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Maximize the value of corn stover

James DeDecker and Kevin Gould Published on 29 August 2014

Producers are changing the way they value a corn crop. Fields that once yielded only grain and “trash” are now revered as the source of a valuable but under-used commodity: corn stover. Whether on the soil or in the barn, corn stover is a valuable resource on crop and livestock farms.

The term “stover” refers to all of the leaf, stalk and cob tissue commonly left after grain harvest. Grain gets all the attention but only accounts for 50 percent of each corn crop by weight. This means that the average acre of corn yields approximately 4 tons of stover material on an annual basis.

Corn stover has traditionally been returned to the soil as an important source of organic matter and plant nutrients. Yet increasingly tight margins in the crop and cattle sectors have some producers looking to capture additional value from this abundant co-product.

In some ways, harvesting and feeding corn stover seems perfectly simple. Volatility in hay and corn grain markets pushed livestock producers to seek out alternative forages. Due to its relatively low cost and ubiquitous availability, corn stover is quickly gaining recognition as a viable option for a portion of the forage component in ruminant livestock rations.

Corn stover’s greatest drawback is the fact that it contains only one-third the protein of average quality hay. Yet careful supplementation of stover with high-protein feeds like forage brassicas or dry distillers grains, can overcome this deficit.

However, it is important to remember that removing crop residue from the field has the potential to negatively impact long-term soil health. Stover protects the soil from the erosive forces of wind and water. It also returns carbon and nutrients to the soil as it is decomposed by soil biota.

Fortunately, a tool known as the Lucas Soil Organic Matter Calculator developed by Ohio State University now makes it possible to use baseline soil data and information regarding production practices like tillage, manure and cover crop use to predict how much corn stover could be removed without compromising soil health.

Stover harvest activities should generally be concentrated on fields receiving abundant organic matter inputs in other forms.

Grazing is likely the simplest way to capture additional value from corn stover. An average acre of stover will feed a single cow for 30 to 45 days. Like any grazed forage, feed quality will decline every day animals are on stover, and supplemental feeding will be necessary to maximize utilization.

Yet extending the fall grazing season can be invaluable in years when forage yields are low and prices are high. Producers commonly face several obstacles to stover grazing, including field location, fencing options and access to water. Despite these challenges, grazing is almost always more efficient than stover harvest, transport and manure hauling.

Mechanical stover harvest is facilitated by using a stalk shredding-type combine head during grain harvest and removing the chaff spreader from the rear of the combine. If a stripper head is used, an additional flail shredder or discbine pass will generally be required.

Specialized combine attachments have been developed to windrow corn stover, but they are not necessary for a successful harvest. Raking may or may not be recommended based on an individual’s yield goal or the crop’s moisture level.

While baling for dry storage can work in ideal circumstances, stover is often too wet to preserve in this manner. Ensiling chopped or baled material is often the best approach and also improves stover’s feed value.

At an average removal rate of 2 tons per acre, the fertilizer value of corn stover and equipment costs associated with harvest together total about $59 per ton.

This is a great improvement over the current market value of $150 per ton for hay. Even with protein supplementation, a stover-based ration could save $0.71 per head per day, or $127.61 per cow over a standard 181-day winter feeding period.

Despite the potential savings, Michigan State University Extension recommends using ration-balancing software when deciding how much stover to feed.

Corn stover has long been an important resource on the farm, but the number of ways it can be used is expanding. In addition to harvest as forage, the recent construction of ligno-cellulosic ethanol biorefineries in the Midwest has created market opportunities to sell stover biomass for processing into liquid fuel.

Three ethanol plants in the central Corn Belt are now in the process of contracting with farmers to supply approximately 275,000 tons of corn stover per facility in 2014. These emerging markets provide practical ways to extract additional value from the product and remain competitive.  FG

Kevin Gould is also with Michigan State University Extension.

References omitted due to space but are available upon request. Click here ot email an editor.

James DeDecker
  • James DeDecker
  • Michigan State University Extension