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New Market For Corn Stover Coming To NW Iowa

Stalks, cobs and leaves from corn fields can be used in biofuels and wood replacements. These bales were stacked in Story County, but a new manufacturer will be looking for stover in Sac County.
Amy Mayer
IPR file
Stalks, cobs and leaves from corn fields can be used in biofuels and wood replacements. These bales were stacked in Story County, but a new manufacturer will be looking for stover in Sac County.

A company that uses corn-based materials to make products normally crafted from wood is planning to build a factory in northwest Iowa.

Corn Board Manufacturing has announced it’s coming to Sac County and will contract with area farmers for corn stover, the biomass left on fields after grain is harvested.

Some farmers already bale leaves, stalks and cobs, which can be used as bedding for cattle or can be mixed with other ingredients for animal feed.

Paul Kassel, an Iowa State University extension agronomist, says it’s good to leave some of the residue on fields but a lot can be removed and sold.

“It’s manageable,” Kassel says. “From an agronomic perspective, I’d say it’s very manageable.”

Whether it will make economic sense will depend on equipment, labor and how much Corn Board is willing to pay for the raw materials it will turn into pallets.

“It’s a new product and so it’s got a lot of inherent risk to it,” says Chad Hart, an agriculture economist at Iowa State. “But any time you open up a new business, it’s always a good sign.”

Corn Board has made surf, skate and snow boards from corn biomass and its website shows a variety of other products. Hart says pallets are used across many aspects of the economy and Corn Board is emphasizing the renewable nature of corn as a raw material for its products. Those reasons give him some confidence the product will find a market.

But if the relationship with Iowa farmers and the green marketing of the finished product are to work, the company will have to ensure farmers are not baling up too much stover, as that can remove needed nutrients. Kassel says that’s “not a huge factor” because lost phosphorus or potassium could be replaced with commercial fertilizer. But Hart notes that would diminish the green appeal Corn Board is after.

“They’re looking to create a product they see as more sustainable as opposed to, you know, you’ve got two choices in creating a board here. You can either take a tree or you can take corn stover,” Hart says. “And corn stover is readily renewable each and every year whereas it takes a while to grow a tree. At the same time they’re also saying while we’re taking some of this corn stover, we’re also making sure that we don’t take so much that we’re draining the carbon from the soil.”

Kassel says on average about five tons of residue is left on a field after harvest. He says a reasonable stover harvest would take about two to three tons, which should provide Corn Board with what they need.

Previously, two cellulosic ethanol plants bought up tons of stover in Palo Alto and Story counties, but neither of them is still producing. The POET site in Emmetsburg still has bales of stover, though now the plant only produces grain ethanol. When it was contracting for cellulosic production, Kassel says it wanted most of what farmers had.

“Some people were really negative on the POET thing,” Kassel says. “They came and said, ‘oh, they’re going to bale all the corn stalks, they’re going to remove all the foliage.’ Well, even if you wanted to, you can’t because of the equipment.”

Still, Kassel says Corn Board’s demand appears to be smaller, which he says will allow farmers to participate while still keeping adequate residue on the fields to maintain soil health.

At the former site of the DuPont cellulosic plant in Nevada, the new owner, VERBIO North America, plans to use stover in the production of renewable natural gas. In addition to using the stover already purchased and stored, the company has announced it’s formed VERBIO Farm Services to handle contracts with area farmers for stover purchases in the future.

Amy Mayer is a reporter based in Ames