Sometimes, I admit, I get a crazy idea. Last fall as I looked at all the just-harvested cornfields around my home with no fences and no cattle, I came up with this crazy idea: With $5 corn, there was a gold mine laying on the ground. Well maybe not a gold mine, but a group of kids with buckets could make decent money for their 4-H club by picking up dropped ears.
I happened to know a couple of teenagers (friends' kids) who were home from college for Thanksgiving, sitting around wishing they could make a few bucks. One sunny afternoon, I got permission from my corn farmer neighbor, gathered up the boys, and we walked stalk fields for about three hours, picking up ears and dumping them in a wagon.
- Modern combines don't leave much behind. We covered about 40 acres and got around 20 bushels. A good combine operator in a newer combine only leaves about a bushel an acre. We verified that.
- It takes more than $5 a bushel to make this idea lucrative. I had visions of running a wagon full of whole ears through a combine, hauling it to the elevator, and letting the kids see that a little hard work could make them $200 in an afternoon. Ha! Even if they had a way to sell 20 bushels of corn, the adventure made them about $5 an hour. Not bad for a 4-H fund-raiser but hardly a gold mine. (By the way, I paid the boys for the ear corn and fed it to my pigs).
- The better way to harvest what's left is to turn some cows on it. Cows harvest it for free and get full value. No fuel, no labor, no trucking, no moisture dock. Cows will find practically every kernel, while I'd estimate my business partners and I picked up about a third of what was there.
There's evidence that running cows on cornstalks is actually worth more than just the value of the corn they pick up. There's also a long-term value in cow herd productivity that researchers can't quite put their finger on.
University of Nebraska researchers have a project going comparing cows wintered only on native Sandhills grass, native grass plus supplemental feed, and cornstalks. As you'd guess, the cows wintered only on the grass wean lighter calves the following season than the cows that are supplemented. That negative impact even carries over to the next generation. Retained heifers from unsupplemented cows aren't as productive as the supplemented offspring.
But the cows on cornstalks do equally well in terms of calf weaning weight as the cows that get supplemental winter feed. The cornstalk cows aren't getting much corn grain from the stalk fields, as it's estimated that only about a bushel per acre is left behind. Apparently, say the researchers, besides grain, the cows get additional feeding value from the husks, leaves, and stalks that's hard to quantify but significant. The mixture of forage and grain that cows eat in a harvested cornstalk field is comparable to corn silage in quality.
It really is a shame that so much goes to waste, even in the middle of cattle country. In this era of expensive feed ingredients and tighter margins for cow/calf farms as calf prices ratchet down, utilizing cornstalks for winter cow feed will be the difference between profit and loss in the next few years.