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Jeff Semler: Corn, soybeans harvesting offers several alternatives

September 27, 2011|By JEFF SEMLER | jsemler@umd.edu

The air has changed and there is a bit of a chill now, especially in the evening. This is a sure sign fall is here and with it harvest, the time when farmers glean their fields for the season’s return and lamp posts and porches don corn stalks and pumpkins.

At this point in the year, farmers will be harvesting corn and soybeans. Most of the areas dairy farmers have already filled their silos with corn silage and are joining their neighbors in shelling the remainder of the corn as grain.

In addition to feeding corn and soybeans to livestock, there are thousands of uses of these grains all around you. Corn is one of the major sweeteners used by the food industry. For example, all of the 39 grams of sugar in a can of Coca-Cola come from high fructose corn syrup. This is not an exceptional circumstance. Take a minute and read the labels of your food produce and corn syrup will show more than you think.

In addition to sweeteners, corn is used in common things such as cooking oil, breads and cereals and uncommon things such as paints and plastics.

Soybeans are also common in cooking oil as well as being found in salad dressing, margarine, cereals and breads and as a protein source in vegetarian meals.

And of course, these two grains are often in the center of the fuel vs. food debate. While not new, ethanol and bio-diesel are being looked at more due to their ability to reduce pollution and the volatility of oil prices. In addition, corn and soybeans are a renewable energy source.

Corn has long been distilled to make everything from “white lightning” to alcohol as an additive for gasoline. Ethanol can be added up to a mixture of 85 percent ethanol to 15 percent gasoline. In many cases, ethanol will be added at a lower concentration as an oxygenate to reduce carbon monoxide that is created during the burning of the fuel.

Bio-diesel is also now a buzz-word, but again not a new technology. While the process has been modernized, bio-diesel was used by the Third Reich during World War II. Bio-diesel is simply adding vegetable oil to petrol diesel.

The benefits of these two fuels are obvious. They are renewable and cleaner, but they also add little if nothing to the waste stream.

For example, the distillers’ grain left over from ethanol production is being fed to livestock. Soybean meal, soy hulls and glycerin are all byproducts from bio-diesel production are all usable by many different industries. Soybean meal can be fed to both livestock and people. Soy hulls are used in feed products and glycerin is used in lubricants and makeup.

After harvest, most farmers are planting cover crops to hold the soil and use any residual nutrients. This practice helps protect our water sources by reducing runoff and leaching. Now you know why those once brown fields begin to turn green even though it is fall.

I trust you will enjoy the changing weather and colors of fall. Until next time, pick a pumpkin or get lost in a corn maze.

Jeff Semler is an Extension educator, specializing in agriculture and natural resources, for the University of Maryland Extension. He is based in Washington County. He can be reached at 301-791-1404, ext. 25, or by email at jsemler@umd.edu.

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