This case study is based on interviews with three “players” who had a central role in the innovation process of green grass protein for feed – and on existing video material and articles from some of the researchers who made it possible and inspired the commercial partners. The interviewed persons are:
Innovation Centre for Organic Farming (ICOEL)*
*Until October 2021: SEGES Organic
Vestjyllands Andel (Feed production)
Ausumgaard (Manor House and Organic farm)
WHAT IS GREEN PROTEIN?
Green protein is a protein extracted from clover grass by biorefining with the purpose to use it as a feed ingredient even for human consumption in the future. The green protein has an amino acid composition that makes it particularly suitable for monogastric animals and it can therefore be used instead of soy.
The process of extracting green protein from clover grass and the side streams of residues.
From idea to factory
During the past 14 years, an innovation process has been ongoing in Denmark to investigate and develop the biorefining process as well as sales opportunities. Figure 1 shows how the protein is extracted from the clover grass and how the products can be used for feed for monogastric animals. The side stream “press cake” can be used for cattle feed or biogas and the second side-stream t called “brown juice” can be used as a substrate for biogas production.
In 2020, the first commercial plant to produce green protein was established at Ausumgaard. The second plant was established already in 2021 by another consortium lead by the Danish Coop Feed company DLG in 2021 called BIOREFINE. Thus the innovation process has been very successful and has been extremely open which has allowed more players to develop protein refineries based on clover grass from organic farms in Denmark.
This case story focuses on presenting the innovation process that led to the establishment of the first facility at Ausumgaard
This is only part of the story since many researchers and feed experts have been involved in the work before the first demo site could be built. To identify and credit everyone involved in the Innovation processes and place them in the 7 steps that are described in the spiral model*) would be a very complicated investigation. We therefore only mention some central players.
|1. Initial idea: Someone has an idea in response to a problem or an opportunity.
2. Inspiration: Others become inspired and form a “warm network” around the initiative.
3. Planning: The network of initiators organises itself and negotiates space for experimentation.
4. Development: The initiators experiment to develop new practices and evidence of their effectiveness.
5. Realisation: The innovation is implemented on a full scale.
6. Dissemination: Other people become interested and implement the innovation.
7. Embedding: The innovation becomes common practice/ is widely accepted and structures/ rules, etc. adapt to the new reality.
In Europe, there is a strong desire to be self-sufficient in protein for livestock, and until now, large quantities of feed, especially soy cake, have been imported from countries outside Europe and over great distances. There is a growing demand to find locally produced sustainable alternatives to reduce energy consumption, land use and climate impact related to the production of protein feed.
– The entire livestock industry became aware of the need for a more sustainable alternative to soy. A large part of the imported protein feed consists of soy, the majority of which is produced in areas where natural forests and habitats are cleared for cultivation. It gives soy a negative reputation – not least in a climate context. As climate challenges within livestock production became more present, the incentive to reduce the use of soy increased
At the same time, organic production in Denmark expanded, and within this production system, it is particularly difficult to obtain enough protein feed with an optimal amino acid composition.
The import of soy cake in DK is 1.5 mio. tons every year. Researchers at Aarhus University have calculated that it would require 500.000 ha of clover grass in total to replace soy in the supply of the livestock sector.
In Denmark, innovation within green protein began in 2009. Initially, Aalborg University, Copenhagen University and two private knowledge enterprises, Biotest Aps and Solum A/S, investigated the possibilities to make the production of green protein profitable. In 2012, Aarhus University and SEGES joined this innovation process, and in 2014, the feed-producing company, Vestjylland’s Andel, was involved.
It has been a key focus area to produce green protein for organic production, as the price of organic protein feed is higher than that of non-organic. In addition, it is attractive for organic farmers to grow large amounts of clover grass to benefit crop rotation. Thus, clover grass can become a sales crop for organic poultry growers, pig producers and plant breeders, who usually do not have large areas of clover grass in their crop rotation.
The project “Super Grass Pork” was initiated in 2017 by SEGES and Aarhus University. The purpose was to improve the biorefinery processes and evaluate the feed value of grass protein for pigs but also to evaluate the possibilities for commercializing the production. (SuperGrassPork (icrofs.dk). The role for SEGES has mainly been as project manager and leader of dissemination.
In 2019 Aarhus University built a demo plant based on the research in the first projects. This approach has been essential for the innovation process and the plant has been central in several green grass protein projects since then because the results could be used in relation to upscaling and commercialization.
SEGES / Innovation Center for Organic Agriculture represented by Erik Fog has been involved in the innovation process since the beginning in 2012. The initial idea is much older since research in green protein extraction has been going on for decades but only on an academic level. Since the beginning, Erik has been the project manager for several projects which have contributed to the innovation process and in collaboration with various universities participated in optimizing all stages of the extraction process which by 2020 made it possible to build the first commercial plant for the extraction of grass protein at Ausumgaard This was based on technology that had been tested in smaller scale at Aarhus University.
The company Vestjyllands Andel – Denmark’s largest producer of organic pig feed has collaborated with the farm “Ausumgaard” in building the first full-scale plant for green protein production.
Vestjyllands Andel strives to reduce the imports of soy. In addition, they perceived an opportunity to combine three different industries, each of which is challenging to make profitable separately, but which interact very well together. These three industries are:
1. Green protein
2. Biogas production including biomethane certificates
3. Starfish meal
The residual products from green protein can be used in the production of biogas, the degassed manure from the biogas plants can be used as fertilizer for new fields with clover grass and the drying plant used to dry the grass protein in the summer can be used to dry starfish meal in the winter, when grass protein is not in production, says Steen Bitsch, Vestjyllands Andel.
Ausumgaard is a large family-owned farm with 700 ha of organic plant production. Part of the farm buildings are rented out for chicken and pig production. The biogas plant produces energy and organic fertilizer based on manure and residues from green grass protein production as input.
The geographic location in Jutland near Aarhus University made Vestjyllands Andel and Ausumgaard a good match for the innovation process and a perfect place for grass production when scaling up from first prototype at AU.
At Ausumgaard, sustainability is a major focus area, and around 2010, Kristian Lundsgaard-Karlshøj became interested in producing protein feed which is sustainable and locally sourced. Initially, Ausumgaard joined another project centered on insect protein, but as the general attention increasingly turned to grass protein, and the combination of green protein production and a biogas plant has many benefits in relation to sustainability, and therefore this area became of greater interest at the farm.
Benefits of combining the production of green protein and biogas
- Both the brown juice and the pulp from the production of green protein can be used as biomass in biogas plants which means that residues are utilized
- The pulp is utilized more effectively in the biogas plant than in grass silage, because it is more finely chopped, and the waste generated in a silage process is avoided in the biogas plant
- The brown juice ensures extra liquid for biogas production in the summer
- The residual products are thus converted to biogas and fertilizer for the fields.
We have a biogas plant, for which we previously used clover grass silage as a substrate for methane production, and therefore we could see an advantage in first putting the clover grass into the grass protein plant and then using the residual products (press cake and brown juice) in the biogas plant, says Kristian Lundgaard-Karlshøj. This enables us to generate a high-value product from clover grass in the form of green protein, and at the same time, the residual products are better for biogas production than the clover grass silage, he explains.
At Ausumgaard, we chose to participate in the innovation process because it connects well to our continuous focus on sustainable production. We established wind turbines, then a biogas plant and finally a green protein plant to ensure circular production, Kristian Lundgaard-Karlshøj explains, Ausumgaard.
Pig feed with different proportions of grass protein. The darker the feed, the more grass protein.
Photo: Erik Fog, Innovation Center for Organic Agriculture
Expected effects of the innovation process
1. Developing the techniques for extracting grass protein, facilitating the possibility to produce green protein large scale
2. Ensuring a profitable business and a sustainable production of green protein
3. Demonstrating that green protein is a suitable protein feed
Vestjyllands Andel has participated in the innovation process since 2014 and has been responsible for developing feeding plans containing green protein as well as conducting feeding experiments.
Ausumgaard joined the innovation process in 2018. In 2020 Vestjyllands Andel and Ausumgaard built the first commercial green protein plant in Denmark.
The innovation process has largely been driven by state-run public innovation support. Financing has been crucial until 2020. The Danish state has spent more than DKK 120 million on innovation within the area of the production of green protein.
In 2019, it became possible to apply for DKK 14 million in grants for a full-scale demonstration facility, and the support obtained by the facility established at Ausumgaard was obtained. The other 16 million, which has been spent on establishing the facility, has been paid jointly by Vestjyllands Andel and Ausumgaard. At the same time, Vestjyllands Andel ensures that the protein can be sold.
– It is crucial that sales are ensured, so that we do not face that uncertainty, says Kristian Lundgaard-Karlshøj, Ausumgaard.
Challenges and solutions
There have been many technical challenges. The equipment we used proved several times not to perform well enough, and we have had to optimize.
The biorefinery at Ausumgaard receives many visits and functions as an active communicator of the new technology. Photo: Linda Rosager Duve, Innovation Center for Organic Agriculture.
The first season at Ausumgaard, the grass was harvested at full length, and it was necessary to subsequently crush the grass to squeeze out the juice, says Erik Fog, Innovation Center for Organic Agriculture. But the system with the hammer mill did not work, and the grass is now cut in the field instead, he continues. This new practice also optimized harvesting capacity, explains Kristian Lundgaard-Karlshøj, Ausumgaard. When we harvest grass at full length, we can harvest 20 tons per hour, whereas when using the forage harvester, we can harvest 80 tons per hour. In addition, it is possible to transport larger loads of the cut grass to the plant, approximately 18 tons against the previous 8 tons per read.
Another example of a challenge is the drying process, which is expensive and undesirable in relation to energy consumption and climate impact. Therefore, a part of the innovation process has focused on researching the possibility of feeding pasta (green protein that has not been dried). This proved to be challenging, primarily since shelf life of the pasta compared to the dried green protein is very low. Consequently, protein is currently dried.
Currently, the production of green protein at Ausumgaard is based on grass from approximately 400 ha which is cultivated by Ausumgaard and two neighbours. Within one to two years, the goal is to increase production to 700 ha, and within approximately five years to 1000-1200 ha. Accordingly, Ausumgaard plans to produce even more clover grass, and a dialogue has been initiated to establish whether several neighbours are willing to grow clover grass for the plant. The clover grass should preferably not be transported more than approximately 15 km.
However, it depends on the future harvesting methods and harvest logistics, Kristian Lundgaard-Karlshøj explains. If in the future the grass can be compacted more so that we can have more on each load, we will be able to receive grass that has been harvested further away.
The farmers who will benefit from the innovation process are:
– Producers who supply clover grass to the plant
– Livestock producers who can buy locally produced and sustainable protein feed
– Farmers establishing a green protein plant
In 2021 and 2022, several adjustments have been made to the plant to increase productivity, but from 2023, it will be possible to implement the model by others who want to establish a plant.
In Denmark, it has so far been large feed companies such as Vestjyllands Andel that have been responsible for marketing the protein, but in the long run, some large farms may engage in it as well. It may also be interesting at biogas plants to combine biogas production and protein production.
From 2023, the Danish state will run a support scheme to promote the establishment of more biorefineries.
In favour of even more farmers delivering to the plant and using the feed is that the need for locally produced protein has become even greater in recent years due to both the challenges of securing the feed supply and the climate impact of soy production. At the same time, the production and use of green protein match the organic mindset. It has also been confirmed that green protein is a very suitable feed with high digestibility and in the long run, further refinement for human consumption may be possible, ensuring organic producers an even higher price for their clover grass. Virtually everyone is very positive about the production and use of green protein – both farmers, politicians, and the Danish population in general.
Often there is “a flip side to the coin” when new innovative initiatives are set in motion, but not in this case, says Kristian Lundgaard-Karlshøj.