Tricia Braid

Jun 04, 2014  |  ICMB

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CONTACT: Tricia Braid
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Bloomington, Ill.—A new study finds that increased corn yields and more efficient use of corn ethanol co-products will greatly decrease land needed for ethanol production, flying in the face of conventional anti-ethanol criticisms. The research indicates crop land attributable to ethanol production will drop from the current 25% to as little as 11% of U.S. corn acres.

A too common error made in reporting the amount of land used for U.S. ethanol production is to measure the amount of grain shipped to ethanol manufacturers, compute the number of acres required to produce the grain and end the analysis there. This analysis is a gross oversimplification that leads one to incorrectly conclude that 40% or more of U.S. corn acres are used for ethanol production.

In practice, a large percentage of grain passes through ethanol plants to be used as high-value animal feed. Today, less than 25% of U.S. acres are required to produce ethanol and a new study  has found that several factors will gradually lower that figure to as little as 11% of U.S. corn acres by 2026, when adhering to the USEPA’s 15 billion gallon ceiling on domestic ethanol production.

The study was done by researchers at the University of Illinois’ College of Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences as a joint collaboration among Professors Rita H. Mumm, Peter D. Goldsmith, Kent D. Rausch and Hans H. Stein.

The new study explores the impact of technological improvements on corn grain production, ethanol production, and their interrelated effect on land use through a variety of scenarios over a 15 year period beginning in 2011, the year used to establish the base case. The researchers found that land area attributed to corn ethanol will consistently drop because plant breeding improvements and new technologies will result in significantly higher yields.

Corn yields will improve significantly which will greatly reduce land use attributed to ethanol manufacturing. On the higher end of the spectrum, yields will increase by almost 100 bushels per acre, which represents 66% growth. The majority of this contribution will come from conventional breeding, with advanced breeding technology, biotechnology and agronomic improvements together contributing almost half.

“It’s no surprise to the agriculture industry that yield improvements will drive down land used for ethanol,” stated Dr. Rita Mumm, coauthor of the study. “However, the mechanisms within the production complex, especially their effects on one another, were not fully understood. This work provides a clear picture on current land use and provides an approach for evaluating future land use.”

In addition to the yield improvements, better use will be made of grains as animal protein producers optimize utilization of feed options which includes balancing DDGS with use of corn grain and soybean meal to take advantage of market efficiencies. One slight surprise is a tradeoff between raising ethanol production efficiency and land use. Improved efficiencies in the ethanol manufacturing process raise ethanol yield per bushel of corn 12% while reducing DDGS production 27%.  The sharp reduction in DDGS output raises ethanol’s land use one percentage point, or 800,000 acres by 2026 compared to the base scenario.

The multidisciplinary team of researchers developed a model of the U.S. corn ethanol system that factored in all ethanol inputs and outputs: corn grain, processing co-products, livestock feeding and oil from replaced soybeans that would otherwise go for biofuels. Seven scenarios were then outlined to evaluate a spectrum of corn yield outcomes, advancements in the ethanol manufacturing process and a range in animal feed solutions. The scenarios were modeled at three time horizons: 2011 (current); the time at which 15 billion gallons of corn ethanol is reached; and 2026 (15 years).

“One exciting component of this study is that it details for the first time the interrelated effects of technologies across corn production, ethanol production and, to lesser extent, animal production.” Dr. Mumm added. “Moving forward, science must weigh anticipated technological changes to fully understand trends in land use. Technology has a huge bearing on actual results as we’ve shown.”

“The model also illustrated that increased usage of DDGS by dairy, pigs, and poultry, and reduced usage by beef cattle will reduce the overall net land use attributed to ethanol production. When DDGS is included in diets for pigs, poultry, or dairy, it replaces soybean meal, and because yields per acre of soybeans are much lower than yields of corn, this has a positive effect on the net land use attributed to ethanol, explained Dr. Hans H. Stein, professor in animal nutrition and study coauthor. “The reason for this observation is that pigs, poultry and dairy can utilize the protein in DDGS much better than beef cattle and greater quantities of soybean meal are therefore replaced if DDGS is included in the diets for pigs, poultry, and dairy.”