How Grass Clippings May Change Our Industry Forever
Grass clippings are the Rodney Dangerfields of the turfgrass industry. Nothing gets less respect than lawn waste. Over the years professional turfgrass maintainers have tried just about everything to deal with them. They’ve hauled them to a landfill, attempted to compost them and mulched them.
But their most common solution is to leave them on clients’ lawns where they fall. To sooth the concerns of clients that agree to this (fastidious clients generally don’t), landscape pros explain that the clippings are beneficial to their lawns because they return nitrogen, essential for turfgrass health, back to them.
But is this true? Do lawn clippings return enough nitrogen back to turfgrass to matter? Todd Graus, a veteran lawn care business owner in Wyoming, disputes this.
In fact, when he takes off his cowboy hat, which he is fond of wearing, and dons his entrepreneurial hat, he says that instead of looking at lawn clippings as a waste product and, in most cases, an expense, the industry will someday begin to see them as a revenue producer.
That day is coming sooner rather than later, he’s convinced.
Graus says he’s developed a practical and profitable way to turn lawn clippings from being a profit-sucking expense into cash. But his vision for the turfgrass maintenance industry is greater than that — much greater. He says he has developed technology and a business model that has the potential to “revolutionize” the turfgrass industry. In fact, he doesn’t think it’s a stretch to one day view lawn clippings as a crop — a water-conserving crop.
When that happens, he says agencies that have been incentivizing property owners to remove their lawns, such as in the Southwest and Florida, may reverse their efforts and, instead, begin appreciating lawns. They will view turfgrass in a more environmentally friendly light and also as a resource in the country’s food production chain.
This is an audacious claim, even coming from a successful green industry business owner with 40 years experience behind him. That he’s counting on lowly grass clippings, the bane of the industry, to ignite this revolution stretches credulity. But, let’s hear him out.
Linking mowing and livestock
Graus says he’s got research to prove he can turn lawn clippings into, essentially, a cash crop, and he’s already gained the ear of the agricultural industry. Maybe he has something here.
Graus, a country-boy tinkerer who loves the outdoors, began his career as a laborer in the green industry in Nebraska in 1976. Eight years later he started his own company, Green Turf Lawnscapes Inc., which he and his wife relocated to Jackson, Wyoming, in the mid 1990s. He remains president of that company, although his wife, Holly, basically runs their Jackson location and trusted colleague, Joel Arellano, handles the company’s Worland location. Between the two locations, Green Turf Lawnscapes Inc. services about one quarter of Wyoming.
Graus now devotes most of his time and efforts (and a lot of cash) to Yellowstone Compact & Commodities Corp. (YCC), a company he founded in 2010 to perfect his “Grass2Cash” concept. As CEO of YCC, he has spent the past six years developing the Biopac’r, his product to turn grass clippings into livestock silage.
He is also building a comprehensive business system to help mowing professionals — landscapers, golf course superintendents, municipal and industrial grounds departments, etc. – to sell the resulting grass silage to feed lots across North America.
“I’ve been accumulating a list of farmers, ranchers and dairies, even pelletizing companies, that are interested in lawn clipping silage. I have brought all of these contacts into my network,” says Graus.
“Farmers and ranchers are emerging as some of my biggest cheerleaders,” he continues. “They’ve been watching lawn clippings going to the dump and wondering, especially during years of drought, why in the heck can’t we feed those clippings to our cattle? Grass is a wonderful food for cattle,” he says.
Graus says the Biopac’r and the links he is building between mowing operations and the livestock industry will allow turfgrass professionals to provide livestock operations with a steadier flow of better-quality fodder, often at a lower price than other commonly used feed such as hay or grains.
The secret sauce
So what is the Biopac’r?
The Biopac’r is a rugged, metal, self-contained compactor that slides into the back of a pickup or trailer. The unit compresses multiple pickup or trailer loads of lawn clippings into one-ton proprietary, poly-lined bags. But just about anybody can make compactors, admits Graus. That’s not what makes his Biopac’r unique.
The secret is in his “sauce,” the process he developed using the Biopac’r to ferment (ensile) lawn clippings in an air-free environment. This patent-pending biological process generates Lawn Clippings Silage, the term Graus has trademarked to describe the end product. He says his process has undergone extensive university testing, ensuring that it detoxifies grass silage just like famers detoxify their crops of hay silage.
Graus manufactured the first Biopac’r in a small fabricating shop in his hometown of Jackson five years ago. He hasn’t stopped working on improving its design. The Biopac’rs being manufactured today represent the fifth generation of the unit’s design. A much larger agricultural equipment fabricator in Grand Island, Nebraska, is now producing the units, as Graus is confident demand for them will continue to grow.
“I’ve had a half-dozen pioneers buying the machines and offering feedback to me. I’ve been keeping my ears open to all of their suggestions,” says Graus. “Their reactions to the machines’ performance have been 100 percent positive.”
The Clippings Myth?
About 30 years ago local authorities began forbidding the dumping of landscape waste, including grass clippings, in their landfills. This created a huge problem for the lawn care industry. What could lawn contractors do with the tons of clippings and other green waste they generated each season?
Few contractors have the property or expertise to haul the waste back to their shops and compost it. Besides, gathering, hauling and disposing of grass clippings, whether at the rare landfills still accepting them or at a composting site, is expensive when you figure in the time and labor involved.
Shortly after landfills became off limits to green waste, the former Professional Lawn Care Association of America (PLCAA, later to become part of PLANET and now NALP) kicked off its “Grasscycling” program. It promoted leaving grass clippings just where they lay after being mowed. A similar program called “Don’t Bag It” urged the same of landscape pros and homeowners in Texas.
These programs, along with claims that clippings returned a small amount of nitrogen back to lawns, helped popularize the development of mulching mowers, which remain a popular choice of many landscapers and homeowners to this day.
Todd Graus, CEO of Yellowstone Compact & Commodities, disputes claims that lawn clippings left on lawns make an observable difference in their appearance or health. He says it’s “a myth” that clippings return 1 pound of nitrogen to lawns each season. The reason? Clippings end up on top of the lawn and do not make their way into the soil to benefit turfgrass.
“As a lawn fertilization professional for 35 years, I have never seen a visual difference between lawns mulched and lawns bagged,” says Graus. He adds that mulching can promote thatch buildup and also increase the possibility of lawn diseases because disease spores on clippings can re-infect emerging grass blades.
Moreover, he says, landscape pros are left with the same huge problem they faced about 30 years ago — the same labor- and time-wasting chore of gathering grass clippings and disposing of them in some way. That this activity takes place during contractors’ busiest times of the year — spring and early fall — only magnifies the expense.
As Graus ramps up production of the Biopac’rs at the Nebraska factory, he is also building out a system to efficiently connect mowing operations with feedlots.
“I am creating a system where I may have a feedlot with 5,000 head of cattle, so we will need to sell five machines in the region to five different landscapers, for example, so that they can cumulatively offer enough silage to that feedlot for it to have a good supply during the winter,” he explains.
To date, golf course superintendents seem to be showing the most interest in the Biopac’r. That’s not surprising, says Graus, given the huge amount of clippings they generate each season in mowing 100 or more acres regularly.
Transitioning from being the owner of a lawn service company to being the founder and owner of YCC, a company that developed, manufactures and markets a new product is a huge challenge, says Graus.
“This has been a very big leap for me,” he admits, reflectively. “Understanding supply chains, dealing with larger numbers when it comes to sales rather than with small numbers, such as the sale of lawn or tree care and setting up distribution.”
Graus says his next step is to bring on additional technical staff to move YCC to the next level.
“Once we start to view turfgrass as a crop that will improve the economics of both turfgrass professionals and farmers, as well for its environmental and aesthetic benefits,” says Graus, “then a lot of things that seem way far out now will come home to settle pretty quickly.”