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Straw for energy divides farming opinions

Farmers have been urged to explore the financial benefits of selling surplus straw to Norfolk’s newest biomass plant – while the baling industry seeks to allay concerns about availability for livestock or soil enrichment.
Cole Agriculture straw manager Will Murphy. Picture: Ian Burt

The £160m Snetterton Renewable Energy Plant being constructed by Eco2 is due to be completed in 2017.

It will be fuelled by 250,000 tonnes of baled straw per year, mostly from arable farms within a 40-mile radius of the site.

The green energy credentials include low transport miles, and the use of a by-product which is not taking farmland out of food production, unlike anaerobic digestion crops or solar panels.

But with straw-fired plants already in operation at Ely in Cambridgeshire and Sleaford in Lincolnshire, there are concerns that the accumulated tonnage needed across the region could reduce the availability of straw for its traditional uses, particularly in the pig sector.

Will Murphy was recently appointed as straw manager at Cole Agriculture, a contractor based at Cranworth, near Shipdham, operating eight straw balers across East Anglia - four of them collecting for livestock, and four for the power industry.

He said the firm has signed a contract to supply 10,000 tonnes of straw to Snetterton this year, but it aims to significantly increase its capacity in the run-up to the opening of the plant in 2017.

That will mean convincing more farmers of the benefits of selling straw for power generation, rather than incorporating it into the earth to benefit the soil nutrients.

"We are not asking for every single bit of straw from every farm," he said. "You can be sensible about it and use a baling strategy which does not damage the soil.

"I am all for incorporating straw on a rotation, and I think it is important for farmers to understand the levels of potash in their soil. If it is at a good level, they can take extra income from their straw by baling it rather than incorporating it.

"Don't get me wrong, if you take it off the field every year it won't do anyone any favours. But if you take the current wheat price of just £110 per tonne, an extra £35-£40 per acre for straw can be quite appealing.

"There are a lot of arguments raised by livestock producers, feeling that there is not going to be enough straw available for both uses - but I don't think that's true. We don't want to steal straw from livestock producers, because that's a big part of our business too.

"A lot of our straw is imported by Holland and Belgium, but it does not make sense for us to be exporting straw when there is a market for it in England. It surely shows you that there is enough to go around.

"It is also a common misconception that balers and straw contractors destroy the land. We are running on the widest possible tyres with low ground pressure, and we run in the same tracks as the combine does."

Owner and managing director Jonathan Cole added: "Farmers are growing a crop to feed the nation and we are taking the straw, a by-product, and turning it into a commodity to heat the nation.

"There is plenty of straw out there and we don't want to rob the livestock farmer, because it is such an important part of our business. We are a professional contractor and we want to work with the farmer to help them maximise their yields in cash terms. We have to work together. "

Livestock industry concerns

Simon Watchorn, who keeps his 600-sow herd of Freedom Food outdoor-reared pigs at Park Farm on the Norfolk/Suffolk border near Bungay, is a member of the BPEX board - the pigs division of levy-payers' organisation the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB).

He said: "The problem is that the output of these power generators carries a government subsidy, while pork does not. So that in itself makes it an artificial market.

"There is competition for straw, and if I am having to compete with a market that's got a subsidy attached, it is not quite fair.

"If you want to buy the high welfare RSPCA pork it has to be produced on straw rather than slats. That's predominantly what the outdoor boys around here are producing, so we have to use straw.

"We are putting that organic matter back into the soil through the pigs. The organic levels of arable fields are not good in the UK, so we need to put this material back into the soil, but if you set fire to it in a power station you cannot do that.

"If you bale the straw there has got to be a loss of organic matter from the soil, and that is something the arable farmers will have to address. "Is there a shortage of straw? The price will determine that. It is a market, and so price drives availability. But if the price goes up we will struggle because we have got to use straw or our assured schemes."