quality, the researchers found that they all benefitted from at least some nitrogen. For example, Miscanthus did best with an application of 53.5 pounds per acre.

“When we didn’t fertilize with any nitrogen, yields dropped over time. But if we used too much, 107 pounds per acre, we were increasing nitrous oxide emissions and nitrate leaching,” says Voigt. “There is some need for fertilization, but it should be tailored to specific locations.”

Prairie mixtures, which were grown on land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), also benefitted from added nitrogen. Yield kept increasing with the addition of up to 100 pounds per acre, but Lee says producers would have to weigh the yield benefit against the cost of the fertilizer.

“Even though it increased yield, it is economically not profitable to use more than 50 pounds of nitrogen per acre.”

And although most of the crops are somewhat drought-tolerant, precipitation made a difference.

“Miscanthus production was directly related to precipitation,” Voigt says. “In areas where precipitation was down, yields generally dropped. However, it did depend on timing. If there was a good amount of water in the winter, plants could get going pretty well in the spring. But if we had little rainfall after that, that hurt yields.”

Lee says prairie mixtures, which are normally made up of hardy grasses, suffered from the severe droughts in 2012 and 2013 in some locations. “In one year in our Oklahoma location, they didn’t even try to harvest. Yield was too low.”

No one feedstock “won” across the board. “It depends so much on location, nitrogen application rate, and year variability,” Voigt says. Instead of highlighting specific yields obtained in good years or locations, a group of statisticians within the research team used field-based yield and environmental data to create maps of yield potential for the five crops across the U.S. Dark green swaths on the maps represent areas of highest yield potential, between 8 and 10 tons per acre per year.

According to the new results, the greatest yield potentials for lowland switchgrass varieties are in the lower Mississippi valley and the Gulf coast states, whereas Miscanthus and prairie mixture yields are likely to be greatest in the upper Midwest.

Lee says the prairie mixtures, which are typically grown on CRP land to conserve soil, didn’t live up to their potential in the study. “We know that there are higher-yielding switchgrass varieties today than were included in the CRP mixtures in the study. If we really want to use CRP for biomass production, we need to plant  highly productive species. That will bump yield up a lot higher.

“One of the biggest concerns now is that CRP enrollment is shrinking. When we started, we had 36 million acres nationwide. Now we’re down to 26 million. Farmers feel they could make more money by using that land for row crops. We need to find some solution if we want to save the soil. Biomass could provide revenue for farmers, if they were allowed to harvest it,” Lee says.

Energycane could reach very high yields, but in a relatively limited portion of the country. However, the crop that shows the highest potential yields in the greatest number of locations is sorghum. The annual crop is highly adaptable to various conditions and might be easier for farmers to work with.

“It fits well in the traditional annual row-crop system; better than perennial crops. It may not be environmentally as desirable as perennial crops, but people could borrow money in winter to buy seed and supplies, then plant, and sell in the fall to pay back their loans. It’s the annual cycle that corn and beans are in,” Voigt says.

Lee adds, “In terms of management, sorghum is almost the same as corn. It germinates and grows so quickly, weed control is not a big issue. If you plant by early June, it will be 15-20 feet tall by September. It also has good drought tolerance.”

Downsides to the biomass champ? It’s wet at harvest and can’t be stored. It also requires nitrogen and can lodge, or collapse, prior to harvest in wet or windy conditions. “Still, it’s a really spectacular plant,” Voigt says.

The researchers made all the raw data from the study available online for anyone to access. Lee says it can be useful for everyone: scientists, policymakers, and producers. “It should be helpful for number of different stakeholders,” he says.

The article, “Biomass production of herbaceous energy crops in the United States: Field trial results and yield potential maps from the multiyear regional feedstock partnership,” is published in a special issue of GCB Bioenergy. The project was funded through the U.S. Department of Energy [award number DE-FC36-05GO85041] and the North Central Regional Sun Grant Center at South Dakota State University.

Additional Images:
  • Map showing suitable regions for herbaceous feedstock production