Pellets for Pullets project changes the energy production game

by | May 14, 2019

Since 2013, the North Carolina General Assembly has appropriated funds to support the development of energy production from North Carolina agricultural products through the N.C. Bioenergy Research Initiative. The initiative is managed by the N.C. Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services, which awards grants each year for projects aimed at energy production.

For the last few years, Carolina Land & Lakes Resource Conservation and Development has been one of the organizations to receive grant money as a part of the NCDA&CS Bioenergy Research and New and Emerging Crops Initiative.

Carolina Land & Lakes RC&D was awarded $85,400 for a project that worked to install a wood pellet heating system on three existing farms to replace propane furnaces.  Carolina Land & Lakes RC&D applied for and received funds from this grant for four years and is approaching its last year of funding. In total, Carolina Land & Lakes Resource Conservation and Development has received $400,000 to fund its Pellets for Pullets project.

“Pellets for Pullets has been well received by farmers and we believe it will do incredibly well moving forward,” said Melissa Patton, executive director of Carolina Land & Lakes RC&D.

In a recent visit to Taylor Farms, a poultry farm located in Connelly Springs, Andy Taylor gave a behind-the-scenes-look into exactly how these wood pellets could be a game-changer for farmers everywhere. These new wood pellet furnaces replaced propane heaters in an effort to reduce the mortality rate in chickens and increase the bird’s weight due to a cleaner house.

Wood pellets used are a blend of soft and hard wood that are free from additives. According to Lee Energy Solutions, a wood pellet manufacturer, the wood used in the pellets comes from reusable wood scraps and grown fiber. Wood pellets do not come directly from trees or cause deforestation. In fact, this heating source is a sustainable and renewable resource.  These wood pellet furnaces were manufactured by Lee Energy Solutions, located in Crossville, Ala., and sold across the United States.

The wood pellet furnace helps farmers reduce the cost of heating their poultry houses significantly. Through the study, Taylor learned that the wood pellets cost him about $1,280 compared to $5,000 for propane. While the cost savings is good and real, it is the bird health and final mortality that is the most significant. “Humidity can cause respiratory issues in chickens, that can result in higher mortality rates,” Patton said. In one week, when using propane, a farmer experienced double the loss in chickens compared to when wood pellets were used as the source of heat.

“The wood pellets have helped the mortality in our chicken houses. When using the propane, we experienced 12 to 14 losses in one house, but the house using the wood pellets only had five,” Taylor said.

The wood pellet heating system is cost-efficient, healthier for the animals, but also helps farmers, too. “When the wood pellets are used, chickens tend to weigh more due to a decrease of ammonia and humidity in the air,” Taylor said.  When there is less ammonia and humidity in the houses, this helps the chickens weigh more and, in turn, help the farmers earn more per chicken.

The wood pellet heating system is located outside the poultry house, similar to the way propane tanks are positioned. The wood pellets are available for farmers to pick up at various dealers locally where they can place custom orders of wood pellets. “This large furnace requires upkeep and cleaning to ensure that the wood is being burned properly, but is incredibly simple to use,” Taylor said.  

The wood furnace is attached to a wood pellet storage unit that allows the pellets to move into the furnace. Once the pellets are in the furnace, they burn in a combustion chamber outside the poultry house, which then creates heat that flows into the poultry house.  Propane combusts inside the house creating more humidity.

“The study shows the wood pellet furnace allows for higher efficiency and lower costs than other heating systems,” Patton said. The wood pellet heating system provides heat for one house and reduces the need for ventilation times per house.

“When we use the wood pellet heating system, we find that we don’t need to use the fans as much since the wood helps with humidity in the houses,” Taylor said.

Even though propane is used as a back-up heating system to the wood pellets, the more energy efficient, cost efficient and animal friendly option is the wood pellet heating system.  “We encourage farmers to explore their options and how they can help the environment and their animals when considering heating systems,” Patton said.  

These grants are incredibly important to not only help N.C. farmers, but also to support initiatives such as renewable fuels. Through time and research, these grants have given farmers more environmentally safe options in the agriculture industry.

“The Pellets for Pullets project in particular has been successful and has been a good representation of what we wanted to see from this grant,” said Sam Brake, agricultural program specialist from NCDA&CS.

In the beginning stages of using the wood pellet heating system, farmers were hesitant to invest in the installation of the wood furnace. Propane tanks don’t require farmers to pay for installation, but are costlier to operate month to month. However, to help farmers move to wood furnaces, the USDA is offering a grant to help with 25 percent of the cost of the equipment for the wood pellet heating system.