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Corn stalks get an upgrade

Gene Johnston 10/16/2012 @ 4:43pm On the scene at the 2012 Cattle Convention, Nashville

A new process for making corn stalks more palatable and nutritious for cattle is being rolled out by ADM Alliance Nutrition. It’s just in time to help make up for the hay shortage brought on by the drought of 2012.

ADM’s new product, called Second Crop, uses an alkaline solution, calcium hydroxide, that is mixed with water and added to dry corn stalks during or after grinding in a tub grinder. The solution begins to break down the fiber-lignin bonds, making it more soluble and easier for cow rumen microbes to extract energy, says ADM beef feed specialist John Klein. The process may ultimately have application for breaking down cellulose for ethanol production. In the meantime, it makes stalks more palatable to cattle.

"We have an on-farm treatment system that we’ve tested for the last couple of years," says Klein. "It allows us to treat the stalks as they are being processed in a grinder. It reduces the particle size of the stalks with the grinder and exposes more of the available energy. The alkaline solution adds to that."

More stalks, less corn

Harvested corn stalks typically come out of the field at 10-14% moisture, says Klein. As they go through the grinder, the liquid alkaline slurry is applied to bring the moisture level up to about 50%. It usually takes 100 to 115 gallons of water per 1,500-pound bale of stalks. Then they are put in a bunker or packed and covered like corn silage, and allowed to go through an anaerobic curing process. "We recommend waiting 10 days before feeding," says Klein.

University research shows that the digestibility of the stalks can be increased 40% or more, he says. When the treated stalks are added to rations and balanced for protein, cattle performance is maintained with higher levels of stalks and lower amounts of corn. "Because the treated stalks cost less than corn today, they lower the cost of gain in a feedlot situation,” says Klein. 

"When we look at cow and stocker diets, we have similar potential to lower costs there as well," he continues. "We have several producers using the treated stalks to replace hay in these diets. The treated stalks appear to be more palatable to the cattle than just dry stalks. The hard nodules and shanks of the stalks soften and the cattle sort less of the product. Of course, you may have to balance protein with co-products like gluten and proper amino acids. The alkaline treatment does not change the protein of the stalks or any other things that are pertinent to using it."

ADM calls this product and process of treating crop residue Second Crop. In feedlot trials, the treated and ensiled corn stalks have replaced up to 20% of the corn grain in feedlot rations without hindering performance. 

The economics

Klein estimates that a farmer can produce the treated, palatable corn stalk silage for between $40 and $80 per ton, including the cost of the stalks, grinding, and alkaline treatment. You could compare that to the cost of hay in your locality, adjusted to equal dry matter. Klein thinks the stalks will be very cost competitive with medium-quality hay, which recently has been priced at  $130 per ton or higher.

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