Corn forum: Stover market emergence tipping forward

By Katie Fletcher | June 09, 2014

The agricultural industry has reached the point to begin the production of cellulosic ethanol from corn stover. The tipping point has not only been reached in utilizing crop residues, but also in optimizing corn in general to keep up with our exploding population. By 2050 the world’s population is expected to grow by 2 billion people. This put into perspective is two more countries of India or nine more of the United States. In fact the same amount of food must be raised between now and 2050 as was now and the beginning of time to maintain starvation levels in the world.

“The numbers are quite boggling,” said Jack Bernens, head of Enogen marketing and stakeholder relations with Syngenta, at the Emerging Corn Production Technologies and Science Forum held June 9, prior to the 2014 International Fuel Ethanol Workshop & Expo in Indianapolis.

Although the numbers are as Bernens said, “boggling,” all the panelists during the morning sessions of the corn forum were optimistic about the future of the emerging corn stover market, and the overall optimization of corn through new seed traits.

“I am excited to be working to address these issues and the impact of new technologies, and how significant that is to help us address sustainable food security,” Bernens said.

Two panels were held in the morning, with one comprehensively looking at corn stover, including the options for collection, maintaining soil health and crop productivity, the optimization of equipment and collection, and a vision for stakeholder collaboration for the new cellulosic economy. The next panel focused on plant genetics to optimize corn use. Both panels had the future in mind with an emphasis on optimization and efficiency.

“What we need to focus on is efficiency,” said Scott Wangsgard a biomass marketing specialist with New Holland, and one of the four panelists discussing the emerging corn stover market.

Commissioning phases are beginning this summer for three separate cellulosic ethanol facilities using corn stover. Producers near those facilities are already feeling the impact, and best practices are being developed for stover harvest and collection in anticipation of the construction of additional facilities.

Wangsgard identified corn stover collection as one of the biggest challenges facing the industry, noting there is a “mammoth amount of equipment needed for the facilities.” In his presentation he discussed different machinery options for corn stover collection. As the amount of stover left on the ground accumulates, Wangsgard describes the collection technology being developed as a “growing opportunity.” The collection of stover is becoming increasingly important.

“We are seeing increased yields because of corn stover removal,” Wangesgard said. “It is becoming important not just to have stover itself, but for the emerging corn market.”

Corn stover is currently mostly used for feed or bedding. “There are 137 million tons of corn stover presently available,” Wangsgard said. “It is the most readily available biomass we have in the country.”

The challenge has become on how to utilize the increasing amounts of corn stover left on the ground. “The Corn Belt is where there is too much stover, and we need to manage it to maintain yields and soil health,” said Brian Weinhold, location coordinator and research leader at USDA Agricultural Research Service’s Agroecosystem Management Research.

Stalk choppers and raking were two methods discussed. Stalk choppers are used to break up the stalks. This technique requires a high horsepower tractor, but it eliminates the need for raking and decreases the amount of dirt incorporated into the windrow. On the other hand, raking requires a lower horsepower, but may require stalk chopping before raking. “It leaves the stalk intact, which is more efficient for baler pickup, but incorporates a lot of dirt,” Wangsgard said.

Another technique is through the Cornrower, developed by Straeter Industries at New Holland Rochester located in Indiana. It is an attachment that fits on the corn head and has been tested and approved to be used on New Holland CR combines equipped with the high-speed header drive. A few benefits of Cornrower are that it eliminates the chance of dirt entering the windrow, the chopped stover increases the baler intake capacity and the bale density is increased through this method compared to others.

Beyond the collection of corn stover, round versus square packaging options were discussed. “Round bale sales just for corn stover is becoming a bigger and bigger market,” Wanesgard said. Although round bales are predominantly being used in regards to stover, square bales are more efficient when it comes to handling and transporting large amounts.

Baling technology is being developed to adapt to handling corn stover more economically. The way it feeds, increased tying sizes and pickup durability are a few improvements that are helping this industry.

Training and service are critical, Glenn Farris, marketing manager of biomass at AGCO, emphasized. “2012 failure mode rate was every seven bales, 2013 data was up to 35 to 40 bale range,” he said.

One of the big challenges is the transportation of the corn stover due to its high volume and low bulk density. Winston Akoto, operation and supply chain director at DuPont Applied Biosciences, saod that bale density is amongst the four highest supply chain cost influencers related to baling operation. The others include harvest rate, bale length and baler field efficiency.

The current density ranges, according to Wangsgard, are around 10 pounds per cubic foot for round bales and 11 for square.

“The tipping point is where is it going to start and take off,” Wanesgard said. “Bale handling can make or break it.”

Although the industry is looking at new ways to collect, package and transport the stover, not all corn stover should be collected to maintain soil health. “You don’t want to remove stover in areas of the field where there is erosion, hill slopes or where high winds, low production levels need the stover to protect against wind erosion,” Weinhold said.

“The main issue is sustainability, being able to understand how much stover you can take while still maintaining the health of the soil,” Akoto said.

Ultimately even if stover does not make it to the biorefineries for the production of cellulosic ethanol, industry professionals believe stover will continue to be utilized. Perhaps, according to the panel, eventually being densified into pellets for more effective transportation.

The population is rapidly growing, and more crops need to be grown. Renewable resources are gaining attention, and the utilization of crop residues, like corn stover, has reached a tipping point.