By Linda Greer
Two area chicken growers decided three years ago that without government help and if they did not do something about heating costs, there would be no more poultry farms in Southwest Missouri.
“Most poultry farmers right now are very stressed,” said Bill Harvill, who operates 14 chicken houses near Stark City. “The profit they used to live on and run their farm now goes to pay for propane.”
Harvill and Roger Schnake, who has eight chicken houses near Stotts City, spent around $45,000 each to buy corn stoves to test their theory that burning a renewable fuel would be cheaper than using propane to heat their chicken houses.
“This is not something I just jumped into,” Harvill said. “I’ve got all the confidence in the world that this will work.”
This winter, Harvill and Schnake will install 600,000-Btu corn stoves in all of their chicken houses. The stoves cost around $10,000 each.
“I’ve always liked corn,” Harvill said. “It’s easy to handle, can be grown year after year, it’s safe to burn, and it puts out a lot of Btus.”
Both men said they began looking for alternative heating sources three years ago, when propane jumped to $1 per gallon.
Schnake said poultry farmers stop earning a profit when propane costs 70 cents per gallon.
In less than 10 years, the cost per gallon of propane has risen more than 300 percent, from 35 cents in 1999 to $1.50 today, with little increase in the income earned for raising poultry, Harvill said.
“People that don’t change won’t be in this business,” Schnake said.
Schnake said that unless poultry farmers find an economical fuel source, such as wood, hay, sawdust or corn, they had better find “a good job in town” to stay in business.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently granted Harvill and Schnake $50,000 each to help them implement their alternative heating solutions.
U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt toured Schnake’s farm during the 2006 Missouri Agricultural Tour. He saw the coal and wood furnaces with which Schnake was experimenting at the time.
“These grants will explore corn as a fuel heating source,” Blunt said in a Sept. 21 press release. “That is the kind of alternative energy technology that needs to be researched more thoroughly. If it’s successful here, there’s no reason it can’t be applied to hundreds of poultry operations throughout the region.”
Harvill and Schnake plan to invest $150,000 each to go with their $50,000 federal grants. The renewable-energy grants issued by the USDA are designed to help farmers, ranchers and rural small businesses develop renewable-energy systems and make energy-efficient improvements to their operations.
“I don’t think a lot of farmers knew this program was out here,” said Steve Schoen, co-owner of Schoen Farm Equipment in Freistatt, who helped Harvill design a corn stove large enough to heat poultry houses.
Previously, corn stoves were available only for homes, he said.
“If the country is serious about alternative fuels, the government has got to get behind this,” Schoen said. “Why not burn corn instead of making it into ethanol?”
No other choice
Schoen and Harvill worked with the SAR Biomass Energy company in Pocahontas, Iowa, to increase the Btu of their largest corn stove by 150,000. The stoves can be used in any farm operation where lots of heat is needed, Schoen said.
“I told them I wanted it built like a piece of equipment, not something you just throw away,” Schoen said. “You can engineer something to death in the laboratory, but until you actually put it to work, you don’t know if it will work.”
Schoen said Harvill’s test proved that corn stoves can replace propane heaters in poultry houses.
Schoen, who has been in business 48 years, said he became interested in alternative fuels several years ago, when he saw how the high cost of propane was sending farmers’ “profits out the door.”
“We sell farm equipment to poultry farmers,” he said. “Unless we do something, there won’t be any poultry farmers in Southwest Missouri.”
Harvill said his investment of $150,000 sounds like a lot of money, but at current propane prices, he will see a return on his money in three years. Instead of spending $200,000 per year on propane, he will spend less than $70,000 for corn.
Harvill said it cost him less than $3 per bushel this year to grow around 14,000 bushels of corn, the amount it will take him to heat his chicken houses this winter. He said poultry farmers who buy corn for stoves will spend about $3.50 per bushel.
Harvill said poultry growers can trade their poultry litter as fertilizer for corn from crop farmers, for example, to reduce their costs.
Harvill said Americans no longer have a choice about using alternative fuels.
“All the easy oil has been gotten to,” he said. “Now it’s taking greater steps and costing more money to get oil. Whether we like it or not, we have to start looking at different energy options.”
Harvill said he does not plan to stop searching for alternative fuel sources for his farm. He intends to experiment with solar and wind energy to power his farm and home.
Schnake and Harvill agreed that Missouri has not done as much as other states to entice people to find alternative fuel sources. Harvill said North Carolina and Tennessee have adopted sound renewable-energy plans that include low-interest loans and tax credits.
Schnake said he and Harvill took a “big risk” by borrowing money to test alternative-fuel stoves in their chicken houses. He said universities and government agencies should have begun testing fuel programs at least five years ago.
“Obviously, we don’t have the kind of capital these other folks might have,” he said.
n Btu: One bushel of corn equals 5.5 gallons of propane.
n Cost: Corn, $3.50 per bushel; propane, $1.50 per gallon.
Source: Bill Harvill, poultry producer
By Linda Greer
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