Higher yields found as result creating biofuels from corn stover

Randi Reeder

An interest in removing corn stalks and leaves, called stover, from fields for biofuels produced a five year research project addressing key environmental concerns.

Issues including erosion and loss of carbon by taking corn stover from fields resulted in developing a new farming approach, which also produced higher yields.

“The project focused on trying to protect these resources while maintaining or increasing corn yield relative to conventional production practices,” said Ken Moore, the Charles F. Curtiss Distinguished Professor of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Moore, Jeremy Singer, collaborator and assistant professor at the National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment, and Kendall Lamkey, professor and chairman of the department of agronomy, have been working together on this study.

Improving yields and preventing erosion are two factors that are important to farmers, making the study look promising. However, currently the practice is labor intensive and would have to be perfected before it can be used in the field. Moore hopes to establish a system that would be as “painless as possible” for farmers.

To keep input costs low, time and labor put into this practice needs to be perfected.

“We need to codevelop hybrids, groundcovers, machinery and agronomic practices to the extent that it takes no more time to use this approach and the returns are as good or better than doing it any other way,” Moore said.

When asked if a 5 to 10 percent increase would be worth the cost and labor of the in-row cover crop, Moore said he was unsure based on the limited data.

“From a cash flow perspective, if you are only interested in harvesting grain, the returns over time would probably be marginal,” Moore said. To benefit from this practice is to make a profit from selling the stover while maintaining the land.

As far as the increase yields go, Moore said it will depend largely on the weather. “In the four years we did field testing, yields increased relative to the control in only one year.”

In other years the yields were the same for both the cover crop corn and the control due to wet conditions. Since groundcovers help retain soil moisture, Moore thinks this will favor higher yields under hot and dry conditions.

Advice to farmers right now from Moore is to not adopt this “brittle” process yet. “It is very costly in terms of corn yield when something goes wrong,” he said.

Another factor against it is current technology.

“In the future, I envision a complete production system using perennial ground cover that protects and improves ecosystem functioning and produces superior crop performance,” Moore said.