Ethanol-based corn may be getting a bum rap, in light of the growing global food crisis, but the biofuel does have value, especially when produced using the right agricultural technique.
Randall Reeder, an Ohio State University Extension agricultural engineer, says that growing corn for ethanol could be argued as justifiable, especially when growers use no-till — a type of production technique that calls for minimally disturbing the soil and leaving residue behind to maintain soil quality and structure.
“Ethanol has value as it’s getting us started on bio-based fuels. Ethanol from corn is just a small part of much bigger factors that are adding up to have an impact on the world food shortage,” says Reeder, who also holds an appointment with the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. “But the amount of our corn going into ethanol is so small that, by itself, it couldn’t possibly have any substantial impact.”
Ethanol production is being criticized from an energy-balance standpoint. In research circles, the debate centers around whether or not it takes more energy to produce ethanol from corn than what is generated. But the consensus is that the energy balance is close enough to make it worthwhile to consider ways to improve it. Adopting no-till production in a corn/soybean rotation shifts the balance in the right direction, says Reeder.
“If our corn was produced with continuous no-till, that would greatly reduce fuel inputs,” says Reeder. “Three-fourths of our corn is grown with intensive tillage, meaning the ground is plowed in the fall, and tilled one to three times in the spring prior to planting. That takes at least three more gallons of diesel fuel per acre compared to no-till. The savings with no-till represents a net-energy benefit for ethanol since other machinery operations and corn yield are about the same.”
No-till systems offer other potential savings.
“A controlled traffic system with precise, GPS-based auto-steering will reduce compaction, and cut the cost of all inputs by 1 percent to 4 percent,” says Reeder. Cover crops are a good companion with no-till and can greatly reduce expenses for nitrogen and other commercial fertilizers. Water use efficiency is also improved because crop residue on the soil surface reduces evaporation.
A no-till system, especially with cover crops, virtually eliminates erosion. This improves the quality of the soil and minimizes the amount of water pollutants leaving the farm as runoff.
“If you’re looking for a solution to a global food shortage, don’t blame ethanol or other biofuels,” says Reeder. “Instead, look to agricultural research aimed at increasing food production per acre while maintaining environmental goals. A continuous no-till crop production system can be a key component in any solution, whether the goal is to grow more food, or produce more fuel.”
Ohio leads the Midwest in no-till adoption with 3.7 million acres, or roughly 40 percent of all cropland, in no-till production. Currently over 20 percent of the state’s cornfields are in no-till production.