The rapid rise of propane and natural gas prices over the last few years has greatly increased the economic incentive for considering alternative fuel sources to heat your poultry houses. Natural gas and propane claimed the spot as the primary means of heating chicken houses in this country because they were cheap, clean burning and widely available.
We all know that natural gas and propane, particularly propane, are no longer “cheap,” but they are both still clean burning and one or the other is available just about everywhere. Biofuel and fossil fuel alternatives do not burn as cleanly as natural gas and propane. Because of this fact, outside air is used to burn alternative fuels and the exhaust is also discharged outside the house. This means that all of the BTUs released during combustion of the fuel are not captured inside the poultry house, but it also means that the water and carbon dioxide by-products of combustion are not released in the house. Research conducted by Auburn University with a waste oil furnace, and anecdotal reports from others using coal, corn, litter, hay and wood burning furnaces, show that combustion taking place outside the broiler house can reduce the need for ventilation in the house and lead to drier litter with less ammonia in the house.
Improved bird performance resulting from improved air quality in the house can more than offset any BTUs lost because of combustion of the fuel taking place outside the house.
The price of alternative fuels will very greatly from location to location. At times in the past, used motor oil had no value. When crude oil was $10 a barrel, service stations used to pay to have spent motor oil taken away. Now, with crude oil prices topping $90 a barrel, there is competition for spent oil for use as boiler fuel. I give this example to demonstrate that any alternative fuel will not be “free” for long; it will develop a market value if people start burning it.
Growers are now competing for bedding materials like rice hulls, shavings and sawdust with companies who have boilers that can burn solid fuels. When analyzing an alternative fuel heating system, remember that unless you grow the alternative fuel yourself, you will have to pay a higher price for the alternative fuel in the future as you, and others, start burning it.
Availability of alternative fuels in your area will help to determine which, if any, alternative fuel makes sense for you. Corn furnaces may make sense for growers in the Midwestern USA, but not in the Southeast. Corn furnaces can burn grain that has been rejected by feed mills or elevators because of mold or mycotoxin contamination, but if there isn’t a lot of corn grown in your area, you will probably have to pay top dollar for any corn that you burn. Remember, even if you grow the corn yourself, you should use the local market price for corn when considering how much your fuel would cost, because you could sell the corn on the market if you didn’t have a corn furnace. A hay burning furnace might make a lot of sense for a grower in an area without much row crop farming. There are many places in the southeast, in non-drought years, where round bales of Bermuda grass hay can be purchased cheaply year round.
Some alternative fuels don’t feed automatically into the furnace. Fuels like corn, waste oil and coal can be pumped or augered into the furnace as needed, but litter, wood and hay usually require some human intervention. Just as some growers think composting mortalities is “no problem” and others find it to be too much work, some growers will find feeding fuel into a furnace a few times a day a nuisance and others will take it in stride. Growers just need to be honest about whether tending a furnace a few times a day fits their schedule or not and remember this when considering fuel alternatives.
Some alternative fuel furnaces are already eligible for federal and or state renewable fuels tax credits. This will vary by fuel type and by state. You should research what, if any, tax credits are available in your state and factor this into the cost of the alternative furnace. Most alternative furnaces will take two or more years to pay for themselves, so you may have to consider finance cost as well.
Alternative fuel furnaces appear to have potential to save some growers a lot of money on their fuel bills. These furnaces may not be right for all growers, you have to do your homework and make sure that you can obtain the alternative fuel at a reasonable price.