A Jackson Hole golf course is using a machine created by a local entrepreneur to turn grass clippings into nutritious silage for an Idaho rancher’s cattle.
The BioPac’r, as the machine is called, is the brainchild of Todd Graus of Yellowstone Compact and Commodities Corp. in Jackson. Dan Tolson, golf course superintendent at The Club at 3 Creek, was an early customer.
“We are taking a waste stream and monetizing it,” Graus said.
Tolson remembers hearing him talk about the BioPac’r when it was still just a concept.
“I just thought it was brilliant, and I wanted to be part of it from the get-go,” Tolson said. The BioPac’r “helps the environment and gives landscapers and golf courses another revenue stream.”
The Club at 3 Creek sells silage to the Crowfoot J Ranch in Victor. Rancher Jesse Dewey said the feed is good for the cattle and good for his budget.
“It allowed us to have a cheaper way to put together rations for the cows but still give them the nutrients,” he said.
The Club at 3 Creek and the Crowfoot J found each other through Graus. Beyond selling the machines (at $13,000 to $16,000 each, depending on options) he acts as a broker between producers and buyers of BioPac’r silage.
It’s important to have the matchmaker, Tolson said, because golf courses, landscapers and other potential BioPac’r users aren’t necessarily hooked into the farmer-rancher network.
“Todd negotiated the pricing, the contract,” Tolson said. “He’s been involved with fine-tuning how it works, what we need to do to make it suitable for the rancher.”
Soon more golf courses, ranchers and other businesses may be trying out the BioPac’r as producers or buyers of silage. The business isn’t brand new, but it is newly poised for growth, thanks to a $50,000 grant the Wyoming Business Council awarded this spring to Yellowstone Compact and Commodities Corp.
Graus said the Kickstart: Wyoming cash covers the cost for Schlegel Manufacturing in Torrington to retool so it can build BioPac’rs. Switching from the previous manufacturer in Nebraska to the Torrington shop means he can turn them out faster and more cost-effectively.
“We’re moving from a manufacturing model of creating an inventory to perpetual inventory,” Graus said. “We’re building it as people are placing orders, and in half the time as previously.”
Graus runs the BioPac’r business from an office on South Park Drive, where he and his wife, Holly, operate a long-running lawn and tree care service called Green Turf Lawnscapes Inc. The origins of the BioPac’r go back to 2011, around the time that Green Turf, at the request of customers, added mowing to its list of services, Graus said. Disposing of the grass cuttings gave him a case of sticker shock.
“When we took our first load of clippings to the landfill it took two guys at $20 an hour and a half,” he said. “It was $60 in wages, and then I got a bill for $100. And that was just Monday. I said, ‘We’re just not charging enough.’”
So he came up with the BioPac’r. The machine compresses biomass and encases it in special plastic bags, where it ferments into a product that has a shelf life Graus says is at least eight years. He calls the process “ensiling.”
“Ensiling happens in the absence of air,” he said. “It’s anaerobic. ... The machine compresses and packages the biomass. Its job is to eliminate oxygen and regulate how much water is in the biomass.”
Fertilizers and pesticides in the grass are broken down and degraded in the first eight hours that clippings are sealed in the bag, he said.
“Bacteria convert the juice of the grass plant into lactic acid,” he said. “Now it’s like pickling cucumbers. It ferments and pickles what’s there. And that’s the process that kills the pesticides that are residual in grass clippings.”
He knows his stuff because he’s a forest pathologist by training. And in addition to running Green Turf he is a natural resource consultant in litigation cases involving water and tree issues. Legal firms hire him to be their expert witness.
“The BioPac’r is the accumulation of my entire career,” Graus said. “Everything I’ve ever done works here.”
The BioPac’r is a self-contained machine that slides into the back of a pickup truck or can be mounted on a trailer. It squishes biomass so tightly that it can hold five football fields’ worth of clippings, Graus said. The material is compressed into 1-ton cubes that measure 4 by 4 by 5 feet.
Graus said he built and tested seven prototypes before the first production run of about a dozen BioPac’rs in 2015. He anticipates building 25 this year and ramping up next year.
“By the end of 2020 we will have 175 machines in circulation,” he said.
Among the potential customers are landscapers, sod-growing companies, property managers and other golf courses. And the BioPac’r will be used for more than grass clippings, Graus said. Other possibilities, for example, are beet pulp, orange peelings, pineapple skins and other byproducts from juice companies. He sees a future with tomato farms, too.
And he has his eye on the brewers market. A BioPac’r-created package of spent grain from Roadhouse Brewing Co. is sitting outside the BioPac’r office now as an experiment.
“We’ll be sampling that to see how good the food value is,” Graus said.
Tolson said The Club at 3 Creek sold 16 tons of BioPac’r-made silage to the Crowfoot J last year and hopes to do 25 this year.
The golf club continues to learn about what material can be used. Last fall it found that some of the stems, organic matter and brown material that are churned up though vertical mowing can be turned into nutritious feed.
“As we get better at it we can save more to be made into silage,” Tolson said.
Three Creek has been using material from greens, tees and approaches, he said, and if it started harvesting from fairways, too, it could quadruple the amount of silage it produces, Tolson said.
The club has been selling its silage for $65 a ton.
“We were spending double that to haul it off,” he said. “It’s a pretty big swing in the budget.”
Tolson said he can see the price for BioPac’r silage increasing.
“A ton of grass hay sells for about $150 a ton,” he said. “This tests out better for nutrients. If it catches on I can see it being worth $150 to $200 a ton.”
The golf course’s other option for its clippings is to transport them to the trash transfer station so they can be composted and sold back to the community as mulch.
The fee is $80 a ton, according to the Teton County Integrated Solid Waste and Recycling Center’s webpage. But the cost to the golf club is higher, Tolson said, because there’s also time, manpower, fuel, and wear and tear on the truck to consider.
“It’s just not a good way to do it,” he said.
The Crowfoot J has about 250 head of cattle but has been feeding the 3 Creek silage only to a small group near the house, Dewey said.
“In the fall, when the grass has gone to seed and the protein level drops it makes a good supplement,” he said. “They can stay on pasture and still get good nutrients.” And in the winter, he said, “we don’t have to feed them as much hay, so we don’t have to produce as much of it ourselves.”
Aside from costs there’s an environmental side to the BioPac’r. Instead of using water and energy to grow hay, ranchers and farmers can buy a product made from things that are being harvested all the time.
“It’s a much more abundant commodity that requires a lot less environmental input to produce,” Tolson said. “That’s why I was so attracted to it early on.”
Contact 203-2736 or go to Biopacr.com.