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Aiming for ethanol

Researchers are developing crop varieties specifically for this rapidly growing market.

January 23, 2008  By Top Crop Manager

48As the ethanol industry expands, researchers at many agencies and companies are focusing on developing crop options that would work well for both ethanol processors and farmers. There are some good varieties available now, and better ones could be available soon.

The fermentation and distillation process used to make ethanol requires feedstocks that provide carbohydrates, either sugar from sugar cane, or starch from crops like corn or wheat. In western Canada, wheat is the main feedstock at present. Among the many wheat varieties available, some are better for ethanol than others.

For instance the ethanol plant at Pound-Maker Agventures in Lanigan, Saskatchewan, currently uses more than 85 percent AC Andrew, a low protein, high starch, high yielding Canada Western Soft White Spring wheat.


Pound-Maker is a farmer based company which started as a feedlot in 1970 and added an ethanol plant in 1991. Most of the company’s shareholders are local farmers who invest in the company to create market opportunities for their crops, mainly barley and wheat.

“If we can purchase grain that is higher in starch content, it’s always going to make our plant more
economical,” emphasizes Keith Rueve, ethanol plant manager for Pound-Maker.

“When we started the ethanol plant, a lot of our shareholders were growing the Canada Prairie Spring varieties, like a CPS white and a CPS red. But about six or seven years ago, a lot of the growers decided to back away from growing those varieties. They could get very similar yields with some of the newer hard red wheat varieties, and of course there is a premium if you can sell the hard red bread wheats into the milling market. So we were having to go a little farther away each time to purchase high starch wheat,” he explains.

“Then we found out about the soft white varieties that had even better starch content than the CPS varieties and a good yield potential. So we brought in some AC Andrew seed. A fair number of our shareholders right now are growing it. It has been yielding better than Hard Red Spring Wheat, and it’s been doing quite well bushel-wise for the growers. And because it has higher starch, we are getting good ethanol production too.”

Rueve says new crop varieties with even higher starch contents would help make western Canadian ethanol production more competitive with the US corn-based ethanol industry. “As a rule, the starch concentration of corn on a dry matter basis is greater than 70 percent. The best we’re dealing with right now is about 65 percent with our highest starch wheat. Maybe by breeding of the right type of grain, we can start pushing that starch concentration up near 70 percent or even higher.”

In addition to having high starch levels, ethanol varieties must be high yielding. “As an industry, we have to make our farmers competitive with other locations, and of course they are not going to sell us a low value crop if the bushels aren’t going to be any better than a milling type of wheat,” Rueve explains. “If our farmers can grow a crop that’s going to yield, well, let’s push the envelope, 100 or 150 bushels an acre, it will produce a lot more ethanol on fewer acres.”

He adds, “We’re dealing with an industry in the US where corn yield, I believe, last year averaged 160 bushels an acre and a lot of on-farm results are higher than 200 bushels an acre. So if we think we’re going to develop and continue an industry with a 40 bushel wheat crop, we’re going to have challenges.”

Assessing what is available now
To improve ethanol production efficiencies right now, it is important to take a keen look at the ethanol potential of our current varieties. Brian Beres, a researcher at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Lethbridge Research Station, is leading a Canada-wide project to do just that.

The project, which started in 2007, is comparing varieties of triticale (a hybrid of wheat and rye) with wheat varieties in several classes, including Canada Western Soft White Spring, CPS and some varieties that will be in the upcoming Canada Western General Purpose class (see A new General Purpose class for ethanol wheats).

“We’ve chosen 10 varieties that represent those classes with the highest potential for this market, and we’ve established the trial at 20 locations across Canada from Lethbridge, Alberta to Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island,” explains Beres. “I think the project’s results will be very interesting because of the diverse environmental conditions we are testing in and because we have not yet validated the performance of these varieties as ethanol feedstocks in experiments where all are present.”

The wheat varieties include AC Andrew and some newer soft white spring wheat varieties like Sadash, which Beres believes may be even better than Andrew. He also has data on winter wheat from a previous study that will complement the data from the current project.

The triticale varieties in the project have starch levels very close to those in the high starch wheats. In fact, the Canadian Triticale Bioindustrial Initiative is sponsoring this project in order to benchmark triticale against wheat, to see how triticale stacks up and to make a balanced assessment of where improvements are needed to establish triticale as a suitable ethanol feedstock.

Along with measuring characteristics like starch content and yield, the researchers will assess performance of the varieties for ethanol processing. “We will be conducting some small scale fermentation studies on most, if not all, of the entries in this experiment. That will give us some insight into where these different varieties and classes fall out in terms of the ethanol yield per sample of grain. And, coupled with the agronomic information, the ethanol yield per acre based on yield potential,” says Beres.

He adds, “It may not be the variety with the highest ethanol yield per volume of grain that is going to be the most suitable for the ethanol market. It could be a variety that’s a little bit lower on starch but has very high yield that ends up being a better choice because of consistent supply.”

The researchers hope to determine if various types of compounds found in cereals that affect the ethanol process are more of a concern with triticale than with wheat and, if so, whether the concerns could be overcome through breeding improvements or other modifications.

Beres notes, “Triticale is a man-made crop; it’s not something that is naturally occurring. So if we do decide that modifications to this plant are necessary to meet the needs of the ethanol industry, or some other industrial application, I think the public would be more receptive to that than past attempts to modify crops that we eat, like bread wheats.”

Pound-Maker’s Rueve agrees, “Genetically modified wheat by public perception is not where people wish to go. That’s where I think triticale may be a good fit. Knowing that it’s for an industrial end use, maybe we could somehow modify triticale to push yield and to push starch content.”

Beres expects to have some preliminary results available by the fall of 2008. He says, “At the completion of this study, I think we’ll have a very good understanding as to the potential of these different crops for ethanol performance, and also where the future may lie and what sorts of research will be required to meet objectives that are say 10 years out from now.”

A new General Purpose class for ethanol wheats
The Canadian Grain Commission is taking several steps to modify the current wheat classification system to encourage breeding and production of ethanol and feed wheats.

Effective August 2008, the Grain Commission is creating a new class of wheat, called Canada Western General Purpose (CWGP), and it is removing the kernel visual distinguishability (KVD) requirements for the six minor wheat classes, which include CPS, Red Winter and Soft White wheats. The commission is also working on developing techniques that would replace KVD requirements for registering milling wheat varieties by 2010.

50Developing new spring wheats
Some promising ethanol wheat varieties are currently moving toward registration. For example, in 2007 Canterra Seeds completed the first year of public co-operative trials across western Canada on three new spring wheat varieties aimed at the Canada Western General Purpose wheat class.

Development of the three varieties, called Shiraz, Chablis and Ashby, started in 2002 when the company saw the need for high yielding feed wheats. These wheats are also suitable for ethanol production. “We looked at a number of different varieties and these three came to the top during the past four years,”

says Ron Brand of Canterra Seeds. The three varieties appear to be well suited to western Canadian conditions. All three are short in stature so they stand well.

“These three varieties are higher yielding than the milling quality varieties. So farmers can produce and sell more from the same acre of land, and can potentially get a higher return per acre. For ethanol producers, the higher starch and lower protein of these varieties should work favourably for their production,” explains Brand.

He notes, “We are very excited about the potential of bringing these to market; however we have to go through the process and the proper channels and make sure that they are registered. So we are cautiously optimistic.”

The company hopes to register the three varieties in 2009 after the second year of public co-operative trials is completed. The company is also researching various agronomic input packages for these varieties,
to enhance their high yield and suitability for the ethanol market. n

Dr. Anita Brûlé-Babel sees the new General Purpose class as key to her work to breed winter wheats for ethanol. “If the General Purpose class was not coming into effect, essentially we would not have the option to produce these wheats. In the past, the types of wheats that we could register for production in western Canada had to fit within the eight classes of food grade wheats. So without that General Purpose class we wouldn’t have a place where we could even register varieties that were destined for the ethanol and feed industries.”

Developing new winter wheats
Winter wheat breeders are also busy developing varieties for the ethanol market. For instance, Husky Energy is providing funds for an ethanol-related project at the University of Manitoba that includes breeding winter wheat varieties. “In North and South America, the vast majority of ethanol is produced from sugar cane or corn. So being wheat-based ethanol producers puts us in a research position, and we participate with universities to look at how we can improve our processes, improve our flow-throughs, improve our efficiencies, all of that type of thing,” says Graham White of Husky Energy.

Wheat is the main feedstock for Husky Energy’s ethanol plants at Lloydminster, Saskatchewan and Minnedosa, Manitoba. White says the company recommends growers use Canada Western Soft White wheats. The two plants also accept CPS Red, CPS White, and Red Winter classes. He adds, “We do not take Hard Red Spring; it’s not good for the plant.”

The Minnedosa plant also takes some corn. White says, “At Minnedosa we are starting out with 20 to 30 percent corn. That’s largely because corn is grown in the Minnedosa area, which is not the case in Lloydminster.” He notes, “The vast majority of our wheat, especially at Lloydminster, is purchased within a 100km radius of the plant. We have found that does meet the majority of our needs. But certainly we’ll go outside of that and we have gone outside of that for top-ups.”

Although Viterra does some of the feedstock purchasing for the company, Husky Energy also purchases directly from farmers. Growers can contact Raymond Dyck (204-867-8104) for the Minnedosa area and Greg Seamchuk (403-750-1832) for the Lloydminster area.

Husky Energy and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) are the core funding agencies of the University of Manitoba project. In addition to winter wheat breeding, the multi-pronged project has components on winter wheat physiology, ethanol processing methods and utilization of distiller’s dried grains (a co-product of ethanol processing). Manitoba’s Agri-Food Research and Development Initiative and Western Economic Diversification are providing funding for some related studies.

Dr. Anita Brûlé-Babel is leading the project’s breeding component. She says, “The objectives are to develop winter wheat varieties with fusarium head blight resistance that are suitable for the ethanol industry.” The desired characteristics for the varieties include high yield, high starch, lower protein, disease resistance and agronomic traits that would allow farmers to grow the varieties successfully.

(Ethanol facilities have various requirements for the quality of their feedstock, including standards related to wheat diseases, such as a maximum tolerance level of fusarium mycotoxins in the sample.)
She says, “Along with the breeding component, we have some other research that supports the development of those varieties. Those studies include work to improve double haploid technologies, which speeds up our breeding process so we can deliver varieties to producers in a much more timely manner, and work related to some of the mechanisms that influence starch content and yield characteristics.” The project targets winter wheats because “They process well for ethanol, they tend to have medium to low protein, and they have biologically the highest yield of any of the wheats that we can grow in western Canada,” explains Brûlé-Babel.

She hopes to have some initial materials with the desired characteristics ready for registration by 2008 or 2009 and to have them in commercial production in a further two or three years.

Although aiming crop varieties specifically for ethanol processing is a fairly new focus for researchers, there are already many positive developments that could benefit farmers and processors in the years ahead. n


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