While bales of stalks aren’t pretty, this Bt corn by-product is becoming attractive as a feedstock when hay supplies are short.
Historic drought conditions throughout Texas and surrounding areas have led to an astronomical increase in hay prices.
According to Shawn Skaggs, general manager, Livingston Machinery Co., Chickasha, Okla., hay went from $135-330 per ton throughout the region.
While stover-for-ethanol is what grabs the headlines, baling up stover for feed is getting more attention with recent droughts, and may demonstrate to farmers that a portion of residue may be removed without detrimental effect.
“We saw a 150% increase in hay prices,” he says.
To avoid having to cull their herds entirely, ranchers and feedlot operators began looking for alternative feed sources.
“With everything in such short supply, they were basically willing to take anything they could get as far as forage so they weren’t forced to sell out. So stover has become big business around here,” Skaggs says.
Stover is the material left over after the corn harvest, consisting of stalks, leaves, husks and cobs. While many growers long considered residue a part of their nutrient management program, the Bt and continuous corn movement now have others viewing it as a headache-inducing problem requiring other changes to a cropping system.
Stover makes an ugly bale, but its potential as a feed alternative is bringing new attention as a way to not only remove a portion of residue from the field, but maybe make a buck or two. And it may show farmers they can get by without letting a portion of that residue leave their fields.
While corn stover offers only limited nutritional value as a feedstock, dairy farmers, cattle ranchers and feedlot operators have been using it for years to stretch rations — especially when hay has been in short supply.
Ric Kirby, president of Kirby Manufacturing in Merced, Ca., explains that hay shortages aren’t necessarily restricted to drought areas.
“The hay supplies have been squeezed in recent years with pressure from dairies,” he says. “As the head size of the dairies decreases, some hay producers in my area used their land to grow corn instead because it was more profitable. So hay supplies tightened.”
"Research is proving promising in terms of being able to enhance the stover to make it more nutritious …"
But this increased corn acreage provides the opportunity to turn that residue into a revenue stream. Most agree that if a financial case can be made for baling stalks, they will go that direction.
Randy Reinke, Reinke Farm & City Service, Neligh, Neb., says the benefit of baling stalks would have to outweigh any additional expense.
“The price would need to be greater than the fertilizer cost you are robbing off — which depends on soil type,” he says. “But you can get about 3 bales per acre.”
Ain’t Grandpa’s Corn
The process of cutting and baling corn stalks varies dramatically by region.
Residue management is certainly not a new problem. Conventional wisdom among many crop producers — especially in the Midwest — has been to either leave stover in the field to curb erosion and/or till it back into the ground to boost organic matter by returning its nutrients in the soil.
But the Bt characteristics in today’s genetically modified corn are forcing changes. While new corn traits certainly improve yields, the increased lignin in the stalks resists decomposition, causing other problems for farmers.
Longtime hay producer Paul Marks is also an equipment consultant with Archbold Equipment, Archbold, Ohio. For the last decade, he’s been baling corn stalks for both feed and bedding. He has seen firsthand how you simply can’t handle residue the same way as before.
“I needed to do some fall seeding in a field I had rented. When I plowed it, the previous season’s corn stalks all came to the top,” he says. “The centers were rotted out, but the outside shells were just like they were when I plowed them under. This stuff doesn’t break down at all.”
So farmers will have to begin cope with the corn residue in new ways. Besides tillage, another solution is to bale it for feed or for cellulosic ethanol production — both providing promise for revenue.
There has been interest in both practices in many regions but, as John Estes, president of Rosebud Tractor & Equipment, Rosebud, Mo., says, it has not become widespread.
“There is still a lot of research needed on this practice,” he says. “While the market is out of its infancy, it’s only really in the ‘toddler’ stage.”
The trick, of course, is to find a market for the bales. The much-talked about cellulosic ethanol concept still faces same challenges — most notably, logistics and fuel prices. And in most areas of the country, the cellulosic plants have been slow to take off.
But drought areas affected by high hay prices bring a potential market — feed. And research by companies such as ADM is proving promising in terms of being able to enhance the corn stover to make it more nutritious for livestock. (See “Nutritional Feed Value of Stover Can Be ‘Enhanced” on p. 52.)
Marks consistently gets $12.50-15 per round bale for the stalks he produces. But in recent years, these bales have brought in as much as $28-32 per bale in certain parts of the country.
And another potential “route” for the corn stover does not involve the exchange of money at all. In some parts of the country, successful relationships have been forged between crop farmers and large dairies or feedlots.
Crop farmers contract with a dairy to remove stover from the fields. The dairy then uses this material to stretch feed rations and also for bedding material. In the spring, the dairy reapplies manure to the crop land to replace the lost nutrient value from the stover. This saves residue management and fertilizer costs for the crop farmer, and the dairy farmer benefits by saving on bedding and feed costs while also finding alternatives for manure management — a significant challenge for very large dairies.
One of the biggest questions is how much of the stalk to leave on the field. The accepted removal rate varies dramatically by region, weather, terrain and soil conditions with little consensus. While many farmers feel it is important to return much of the stalk to the ground, removing a portion of it helps the ground dry out and warm up a little quicker in the spring. It’s a “watch the neighbors, trial-and-error” argument.
So when looking at the equipment used in this process, it also varies quite a bit depending on how much stalk is left in the field.
Typically, the stalks are cut with a large rotary cutter and then raked before baling. Some folks just run the baler through the field, which leaves about half the material intact and is also very hard on the baler.
• In drought areas, where stover is a sought-after feed alternative, you must jump on the opportunity to sell balers quickly. The window of interest can be short.
• Find one progressive farmer who is making money at it. Once farmers see someone who can make some money at it, others will “follow the leader.”
• Have plenty of service help trained and at the ready, because corn stalks are harder on equipment.
Marks offers some advice for dealers who are selling balers for corn stalks.
“If you sell a round baler to a farmer accustomed to doing hay, you need to tell them when they start doing corn stalks to move their diameter down about 2-3 inches,” he says. “And when the horn goes off, they need to stop the feeding immediately or the pins will shear.”
But the most significant thing to keep in mind when considering the equipment side of the corn stover equation is the increased wear — this stuff is abrasive.
“Corn stalks are to a hay baler what rice hulls are to a combine,” says Estes. “There is no barrier between the baler and the soil. You are going to run down some tops of some of the rows and get some dirt in there.”
This dirt and grit is especially hard on the belts and pick-ups, which must be replaced more often than when baling hay. But structurally, baling corn stalks does not really affect the baler, as Marks can attest to.
“I’ve got 15,000-plus bales on my baler, and I haven’t replaced anything on it. So dealers don’t have to be afraid of that part of it. When they are selling somebody into baling corn stalks they aren’t going to completely wear the baler out. But they are going to speed up the wear a little depending on how much volume they do. But it isn’t severe.”
Bottom-line: Selling and servicing balers used for corn stover can be a significant revenue stream.
Skaggs says in west Texas and the panhandle of Oklahoma (where stover has really taken off this year because of the drought), service techs were on call 24/7.
“These guys have had to practically live in west Texas all through the winter because it has basically been non-stop out there,” he says. “We’ve had a lot of customers that have spent $20,000-$30,000 on service calls for their square balers in the last six months.”
Depending on the region, baling corn stalks is not quite as time-
sensitive as hay or other crops. So in some areas, stalks are baled through the winter. This represents an additional opportunity for off-season service and parts sales.
“Because of where we’re located in southern Missouri, we don’t participate much in the row-crop business. We don’t sell or service combines or the big tractors. We usually just have a crazy May, June and July during hay baling season. But with corn stalks, we can add some significant
off-season service work through October, November and December,” says John Estes.
Baling and selling corn stover for feed is certainly not going to lead to dramatic growth. But it can, in the near-term, be a very important solution when hay supply is short and feed prices are expensive.
Corn stalks may make it possible for some cattle producers to stay in business. And at the end of the day, especially with more interest in cellulosic ethanol, if it makes financial sense, it will continue to evolve.
Nutritional Feed Value of
Stover Can Be ‘Enhanced’
Corn stover, in its most basic form, is made up of lignin, cellulose and hemi-cellulose. These elements are not particularly digestible. But new research from ADM shows a substantial portion of the grain in cattle feed can be effectively replaced with corn stover. That is, when these harvest residues are treated with a common food ingredient known as hydrated lime (calcium oxide).
In cattle-feeding trials, adding hydrated lime to corn stover rendered the material sufficiently digestible to constitute up to 25% of cattle rations after the treated stover was combined with wet distillers grains and soluble — a by-product of corn ethanol production.
According to Alan Grusby, ADM senior research scientist, the process for treating the stover is relatively simple and can be done on the farm. Here’s how it works.
Once the stover is collected and baled, you need to check the moisture content and then grind it in a tub grinder. Grusby recommends installing a 3-inch screen so that the pieces coming out are no bigger than three inches.
After it is ground up, put the stover into a feed wagon with a scale on it, add a 5% treatment of calcium oxide and bring up the moisture content to 50%.
So for 1,000 pounds of dry stover, a 5% treatment would be 50 pounds of calcium oxide. If the bale started with 20% moisture content, the whole bale would weigh 1,250 pounds (1,000 pounds of dry stover and 250 pounds of moisture, 50 pounds of calcium oxide). The next step is to add enough water to bring the mixture to 50% moisture content. In this case, you would add 800 pounds of water. So in the end, you would have 1,050 pounds of dry matter and 1,050 pounds of moisture. It’s a 50/50 mixture, very similar to corn silage.
Another important aspect to the treatment is the overall pH. The pH of the stover before treatment is usually in the 6.5-8.5 range. After the calcium oxide is added, the pH is raised to 12.5. It is a good idea to check pH in several areas of the mixture, to ensure there is an even mix of the calcium oxide.
After that, the mixture is dumped out on the ground or in a bunk and within 5 minutes, there should be a dramatic change in color — it will turn green. This indicates the lignin, cellulose and hemi-cellulose have begun to break down. This mixture must sit for 5-7 days for the chemical reaction to continue. After that, it can be fed to the cattle.
You can also process large amounts of the stover and store it in a feed bunker. It will last as long as it is kept away from air, under a tarp.
Grusby says the stover and distillers’ grain combination is an effective, economical partial replacement for corn.
“This combination replaces corn in the diet. So as corn gets to $6-8 a bushel, it becomes very economical,” he says. “Because this corn stover treatment costs roughly $20 a ton.”