Should you consider propane-powered farm equipment?

The latest on propane equipment on the farm. Where does flame weeding stand?

With producers heading into the offseason and 2016 plans moving to the top of the office desk pile, the propane industry is pushing for consideration should new equipment purchases be needed.

In late October, Cinch Munson, Propane Education Research Council (PERC) Director of Ag Business, spoke with Delta Farm Press about the technological progress of propane-powered engines and the long-term prospects for the industry. Among his comments:

On propane as a fuel source now and into the future…

“At the moment, propane prices are favorable. The reason is pretty simple: there’s a lot of propane in the supply chain and storage. That’s led to near-record low prices. That’s happened because propane production has increased in the last few years as natural gas production has also increased. Propane is a co-product of natural gas production.

“The outlook is propane production will continue to increase for the next decade, at least. So, with the longer-term price outlook, more farmers are considering propane powered equipment.”

On the advance of propane powered engine technology…

“PERC is a check-off organization not unlike the corn or soybean check-offs. So, the propane industry funds our organization. We look for ways to make sure propane is used efficiently and safely.

“One of the things we do to accomplish that is assist companies in product development. We tend to act as almost a technology incubator. Over the last few years, we’ve worked with a number of leading manufacturers of irrigation engines, grain dryers, building ease systems, flame-weeding systems, etc. The goal is to help them continue to improve their products.

“The efficiency of the propane engines has really improved. The ‘new generation’ of propane engines has come on the market in the last five years and we continue to see innovation.

“Any preconceived notion that people might have about propane equipment really needs a revisit. The old rule of thumb was a propane engine used two gallons of propane for every one gallon of diesel. That has changed in a big way – now the ratio is about 1.57 gallons of propane per gallon of diesel.

“Calculate the equipment cost up front – propane engines are less costly than diesel – the difference in fuel costs and the savings are there. A farmer can save anywhere from 30 to 50 percent off the engine up front. Then, he’ll save 30 to 50 percent in operating costs. All of that by using a propane engine that’s cleaner and as reliable as a diesel engine.”

Programs farmers can tap into to help allay even more of the expense?

“There are a number of programs out there. A couple worth mentioning include the propane industry and PERC offering incentives towards the purchase of new equipment. 

“The USDA also has Rural Energy for America Program (REAP). That program provides grants for those who are looking to upgrade their equipment to be more energy efficient.”

Irrigation, weeds

On agriculture irrigation propane engines…

“Right now, we’re seeing the most activity for propane powered irrigation systems. That’s across the country but there’s a lot of irrigation that goes on in the Mississippi Delta.

“Farmers want to know what their options are. Diesel engines have moved from Tier 1 to Tier 2 to Tier 3 and now, 4. Well, those are expensive and complicated. Largely driven by that, we’re seeing a lot of people moving to propane. And that move is also happening from electric to propane.”

On flame weeding…

“There are several companies out there – particularly Flame Engineering and Agricultural Flame Innovations – that provide weed flaming equipment. These aren’t some toy to burn weeds growing out the cracks in your sidewalk. These are real farm implements – some are 16-row equipment.

“What they do is use propane to direct flame towards weeds in the field. They don’t actually burn the weeds but the heat causes the plant’s cell structure to burst. It’s a very effective weeding method.

“Typically, flame weeding is used in organic production where there’s no option to use herbicides. However, with propane prices where they are the flame devices can be more effective than using herbicides. It’s quick and cost effective and conventional farmers are showing more and more interest.

“I think we’ll continue to see that market grow. There must be interest from farmers with resistant weed problems. How might that translate in the case of chopping crews?”

Anything else?

“A propane marketer can really be a good partner for farming operations. They’re businessmen just like farmers. I encourage people to work with their marketer and treat it like a partnership, learn what equipment is available.”

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