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Panel plant produces potential for straw

What was once a liability and added production cost for Grayson County, Texas, wheat farmer Bruce Wetzel now provides an additional $36 per acre.

Wheat straw, often worth too little to bother with baling, earned Wetzel $18 per bale last year, $4 per bale for the material and $14 for baling. He paid $4 per bale to haul it to the Affordable Building Systems (ABS) plant in Whitewright, Texas, where the straw is converted into building panels, primarily for commercial office construction.

In addition to the extra income, Wetzel reduced production costs for subsequent crops. “I used to run a disk over wheat land two or three times to take care of the straw. It was costing me money,” Wetzel says. “Baling the straw will save at least one trip with the disk in a normal year, and I get paid for the straw.”

Jack Norman, another Grayson County farmer, entrepreneur and president of ABS, bought 7,500 bales of wheat straw from area farmers last year and expects potential to reach 50,000 per year as the business grows.

“We bought straw from 45 different farmers the last two years,” Norman says. “We located the plant in an area with a lot of wheat production.”

Farmers planted only about half their usual acreage last year because wet conditions prevented fall seeding, but Norman says acreage this year is back to normal and the crop looks good.

“We like to buy straw within a 15-mile radius,” says Bill Dyer, who handles straw procurement duties for ABS. “If we have to go much farther than that, farmers get less net money because of transportation charges.”

ABS pays $45 per ton for acceptable straw, delivered to the plant, Norman says. “Bales usually weigh about 1,000 pounds, so each is worth $22.50, delivered. If a farmer bales and delivers the straw himself, that's what he gets. If he contracts to get it baled and hauled, he gets around $4 per bale.”

Baling costs $14 per bale and hauling adds another $4.

Quality matters, Dyer says. “Consistency is the key for the machinery. We need clean, bright, hard straw at least 9 inches in length. Dusty, dirty, dull, soft straw may contain foreign matter, mold, stem rust or smut. That kind of straw will not run properly,” he says. He also recommends that farmers not cut straw that's green and brittle.

“Straw should be swathed, leaving a four-inch to six-inch stubble and should not be raked. Harvest wheat as high up the stem as feasible with the least possible amount of straw moving through the combine. In most cases, rotary combines cannot be used.”

Bale size should be four by four by eight. “ABS inspects fields to determine suitability for processing,” Dyer says.

Norman says the equipment was developed in England, where it's still in use. And the parent company has operated the equipment in Australia for some 30 years.

It's a relatively simple process. The machine combines heat (450 degrees Fahrenheit) and pressure (5,000 pounds per square inch) to compress straw into four-by-eight panels, approximately two-inches thick. Panels come through as an extremely dense, durable and “virtually fire resistant” building product that can be used for wall systems, ceilings and moveable partitions.

“The simplicity of the machinery is a bit misleading,” Norman says. “We're handling with straw from multiple farms and the consistency may vary from farm to farm, even bale to bale. Humidity, moisture content, and straw quality affect how the machinery runs.”

That's why they look for high quality wheat straw. Even variety may make a difference. “Pioneer 25R57 is the best straw we've seen so far,” Norman says. “The machinery wants uniformity and R57 seems to provide more consistent straw.”

Wetzel says keeping the crop as weed-free and disease-free as possible also helps with quality. “And we don't want a wheat that's bad to lodge,” he says.

“Farmers in this area may begin to look for varieties that adapt well to the ABS plant,’ says Jim Swart, Extension entomologist with Texas A&M-Commerce. “ABS can segregate varieties into different bins to improve consistency.”

“We also may segregate by farm,” Norman says.

Dyer says the equipment likes aged straw. “Newly baled straw does not work at all. Over time, the moisture level evens out and the material is more consistent. Year-old straw is best.”

Wetzel has learned that baling in the middle of the day results in straw breakage. “We like to bale before it gets too hot,” he says.

Norman believes demand for the straw will grow as the plant attracts customers. “Our main focus will be on commercial construction,” he says, “but the products are easily adaptable to residential uses.”

He got the equipment from Australia and owns the North American patent on it. He's picked up a few marketing and production tips from the Aussies.

“They concentrated on systems, not just selling panels,” Norman says. “We can sell one panel for about $24, but if we improve the product, add cloth backing or turn it into a ceiling panel, it's worth $100.”

Todd Anglin, general manager, says the dense panels feature extremely good “sound insulation values. They virtually block sound.”

He says contractors use the panels primarily for interiors. “But they can be used for exterior surfaces as well. They are not waterproof, so they need to be finished with stucco or siding material,” he says.

Norman says commercial advantages include not only the sound and fireproof qualities, easy installation and adaptability, but also a cost savings, compared to building materials such as sheetrock.

“And it is a green material,” he says, “made from a renewable resource that has been nothing more than waste or low-value by-product.”

Among jobs for which ABS is competing is renovation of the Pentagon, an eight-year project where the soundproof qualities of the material will be a significant advantage. Norman says ABS is one of four companies invited to travel to Washington to bid on the renovation.

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