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This file photo shows corn cobs collected from a harvested field for use as an energy source to produce heat and steam. A recent study conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture concluded that the presence or absence of post-harvest corn cobs does not significantly affect runoff rates, soil sediment loss or soil fertility. (Tribune file photo)

Corn cob removal not a significant threat to soil conservation

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WILLMAR — Researchers have discovered that corn stover, including corn cobs, could become an important raw material used in cellulosic ethanol production. Corn cobs have also proven to be a potential energy source.

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By Wes Nelson

USDA Farm Service Agency

WILLMAR — Researchers have discovered that corn stover, including corn cobs, could become an important raw material used in cellulosic ethanol production. Corn cobs have also proven to be a potential energy source.

In 2010, Willmar Municipal Utilities conducted trial tests to determine the feasibility of utilizing corn cobs as an energy source to produce heat and steam at its power plant. That same year, the Chippewa Valley Ethanol Co. plant at Benson tested the feasibility of converting corn cobs into a fuel source using a gasification process.

As it turned out, a decline in natural gas prices, combined with several other factors, made it economically impractical for either to continue or expand the use of corn cobs. However, their testing did confirm that corn cobs could be a viable alternative energy source in the future.

From a corn farmer’s perspective, the development of a potential new market for what is typically considered to be a worthless by-product was intriguing. But the added costs and logistics in collecting and transporting the corn cobs became a concern. In addition, farmers wondered what impact the removal of cobs would have in terms of increased soil erosion and decreased soil fertility.

A recent study conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture concluded that the presence or absence of post-harvest corn cobs does not significantly affect runoff rates, soil sediment loss or soil fertility.

Brian Wienhold, a soil scientist from USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, conducted studies that compared runoff rates and sediment loss from no-till corn fields where post-harvest corn residues were either removed or retained. But in addition, corn cobs were removed from half of the test plots that were protected by the residues.

After the test plots were established, researchers generated two simulated rainfall events. The first occurred when the fields were dry and the next occurred 24 hours later when the soils were almost completely saturated.

During the first simulated rainfall event, on the plots where residue was removed, runoff began after about 200 seconds. However, runoff from plots protected by residues didn’t begin until about 240 seconds.

Runoff from the residue-free plot contained 30 percent more sediment than runoff from the all residue-protected plots. However, the presence or absence of cobs on the residue-protected plots did not significantly affect sediment loss rates.

Wienhold concluded that even though cob residues did slightly delay the onset of runoff, sediment loss rates were not significantly affected by the presence or absence of the cobs.

In a related study, Wienhold examined how the removal of cob residues affected soil nutrient levels. Over the course of a year, his sampling indicated that cobs were a source of soil potassium, but that they weren’t a significant source of any other plant nutrients.

Sign-up for 2013

farm program begins

After efforts to enact a new five-year farm bill failed, Congress decided to extend for one additional year the 2008 farm bill. The extension means that farmers will qualify for another year of direct payments under the Direct and Counter-cyclical Program and the Average Crop Revenue Election Program.

Farmers and landowners can now sign up at local Farm Service Agency offices. Sign-up for the Direct and Counter-cyclical Program will continue through Aug. 2, while sign-up for the Average Crop Revenue Election Program ends June 2.

Under the Direct and Counter-cyclical Program, participants can qualify for two types of payments, both of which are computed using a farm’s base acres and payment yields.

The first type of payment is called a direct payment. The direct payment rates are specified in the 2008 farm bill and are earned without regard to market prices. For that reason, the direct payment is sometimes referred to as the “guaranteed” payment.

The direct payment rates per bushel are as follows: barley - $0.24; corn - $0.28; oats - $0.024; soybeans - $0.44; and wheat - $0.52.

In previous years, program participants could request and receive a portion of their direct payment in advance. However, the 2008 farm bill did not authorize an advance payment for the 2012 program year. Under the one-year extension of the 2008 farm bill, an advance direct payment again will not be authorized in 2013.   

The second type of payment is a counter-cyclical payment. Unlike the direct payments, counter-cyclical payments are not guaranteed since the payment rates will vary depending on market prices. Therefore, counter-cyclical payments can be sizable during years when prices are low, with little or no payment when prices are high.

Authorized by the 2008 farm bill, the optional Average Crop Revenue Election Program provides a financial safety net based on state revenue losses, and takes the place of the price-based counter-cyclical payments.

By participating in the Average Crop Revenue Election Program, producers agree to forgo counter-cyclical payments, accept a 20 percent reduction in their direct payments, and accept a 30 percent reduction in the commodity loan rates for all commodities produced on the farm.

Under the one-year extension of the 2008 farm bill, farmers will have the opportunity to enroll into the Average Crop Revenue Election Program for the first time. However, farmers who previously enrolled in the Average Crop Revenue Election Program will have the option of withdrawing and enrolling in the Direct and Counter-cyclical Program instead.

Farmers are encouraged to call ahead and schedule an appointment with their county office.

Wes Nelson is executive director of the USDA Farm Service Agency in Kandiyohi County.

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