The next feed-versus-fuel flap?

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The scramble to develop renewable, domestic sources of energy could soon create competition for another source of cattle feed – corn stover.

In a news release this week, DuPont Danisco Cellulosic Ethanol, a wholly-owned subsidiary of DuPont, announced an agreement to purchase land in Iowa for a commercial biorefinery to make fuel from cellulose, including from the corn stalks, ears and leaves left in fields after the combines do their work.

"We're producing cellulosic ethanol sustainably and economically today, and the market is ready and interested to deploy large-scale biorefineries," says Joe Skurla, CEO of DDCE.

Today of course, beef producers commonly use corn stover as feed, either in a baled form or, more commonly, by grazing cows or yearlings on corn fields through the winter. Stubble grazing has become an important and cost-effective winter feeding program for many Corn Belt producers, who typically lease grazing rights, string some electric fence and run their cattle on the fields for a prescribed period. After removing the cattle in the spring, farmers till the manure and remaining stover into the fields, providing long-term benefits to soil fertility and tilth. Farmers who do not graze corn stubble also benefit from its snow-catching, erosion-controlling properties and by tilling in the organic material into the soil.

So, while advancements in producing ethanol from cellulose sources offer another way to address our need for energy while reducing our dependence on foreign oil, large-scale use of corn stover for fuel production could have negative implications for beef producers. We’re all well familiar with the discord within agriculture over the use of corn grain for ethanol production. Demand from the ethanol industry clearly has contributed to the dramatic increase in corn prices over the past few years. It’s not the only cause, but it plays a role.

Corn growers and other supporters are quick to point out, correctly, that a large percentage of the corn used in ethanol production comes back to livestock producers in the form of distillers’ grains. The fermentation process uses just the starch component, leaving co-products that are high in protein and energy from corn oil. The by-products of cellulosic ethanol production will not serve as such high-quality livestock feeds.

Of course, a range of raw materials can produce cellulosic ethanol. These include switchgrass and other perennial plants, wood pulp, sawdust and even waste paper and cardboard. And cellulosic ethanol offers a number of potential economic and environmental benefits. According to Wikipedia, the United States Department of Energy concludes that corn-based ethanol provides 26 percent more energy than it requires for production, while cellulosic ethanol provides 80 percent more energy.

Whether development of cellulosic ethanol technology will create enough demand for corn stover to raise its value and compete with beef producers remains to be seen, but the issue bears watching.

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David P    
Oregon  |  June, 28, 2011 at 03:56 PM

Really? You're citing "wikipedia" as a reference? Are you aware of how wikipedia works? You should have at least followed the references to the primary source.

Colorado  |  June, 29, 2011 at 10:44 AM

I though Switch Grass was identified as the preferred crop for cellulose derived ethanol. Grows like a weed and doesn't need fertilizer/irrigation. Before anyony starts freaking out, we should ask: 1) What percentage of corn fields are currently used for stubble grazing? 2) What percentage of cattle are grazing on these fields?

Kentucky  |  July, 05, 2011 at 09:52 PM

Neither ethanol from corn kernels nor stover is a renewable source of energy. This is because corn production requires vast quantities of chemical fertilizer - primarily nitrogen, phosphate and potassium. Nitrogen is readily available in the atmosphere, but is unusable in that form as fertilizer by corn plants. To use nitrogen as fertilizer requires natural gas to be converted to a form usable by a corn plant. Natural gas is a carbon fuel, and not renewable - ever how much there is, that's all there is. Phosphate and potassium are minerals mined from the earth, and obviously not renewable. So increased corn production to fuel ethanol plants accelerates the exhaustion of non-renewable resources. I do not oppose the production of ethanol from corn, either kernel or stover. I oppose interference in the free market by the government at the urging of corn farmers, the RFA, and others who benefit. The writer alleges that ethanol from corn produces 26% more energy than it takes to produce it, and cellulosic ethanol produces 80% more. Don't believe it. If ethanol could be produced profitably without the federal legislation, its proponents would not be so vigorously defending the special treatment it receives. I say repeal the blending mandate(rising to 15 billion gallons in 2015), the tax credit(now 45 cents per gallon) and tariff on imported ethanol(now 51 cents per gallon). The free market can best determine the most efficient, least cost source of energy. Its past time to let it work.

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