COLUMBIA — With hay fields singed by the drought and cattle farmers searching for feed, corn stalks have become a profitable commodity across the Midwest.
The increased demand and rising price for so-called corn stover has led Missouri corn farmers to collect the stalks that were previously left in the field.
Corn stover has been selling in Missouri for $60 to $100 per ton or $35 to $45 per large round bail, according to the Missouri Weekly Hay Summary, an agricultural market summary collected by the Missouri Department of Agriculture.
"If you look at corn stover historically, it has really come into play this year," Gary Wheeler, vice president of operations and grower services at the Missouri Corn Growers Association said. "It has really helped out the corn growers and the cattle industry."
Sarah Wilkinson, the market reporter for the weekly hay summary, said this is the first year that a market price for corn stover has been tracked. The price has finally reached a level warranting the inclusion, she said.
Bob Garino, the director of the National Agricultural Statistics Service, said that this was the first time he has ever heard of statistics being collected on corn stover. The statistics service does not ask questions about corn stover on its survey.
"We don't view it as a commodity," he said.
That hasn't stopped Missouri farmers from selling corn stalks.
Jeff Fischer, a farmer from the Jefferson City area, said he had harvested and baled the corn stalks on his 1,500 acres the past two years, and will continue to do so as long as there is demand.
"Its been profitable," he said. With his corn crop yielding half of the anticipated production for this year, he considers the stover a "value added" crop.
Farmers' interest in harvesting corn stalks has driven agricultural equipment manufacturers to build round balers engineered to handle corn stalks.
Round baling corn stalks is "really hard on regular hay balers," Fisher said. Fisher bought one of the new balers this year.
A new round baler made by Deere and Co. includes features such as heavier teeth to pick up the stalks of corn and stronger belts that are used to shape the round bale.
"It's a beefed-up version," Keaton Wheelan, a salesman at Sydenstricker John Deere in Mexico, Mo., said. The store plans to begin selling the new equipment soon, he said.
He said several customers are harvesting with a smaller baler designed to handle hay, but "we would absolutely find buyers for the new balers here in Missouri."
"There are quite a few operations harvesting corn stalks in the area."
Agricultural economists are worried about erosion and nutrient loss that can be associated with removing corn stalks.
"Not all land is suitable for corn stover harvest," Wheeler said. "Before making the decision to harvest, fields should be evaluated."
Glenn Davis of the USDA's Natural Resource Conservation Service said his agency recommends farmers not remove corn stalks on fields with slopes greater than 5 percent grade.
"The fields that have more slope are going to be more vulnerable," Davis said. "Many people undervalue the cost of erosion. That is a hidden cost."
Removing the stalks means there is less cover for the soil to prevent erosion, he said, especially in the spring when there is a substantial amount of soil loss.
Davis said flatter fields with slopes of less than 2 percent could safely harvest corn stalks without much worry of erosion.
"My land is table-top flat, so I am not really worried about erosion," Fischer said, "but if you talk to farmers north of me — Boone County — it is a concern."
Farmers can help reduce the amount of erosion in their fields by using cover crops, grasses that are meant to hold the soil in place after the corn stalks are removed and switching to no-till farming, an agricultural technique that eliminates deep plowing.
The cost of nutrient loss also needs to be factored in, Davis said. When corn stalks are removed from a field, nutrients in the stalks that would have been put back into the soil are removed, and if those nutrients are not replaced, soil health diminishes. Many of the nutrients lost during corn stover harvest can be replaced by nutrients in chemical fertilizers, Davis said.
That is why the corn growers association advises its members to annually test the soil quality of fields every three years, Wheeler said.
At this point, Fischer said he doesn't see nutrient loss as a huge issue as long as stalks aren't removed from the same fields every year. Fischer tests his soil every winter and uses a crop rotation of wheat, corn and soybean to help negate nutrient loss.
"Right now the benefit outweighs what we are taking from the soil," he said.
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