A lush stand of mature switchgrass.
12 or so years ago I was unaware that only a relatively few people “think in pictures.” Further, I admittedly still know fairly little about the technical workings of viable cellulosic ethanol production. It was circa 2006 that I penned a short story title Visions of OBEC. As the years have since passed I learned that even though the vast majority of people learn the meaning of nouns via seeing examples or pictures associated with different spoken words, most humans do not see images in their minds, for any classification of words, during their brain’s thinking processes. According to Modern Medicine, there are several different degrees of picture thinking; that range from the mild Asperger’s syndrome and all the way to severe Autism disorders. My particular malady is one of strong observation capabilities and then attempting to piece things together into a big-picture of relating thoughts. The plus side of big picture thinking is that it can make the otherwise complex easy to understand. But, the spoken or even written communication of those big pictures can often become difficult for other thinking types of people to follow. My attempt in revising OBEC (now, Ohio Beef & Ethanol Corporation) is intended to add to, delete from and hopefully clarify this little working man’s thesis. The original circulation of this story was limited to the Animal Science Departments at a few selected Agricultural & Mechanical Land Grant Universities. No acknowledgement or feedback was ever given, but I still hold out hopes of having triggered a few constructive thoughts around University research centers. Today, I have a 3 year old non-profit blog that might provide a slightly better chance of getting my semi-scientific, imaginative big picture out for wider public review. To be clear, I don’t write for fame or fortune, I share all my opinions in an earnest effort to help provide more cost-effective, wholesome food and energy to humankind. I am not a recognized expert of any kind and merely possess a long held interest and self education in ruminant animal agriculture. As a poor young man with a B.S. in Agriculture and majoring in Animal Science, I once wanted to create the sausage rabbit industry. If you care to read about that particular sustainable agriculture project (Click Here). The lessons learned from that endeavor are as follows: 1) One has to have their own money to put up before others are normally willing to follow and try to make more money. 2) The well established meat industry has a vested financial interest in continuing to do things close to the way they currently are. 3) A strong economic need to change must exist in order to catalyze change. This little working man’s dissertation ain’t going to pass any scientific peer reviews. I merely want to draw upon past proven best practices in order to put forth an imaginative, practical business model. Although comparatively week in complex hard science, I do have well rounded and lengthy “on the ground” meat industry work experience.
The story about the construction of the longest bridge in the world across Lake Pontchartrain in Louisiana is somewhat analogous to my forthcoming vision. The shallow lake bottom there consist of a deep sand layer that concrete bridge support columns could be driven directly into. There’s no near surface bedrock to contend with. A concrete component fabrication plant was setup on the North end of the lake to manufacture support columns and bridge sections. Barge load after barge load of identical concrete bridge building parts were transported to the moving construction site; where they were set in place by barge mounted cranes. And, so it was that a 24 mile causeway fairly quickly spanned the colossal lake. Local site attributes existed there that made a certain set of options highly feasible for the construction of that much needed bridge to New Orleans. Near surface bedrock would have put those particular construction practices out of the question in most other parts of the world. Then when a second span was later built right next to the first one, lessons learned during the first job and some new ideas were implemented to improve on an already great innovation. In hindsight that project appears to have always been a sure bet. But, in truth the original investors in that bridge were “working without a net.” I indeed liken the Lake Pontchartrain causeway construction circumstances of the mid 1950’s to todays opportunity to establish a free market OBEC complex in central-eastern Ohio. Ohio’s moist and temperate climate is very favorable for it, all required resources are located within close proximity, large Eastern & Great Lakes markets are comparatively close by and there’s plenty of Rust-Belt labor that could conceivably be put back to work. Although these are all positive factors, there’s still no guarantee of financial success. And, I fully realize that both more enlightened discussion and research are needed prior to the first dime being spent on the implementation of any OBEC proposals.
Before starting to sketch a big futuristic picture outline, let’s look back at why Ohio lost most of its once held share of the American beef industry. Economies of scale and the meat retailer friendly cost saving innovation of boxed-beef are the easiest to recognize factors. Everyone likes to eat everyday, therefore successful mainstream food industry models are mainly high-volume/low mark-up business arrangements. Big multi-plant corporate processors can do everything from volume buying & selling to labor union busting more effectively than small singular plant companies. However, in order to more fully explain Ohio’s past beef business losses some lesser factors causing the decline should also be acknowledged. This region’s comparatively moist and temperate climate remains ideal for efficient high quality beef animal production. And, some of the best suited beef genetics for the Ohio’s climate are of the high quality/early maturing British breeds variety. Still, much of Ohio’s eastern corn-belt land is far to fertile and level to be prudently regarded as “cattle country.” Much of the western half of Ohio’s agricultural land is best suited for row-crops that can either be directly to feed humans, used in confinement mono-gastric livestock production or to provide high energy nutrition for fattening young-tender cattle. However, along the Ohio River, in the foothills of the Appalachian Range, and along intermediate size streams etc., Ohio does have an appreciable amount of gently rolling land that can most wisely be utilized for beef cow-calf operations. Further, States directly East, Southeast and South of Ohio have open areas that are even more largely comprised of temperate climate, moderately sloping pasture lands. Given Ohio’s close proximity to so much prime cow-calf countryside, and its designation as being the eastern edge of the corn-belt, it seems like a no-brainer that Ohio would hold a substantial player part in America’s beef industry. But, in current practice about the only beef grain feeding operations currently in existence in Ohio are used to help keep grain farmers busy during the off season and to provide a deferred outlet for stored grain; especially when grain prices go low. In other regions of the U.S.; where beef cattle production and processing are a considerably larger industry, adult and youth University extension programs appear to be more pragmatically focused. Example: Ohio’s 4H and FFA participating youth are not normally required to give thought about beef cattle production efficiency or how their finished product is likely to Quality and Yield grade. Many such youth would be hard pressed to explain why a bigger & leaner beef market animal isn’t better for their customer’s needs or how the eventual widespread implementation of livestock traceability will inevitably lead to buyer discounts; because cattle producers continued to follow discredited animal selection practices that were popularized 35 to 40 years ago. During the time period of America’s consolidation of the beef industry to the West, Ohio was still very much an industrialized durable goods manufacturing region. So, the then existing Ohio area meat packers faced substantial wage competition in order to person (man) their comparatively small size plants. Compared to some more South and Western States of that day, Ohio had a low immigrant or migrant worker population to draw employees from. In fact, all the way back to the original Porkopolis at Cincinnati, Ohio, successful large slaughter plants have primarily employed recent immigrants; at get your foot in the door wages. Also during the time of Ohio’s beef industry decline a high percentage of her population was comprised of self sufficient – upwardly mobile factory workers. Then as now, most people naturally enjoyed eating high quality beef products, but did not care to think about where it came from; much less to smell odors associated with livestock production and harvest. Ohio’s EPA probably helped facilitate the beef industry’s consolidation to more remote regions of the Country; areas that possessed favorable conditions for at least some type of beef cattle production. “South Cattle” are not of the eating quality as similar age and fed British breeds of beef, but the exodus still proceeded unabated. As the suburbs of Ohio’s cities & towns expanded into the surrounding countryside, and as more people traveled the interstate highways, some of those not directly employed in animal agriculture increasingly looked to get rid of former countryside conditions that they viewed to be undesirable. To a lesser extent, the same type of attacks were unleashed upon long established intercity Packing Plants and stockyards. Money and influence talked; so small Ohio meat business increasingly ceased their local operations. Corner butcher shops were the next victim; as convenient one-stop-shopping took hold and the supply of carcass beef simultaneously dried up. During that era there were just too many local and more distant forces working against old-style Ohio meat businesses. Still further, the Interstate freeway system greatly aided in reducing transportation costs and shipping fever losses; as scores of feeder calves headed West out of Eastern cow-calf States and later fossil fueled back East as beef products and industrial use byproducts. So it was that cattle feeding and harvest consolidated into the Nebraska, Western Kansas, Eastern Colorado and Texas Panhandle “Beef Patch.” As a direct result of “Big Beef” being a major economic driver in the beef patch and in the major cow-calf areas of Texas, Oklahoma & Missouri, most collegian livestock and meat judging contest winners now hale from those parts of the U.S. Meanwhile, Ohio farm youth seem to be primarily concerned only with show cattle; which are money losers for the vast majority of beef cattle project participants. If you care to learn more about show cattle (Click Here). The cottage industry of show cattle tends to mislead most of Ohio’s Agriculture interested youth about how to efficiently produce a consumer oriented beef product.
The good news is that economic realities have since changed a great deal from what they were well over a generation ago when Ohio largely lost out on big-beef bucks. The remainder of this post is a futuristic speculation about what is believed to be sustainably prudent and at least somewhat possible. I’m not going to directly speculate about the specific types of financial business arrangements required, but will acknowledge that people preform best when they have an economic stake in benefitting proportional to their own work input. Therefore, I lean towards franchise type arrangements made through a large OBEC parent company.
We locate some of the abundant sloping land in OBEC’s target region, which can be either existing pasture or wooded land and is not too steep for a tractor on tracts to go straight up and down while pulling round bale baling equipment. Gravity helps gather round bales to the lower end of pastures and 8 inch high hay plant stubble facilitates the controlled downhill rolling of hay to where bales are gathered. Round baling is also used because they can be easily unrolled for both cattle feeding and for feeding mature switchgrass hay into fine-cut choppers at OBEC’s cellulosic ethanol plant. Many current, and perhaps older, hill-ground land owners will not want to manage pastures and cattle, but can rent suitable sites to local entrepreneurs willing to work several farms at one time in order to make a fulltime job out of beef cattle production. The Farm Credit Administration helps finance livestock and related equipment. High quality hardwood trees were cut and sold so that their carbon content will be sequestered for a good long time in furniture etc. Lower quality hardwoods, that are suitable for fence posts, were gathered to help fence-off the combination pasture – hay land. If existing local paper manufactures were interested, pulp wood was sold to them. The remainder of the existing woody vegetation was pushed into some of the on-site dry-washes then covered with dirt generated from digging upland watering ponds; this practice reclaims some previously nonproductive ground. Further, the underground sequestration of carbon was subsidized by a Federal Government clean-air program. Ponds were fenced-off and buried pipes gravity feed to float type cattle waters; which are installed on the downhill side of pond dams. Ponds are fenced-off to keep cattle from falling though ice, from getting injured from sliding on ice, from getting stuck in pound bottom mud, so cattle don’t erode pond banks and so cattle don’t foul pounds with manure & urine. Land fenced-in around ponds was seeded with straight switchgrass; that is cut once early in the summer for hay production and then again late in the fall for biomass to use in cellulosic ethanol production. Pastures are seeded in a mixture of fescue, legumes and switchgrass. The switchgrass percentage is 50%; so cattle are stocked at a reduced rate to that of normal Ohio climate cow-calf enterprises. The pasture is cut in the same fashion as it is around ponds and round bales are fenced-off at the lower end of pastures for winter feeding. Early season swtchgrass is very digestible and the later growth is less desired by cattle; so is left by them to be cut for biomass. All cuttings are made at about 8 inches off the ground because of the nature of switchgrass’s best growth. Not all dry-washes are reclaimed because ravine walls and trees therein can be useful for sheltering cattle from wind etc. Some farms have previously existing barns that are used for shelter, but manure removal from barns and spreading increases labor requirements and equipment usage. The degree of shelter on each farm helps determine the time of year that calving can prudently be scheduled. It’s important that OBEC company-wide calving takes place year round in order to provide a steady supply of beef animals that have been grain-fed-out at between 13 to 14 months of age. Cheap grass weight gains are not an OBEC best practice. This accelerated production schedule maximizes facility usage (pastures and the feedlot), make for a uniformly young tender end-product and lessens the time that terminal market cattle burb and fart out greenhouse gass. Further, greenhouse gas producing deer should wisely be eradicated. D.E.E.R.: Deceptively Endearing Environmentally (and Economically) Ruinous. If you care to read more about Ohio’s # 1 animal enemy (Click Here). A small number of affiliated farms are Purebred Murray Grey operations. The Murray Grey is basically a less expensive, smaller bodied, diluter gene colored Aberdeen Angus. A slightly higher number of farms produce F1 heifers from the crossing of Murray Grey cows to Red Angus; then those same farms develop the heifers for usage as commercial brood cows. The largest number of affiliated farms are used to complete a 3 breed terminal cross by breeding F1 cows to Hereford bulls. This cattle production protocol maximizes the scientific heterosis/hybrid vigor/free-lunch economic effects of crossbreeding. Sex selection technology is used to generate mainly heifers on the first two cattle farm types and mostly bull calves for steering are desired on terminal cross farms. Steers are favored over heifers for slaughter due to possible dressing percentage issues (pregnant), carcass weights and Yield grades. OBEC does not condone unfounded black-hided beef cattle color discrimination; that has become rampant throughout much of un-critical thinking modern society. If you want to read more about the anti-intellectual Black Angus craze (Click here).
The next sector of the OBEC business model is the independent hay contractors. Persons going into this business will have only equipment, hay seed, fertilizer and labor as their major expenses; because cutting hay along rural stretches of 4 lane highways saves the Government the cots of having to keep the grass cut. Ohio roads included in the OBEC program include rural sections of I-76, I-70, I-77, and State Routes 11, 30, 32 & 33. Straight switchgrass alone is sowed along the involved roadways. This more level ground is conducive to square baling, but it is still all large round bailed for the same reasons discussed earlier. Highway hay is also cut 8 inches off the ground due to the nature of switchgrass growth. Again, an early cutting goes to affiliated cow-calf farms and the second late season cutting goes into cellulosic ethanol production. But, there is one difference: State of Ohio prisoners prick up plastic bags and other litter just prior to the cutting of cattle hay. Highway traveler safety concerns dictate that baled hay is only loaded out along these rural roadways between 11:00 PM and 4:00 in the morning, when traffic is expected to be very light out in the country. The State pays for the hay contractors liability insurance, and still saves tons of tax dollars. Whenever drought conditions prevail hay contractors broker cattle feeding loads that come in off their familiar South and West freeways. The internet is used to lineup North or East heading flatbed drivers to haul in hay; drivers that would otherwise be deadheading back to their home terminals.
The sustainability and financial arrangement features of the OBEC’s feedlot are the same as those of tried and true Western concentrated beef animal feeding operations. Franchise beef production partners are given the option of selling feeder calves or retaining ownership while paying for custom feeding and then being paid based upon how their cattle carcasses Quality & Yield grade. The feedlot’s easy major East-West Freeway access facilitates the acquisition of high-energy, more western corn-belt grain. Some of the byproducts of cellulosic ethanol production are also incorporated into scientifically formulated finish feeding rations. Those by products can be for both roughage and protein dietary needs. Objectionable feedlot and rendering plant odors are effectively eliminated through the implementation of manure digesters; just as it is at Northwestern Indiana’s 36,000 cow Fair Oaks farm’s mega-dairy complex. If you would like to read more about my 2017 tour of Fair Oaks Farms (Click Here). As eluded to earlier, it’s sustainably important that terminal market beef animals are weaned early and fed-out to an optimal amount of cover fat ASAP. Younger animals are expected to be more tender, they spend less time hoofing-up hill ground (erosions and pasture vegetative growth concerns) and the amount of time that market cattle emit greenhouse gas into the atmosphere is considerably lessened. Vertically integrated OBEC facilities are located off I-70 near Zanesville. Additionally, OBEC owns about a 800 acres of plant complex abutting, low lying, fairly level land; most of which is currently not suitable for either row-cropping or for a vegetable greenhouse enterprise. Drainage channels have been cut-in, then one section of ground at a time is cleared and unwanted wood is buried in stump pits, to both get rid of it and to sequester more carbon. Digested feedlot manure and cellulosic ethanol production waste are then spread about 18 inches deep over each newly cleared section in order to create productive agricultural land that’s nestled in the midst of Ohio’s moist seasonal climate.
The OBEC complex has 2 side by side cattle harvest facilities. The larger of the two is used to process fresh, retail grade beef for sale to Eastern and Great Lakes population centers. The smaller, much needed, regional cull-cow plant has a higher rail-trolley carcass movement system because mature bovine carcasses are longer than market age carcasses. The products of the cow plant are ground beef and some roasts are sold to regional further processing meat plants.
The input end of the 1/4 mile long artificial rumen, biomass tumbler sits between the feedlot and the larger of the 2 kill plants. That positioning is so that bovine stomachs contents and liquefied manure are both readily accessible. A mixture of freshly harvested gut contents, fine-chopped mature switchgrass hay and an optimal amount of warmed liquid manure starts biomass digestion. Just like concrete mixers and meat processing tumblers, the stainless steel biomass tumbler has baffles in it so that its contents advance when it’s turning one direction and hay massages in place when the tumbler is reversed. The tumbler is slowly rotated in reverse during times when cattle kill-lines are not in operation. The tumbler is enclosed in a long narrow insulated structure and has gas fired burners under its bottom center (between the tumbler rollers); that are spaced-out every 18 inches. Methane to fire the tumbler gas burners and to preheat needed amounts of manure lagoon water is generated from the feedlot manure digestion process, plus some additional gas is gleaned from the long tumbler. There is a gas collection hood located at each end of the tumbler. And, doors equipped with center-line burper valves are set in place during non-production hours; when the tumbler is slowly churning in reverse. Knowledge gained from 50 plus years of accessing live cattle rumens, via a surgically installed porthole, is used to monitor and adjust heated tumbler conditions; in order to optimize cellulose digestion. Urea is also added to the tumbler to breakdown into high biological value, non-animal sourced amino acids/protein. Such non-animal protein can be used in all animal feeds and has a good outlet in the growing niche vegan market.
Some of the above statements may not seem to make sense; depending upon how much background knowledge one possesses about the subjects covered. Just google for, or ask someone any questions that you might have.
“Research is seeing what everyone has seen and thinking what no one has thought” -Wilber A. Gould