As expensive as it is to buy or build tobacco-curing facilities, you have to maximize their use.

Burley and dark air-cured grower Mark Robertson of Calhoun, Ky., has developed a system for curing his tobacco involving three types of curing units: conventional multi-tier barns, plastic-covered wire-cable structures and plastic-covered structures made from warehouse pallet racks.

Dark air and burley follow a nearly identical curing regimen, with stalks hanging from sticks or wires in ambient conditions without any heat, so any air-curing structures can be used for either type.

His approach to curing starts with his nine conventional barns, most with either five or six tiers. Last season, he used seven of them for dark and two for burley.

But most of the burley is cured on the outdoor wire cable structures, which use high tensile wire strung from fence post frames that are anchored and braced, he says.

These structures are one-tier high with posts 10 feet apart. The structures are 44 inches wide and there are 12-foot pathways between them. They are covered with black plastic during the cure.

The wire cable structures have been part of his plan for seven years now.

In recent years he has supplemented that curing space with outdoor structures put together from warehouse pallet racks with about the same dimensions as the wire cable units.

“They are easy to move and they are not expensive compared to other curing structures. And you may be able to sell them once you are done with them.”

The main advantage of the pallet-racking structures is that they can be set up easily where a farmer needs temporary, low-cost curing capacity, says John Wilhoit, University of Kentucky agricultural engineer. “Then they can easily be dismantled after the tobacco is taken down, requiring minimal storage space during the off season.”

Pallet racks are not the lowest-cost option for additional curing space, says Wilhoit. “However, they could be an appropriate choice (on individual farms) because of their ease of assembly and disassembly.”

Resale value a plus

Their resale value will be a plus for growers who want to expand curing capacity, but are reluctant to make a large capital investment with a long payback period, he says.

Racking systems can also be used to build permanent structures, says Wilhoit. They are very flexible — he has seen them used to build single-tiered field structures, double-tiered structures placed in barn driveways and three-tier structures for open interior buildings like warehouses.

The yield was good on the 2011 dark crop in Kentucky and Tennessee, he says, and the quality was acceptable.

“But we have had better quality crops, and we were certainly hoping for better,” he says.

“Cool weather at parts of the curing season reduced the quality. But it was a good useable crop, and there was plenty of it.”

He expects a small increase in the acreage offered by companies for contract this year, because the big 2011 crop sold so well.

“The companies bought all our overage from the last crop — in fact they kind of jumped at it,” he says. “It looks like they need tobacco,”

No dark contracts had been offered as of mid-January, as far as he knew.

Dark air-cured and burley complement each other, especially at harvesting and stripping. “We can work the burley when weather conditions aren’t favorable for dark tobacco and the other way around,” he says.

“This works pretty good. As soon as tobacco cures up, you need to get it down and stripped.”

He cut back on burley about 20 percent last year and may cut more if a substantial increase in dark contracts are available or if a price increase for burley is not forthcoming.

A change in source of curing heat has made a big difference in cost for Ryan Patterson of Broadway, N.C., since he bought a biomass burner/boiler in 2010.

He used it initially to provide heat with wood chips and sawdust as fuel for the greenhouses that he uses to grow tomatoes in.

He has since bought two more and uses the three to provide curing heat for his flue-cured tobacco barns.

The units have worked out very well.

“We found that the two burner-boilers we used for tobacco last year cut out about 50 percent of the fuel cost on our 10 tobacco barns,” he says.

“We think that when we get the third boiler-burner involved, we will be spending about a tenth of what we would have been spending on LP gas.”

He figures that with LP gas at $2 a gallon and about 370 gallons of LP gas used per barn, the cost per barn using all LP gas would have been $740.

“The boiler-burner does away with LP gas, and I am ready for that,” he says.

Besides the curing barns and the tomato greenhouse, he will use one of his boiler-burners to heat his tobacco greenhouse this spring, he says.