Saturday, September 17, 2011

Surprises from an Iowa Farm

Most of our visits for Facing Hunger in America have focused on supplemental food for those who are hungry or on programs to bring healthier fresh produce to everyone.  But what’s happening on modern, main-stream farms and how does that contribute to the provision of healthy, sustainable food in America? 

For one example, we drove through the lush corn fields north of Des Moines to the Couser Cattle Company in Nevada, Iowa.  There we met owner Bill Couser, who operates the farm with his wife Nancy, son Tim, and about 6 other full-time employees.  Couser Cattle encompasses all of the steps in modern livestock production: raising corn and soybeans, selling much of the corn for use by the locally-owned ethanol plant, finishing cattle, collecting and storing the manure, and using it to fertilize the fields for the next crop season. 

Bill Couser (left) with Graeme Quick
The Couser Cattle Company’s feedlot operation won the 2011 national Environmental Stewardship Award from the National Cattlemen’s Foundation.  Because this full-circle operation is innovative and based on cutting-edge science at each step, students at Iowa State University (which is only about 10 miles away) find this farm an educational place to work; Bill hires 5-7 as interns each year. 

Bill may not be an average farmer, but when he talks to the public he is very clear that he’s a spokesman for the whole modern farming community.  He regularly hosts scientists, industry representatives, and visitors from 47 different countries.  Our tour group included Dr. Graeme Quick, an agricultural engineer visiting from Australia.

Bill grows corn, in fact, he grows A LOT of corn—5,000-7,000 acres of his own, as well as 5,000 acres of seed corn for Monsanto.   He uses the latest technology to assure that he’s using resources wisely. 
  • The manure from his feedlot provides all the potassium and phosphate his fields need, and about 25% of the nitrogen.  It’s spread using a GPS-equipped tractor that monitors where the manure’s already been spread and ensures that the proper amount is everywhere in the field before planting. 
  • Bill uses special equipment to “read” the amount of additional nitrogen needed at every spot in the field while the corn is growing, so that he only applies additional nitrogen where it’s needed.  This prevents excess from leaching from the field into the water supply.  Bill explained that, although this equipment cost $45,000, he paid for it in ½ a season with the reduction in applied fertilizer.
  • Several scientists from the University of Iowa are conducting a research project with Bill to monitor the levels of nutrients in his fields as a function of rainfall and other factors.  Bill also works with industry to try out new materials that may decrease the evaporation of nitrogen compounds from the manure and thus decrease the need for additional nitrogen fertilizer.
  • Bill collects about half of the cornstalks from his fields to use as bedding for his cattle, as a component of the cattle feed, and to decrease the amount of nitrogen that binds to the cornstalks still in the field.
Lincolnway Energy ethanol plant
Much of Bill’s corn crop is used to manufacture ethanol.  Nearby Lincolnway Energy is one of many ethanol plants in Iowa, sprinkled about the countryside in areas of corn production.  Corn is purchased through the nearby farmers’ cooperative, and the plant is located on a direct rail line for easy shipping of the ethanol and other products.

The ethanol plant was built in direct response to President Bush’s call to reduce our dependence on foreign oil following the 9-11 attack.  It is owned by 937 individuals as a limited liability corporation, and was designed to be particularly environmentally friendly.  Currently, it’s powered by coal, but was designed to burn any solid fuel, including garbage, corn cobs and stalks, construction debris, tires, etc. once the EPA grants the appropriate permits. 
From the 20 million bushels of corn it uses each year, the ethanol plant produces four main products: 
  • Ethanol comes from the starch in the corn kernels.  It’s distilled, the last of the water is removed, and a small amount of gasoline is added to make it undrinkable.
  • The carbon dioxide from the fermentation process is recovered and sold.  Two local uses are to flash freeze pizza toppings at a local manufacturer, and to provide the bubbles for the local soft drink bottling plant.
  • The oil is spun off from the remaining corn mash.  It is used in hog or cattle feed, or to make biodiesel. 
  • The rest of the corn, at this point called distillers’ grains, consists mainly of protein and cellulose, and accounts for about 1/3 of the corn grains.  It makes a very good component of animal feed, and is sold back to livestock producers in the US and internationally.
Bill likened this use of corn to “cracking” crude oil to produce gasoline, diesel fuel, asphalt, etc. He thinks it’s a waste to feed cattle straight corn, when that corn could be used more fully by making it into ethanol and other co-products.

If Bill doesn’t feed his cattle straight corn, what do they eat? It’s a combination of ingredients – distillers’ grains from the ethanol plant, soybean hulls, shredded cornstalks, corn syrup, sugar beet mash, straw, bean straw, corn oil, etc. (all waste from other products), plus a small amount of corn. Since the cost, nutritional quality, and availability of all of these products varies, he has a computer program that tells him how much of each to mix to get the least expensive food mix that contains the best combination of cellulose, starch, protein, vitamins and minerals to get the greatest gain and conversion of feed. It turns out that this feed is closer to the cow’s natural diet of grass than corn is, with more cellulose and less starch, and is easier for the cow to digest. No more liver abscesses or digestive issues! 
Traditional feed corn, corn in today's feed, today's complete ration
According to Bill, a farmer using traditional feeding methods would use about 75 bushels of corn to finish out a 1300 pound steer.  With today’s methods, the farmer would use only 16-30 bushels of corn per steer.   Augmenting the feed with co-products allows farmers to produce 13% more beef with 13% fewer animals, 30% less land, 14% less water, 9% less fossil fuel, and have an 18% decrease in emissions of methane, nitrous oxide, and carbon dioxide. 

No, his cattle are not grass fed.  Bill said that it would take his whole farm (5,000 acres) to raise 5,000 cows on grass, they’d only reach 900 lbs, and the cost of the meat would be more than most consumers want to pay.

We could have spent days learning about modern farming methods from Bill, but we had to leave for an afternoon appointment at the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, just outside of Des Moines, to interview economist (and farmer) Dave Miller, Director of Research and Commodity Services.
Dave Miller

One of the major questions we had for Dave was how the production of ethanol has influenced the cost of food in this country.  We’d heard that the cost of feed corn rose from about $2 to over $7 in the time that the production of ethanol ramped up.  Did diverting some corn to ethanol production cause the rise in corn prices?  Dave says no, that the US increased its corn production more than enough to supply the ethanol plants, when the recovered distillers’ grains are factored in.  Specifically, corn production increased from about 10 billion bushels to more than 13 billion bushels.  Of that, about 4.5 billion bushels are used to produce ethanol, from which about 1.5 billion bushels of feed are recovered. 

Dave sees the cause of the price rise to be a large increase in the demand for US corn worldwide due to droughts in Russia and Australia and production problems in South America.  Dave believes that corn could be grown economically for about $5/bushel today, and if the worldwide production of grains increases again, the price of corn could drop to that level.

Some say that we should use cellulose as the starting material for ethanol production, not starch from corn.  Currently, this technology is still in development.  Dave pointed out that to the extent that it would mean growing, say, switchgrass on fields that are currently used for corn, it would be counter-productive.  If, however, the source of the cellulose were corn stalks, wood waste (sawdust, bark, small limbs, etc), or switchgrass grown in areas that cannot be used for producing other crops, it would increase our capacity to produce ethanol and leave more corn for export.

What place do farm subsidies have in the cost of our food?  Right now, surprisingly little, according to Dave.  Farmers who take part in the subsidy program for corn receive approximately $20/acre in subsidies, while the revenue for their corn crop is more than $1200/acre.  Thus, the elimination of subsidies for corn would have little impact on the cost of corn.  The subsidies are higher for cotton ($40/acre) and rice ($60/acre), so eliminating subsidies for these crops may influence their cost or availability more than it would for corn.

In sum, we were pleasantly surprised to learn about the technologically advanced and environmentally responsible modern farming practices that Bill Couser showed us.  We were reassured that ethanol production is not the cause of price increases in corn, but instead is consistent with improved diets for cattle.

At the end of our interview with Dave, when we asked what he’d like to see changed in the US food system, he instead described its good features.  He has traveled all over the world examining food systems in other countries and found the US food system to be unparalleled in safety, efficiency, productivity, and relative low cost to the consumer.


  1. So since the subsidies are not a significant part of corn profits, why have them? Also not mentioned was the outside influence of the commodity market... That has made the market much higher and volitile

  2. What about Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), which is what most of the corn, soybean, and sugar beets crops consist of today? As these are fed to beef cattle, we eat them, too. Unless the corn, soybean, and sugar beets are certified organic, they are probably GMO. And no one really knows how GMOs will react in humans.

  3. Very nice post. Enjoyed reading. Thanks for the input.