New Ethanol Law Passed in Iowa on Tuesday


Via Flickr

Josie Taylor | May 19, 2022

A new state law in Iowa would require most fuel stations to sell a gasoline blend with 15% ethanol. This will rapidly expand the fuel’s availability, but the law’s long-term effects might be more potent, according to the executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association. 

Gov. Kim Reynolds signed House File 2128, which will boost the use of corn-based ethanol to fuel the state’s vehicles, into law on Tuesday. Her action capped a protracted and hard-fought legislative initiative that began last year.

The new law is also expected to boost the sales of diesel blends that contain 20% biodiesel, which is often made with soybean oil.

Monte Shaw, the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association’s executive director, predicts that E15 will be available at 1,000 more stations by 2026, when the ethanol requirement goes into effect. That would more than quadruple the current total, according to state data.

First, the law also requires new fuel station infrastructure — the tanks, fuel lines and pumps — to be compatible with higher blends of ethanol, which can degrade certain plastics and rubbers. That will help facilitate future increases in blend requirements, perhaps with gasoline blends of 30% or 40% ethanol, Shaw said.There are current federal rules that prohibit the summer sales of certain E15 blends because federal regulators have considered them more likely to evaporate in warmer temperatures and pollute the air. The Biden administration lifted that restriction for this summer to help reduce fuel prices.

Iowa farmers plant half season’s corn in a week


Via Flickr.

Eleanor Hildebrandt | May 18, 2022

After several delays during the typical planting season, Iowa farmers planted 43 percent of their corn crop last week.

On Monday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported the corn planting is still nine days behind, but it is quickly catching up to where it has been in previous years. Statewide, Iowa Capital Dispatch reported the planting percentage jumped from 14 to 57 in a matter of days. The large strides are because of an improvement in the weather. Warmer temperatures have heated the soil to where it usually is during Iowa summers, allowing for more viable seeds to be planted. Corn plants need soil to be 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

Mike Naig, Iowa’s secretary of agriculture, said in a press release that the progress farmers are making is significant. It is expected that the nearly 13 million acres of corn crop usually planted in Iowa will be in the ground by Friday, May 20.

“As we look ahead, weather outlooks show promise in keeping planters rolling and farmers busy in the fields,” he said.

Soybean planting was also up over the course of the week, jumping from 7 percent to nearly 33. The crop still remains roughly a week behind the five-year average in the state.

Iowa’s prime corn yields likely gone


Via Flickr.

Eleanor Hildebrandt | May 11, 2022

Iowa State University agronomist Mark Licht says Iowa corn farmers are unlikely to see high yields this planting season.

Cold and rainy temperatures delayed planting in the spring months in 2022. As farmers look to finish up planting, Licht told Iowa Capital Dispatch the next few months are expected to be drier than normal. The two challenges present a likelihood that crop yields of Iowa corn will be low this year compared to recent seasons.

“I don’t mean that we can’t still have above-trend-line yields, I just don’t think that we’re going to see the record-breaking yields that we’ve seen in the last couple years,” he said. “I think we’ve maybe taken the top end off of it. How much is yet to be determined.”

At the beginning of the second week of May, Iowa farmers were two weeks behind the average planting schedule to the past five years. It was the slowest planting pace in nearly a decade. Only 14 percent of seed corn was in the ground on Sunday, as April weather made it particularly difficult to plant potentially successful seedlings. Research on corn yield from Iowa State University shows the most successful corn crops are planted before middle May.

Iowa farms have three weeks left in the planting season before yields get considerably lower in June.

Spring corn planting slowed by low soil temperatures


Via Flickr.

Eleanor Hildebrandt | May 4, 2022

As farmers prepare to plant their corn crop this spring they are running into some issues because of low soil temperatures.

Following cold and wet weather in Iowa, the state’s corn planting season has been significantly delayed. The pushing back of planting shortens the optimal yield window for the year. Only 9 percent of Iowa’s corn crop has been planted according to a May 2 Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. The average by this time of year is 42 percent of the crop.

State Climatologist Justin Glisan told Iowa Capital Dispatch early planting this year was first stalled in April because of low temperatures five degrees below average. He said 2022 had one of Iowa’s top 15 coldest winters.

Soil temperatures need to be at least 50 degrees to plant corn seed that is likely to sprout. Soil temps have mainly stayed in the 40s this spring. The lack of planted crops will impact supply moving forward this year.

Corn and Soybean Production May Move out of Iowa in Coming Years Due to Warming Temperatures in the Midwest


(Image Via Flickr)

Nicole Welle |May 7th, 2020

The production of corn and soybeans makes up a huge part of Iowa’s economy, but studies show that warming in the Midwest caused by climate change may cause the ideal growing conditions for the crops to move north into Minnesota and the Dakotas in the next 50 years.

Researchers at Penn State University studied county-level crop-yield data from 18 states compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agriculture Statistics Service over approximately a 30-year period. The team also studied weather patterns and the relationships between climate and corn and soybean yield over that same time period.

Their findings showed that this northward shift has already begun and is likely to continue if there is no intervention. This may be concerning to Iowans who rely on the production of these crops for their livelihood. However, the current changes are happening gradually, so farmers would have adequate time to adapt over the coming decades, according to Armen Kemanian, a researcher at Penn State.

Iowa farmers would have to begin growing a different variety of crops or switch to a system that involves growing two crops a year once corn and soybeans are no longer a viable option. The new crops would also need to have a lower sensitivity to extreme temperatures and changes in humidity to thrive in an environment with more extreme fluctuations in temperature caused by climate change.

Poet plant ‘production pause’ furthers cellulosic ethanol’s historic challenges


38808382362_e4364a53b2_b.jpg
Cellulosic ethanol is produced from crop residue, like the material depicted above (via Creative Commons) .

Julia Poska | November 20, 2019

An Iowa plant that produces ethanol from cellulose found in corn residue announced Tuesday that it will stop commercial operations in February.

Cellulosic ethanol is widely regarded as a more environmentally friendly version of the plant-based fuel because it provides a use for waste products like cobs and stalks rather than an incentive to put more land into industrial corn production.

Typical ethanol, made from corn kernels, has an “energy return on investment” (EROI) of less than 2:1, most sources agree. This means that the fuel supplies only about as much energy as was put into growing and refining the product. Researchers believe EROI for cellulosic ethanol could be somewhat higher than for corn-based ethanol, but still much lower than for other energy sources.

Despite the apparent benefits, cellulosic ethanol has been slow to take off. The Renewable Fuels Association 2019 Ethanol Industry Outlook report indicated that cellulosic sources provide only about 3.4% of U.S. ethanol production capacity.

The Des Moines Register reported that personnel of the plant, owned by POET, blamed the “pause” in production on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for granting Renewable Fuel Standard exemptions to oil refineries in recent years. The RFS sets minimum levels of biofuel that gasoline and diesel must contain, so exemptions reduce what would otherwise be a guaranteed demand for biofuel.

Cellulosic ethanol production has lagged behind forecasts since it first entered commercial purview, however.  In 2007, the Bush administration called for 100 million and 250 million gallons of commercial cellulosic ethanol production in 2010 and 2011 respectively. Actual commercial production did not begin until 2012, according to MIT Technology Review.

In July 2018, ethanolproducer.com thought national production of cellulosic ethanol could top 15 million gallons, far behind the EPA’s goal of 7 billion gallons for that year.

The POET cellulosic ethanol plant in Emmetsburg, Iowa opened in 2014, according to the Register. The facility cost $275 million to build and received about $120 million in state and federal incentives. The plant has a capacity to produce 20 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol annually, according to POET, and has spent years working on “optimizing” the production process to reach full capacity.

The plant will continue doing “research and development” on cellulosic ethanol while producing regular corn ethanol at another plant next door, according to the Register. Another cellulosic ethanol plant in Nevada, Iowa closed in 2017, the Register also reported.

Crop production linked to regional changes in climate


2897460058_3b0c62cef3_o
Corn and soy plants can cool the climate on a regional level, but intensified conventional agriculture can harm water and soil quality. (Lana/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | February 14, 2018

A new study by researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Dartmouth College detail the way intensive agriculture has influenced precipitation and temperature patterns in the midwest.

During the second half of the 20th century, corn production in the midwest increased by 400 percent and soybean yields doubled due to more intensive agricultural practices. The study, which was published in Geophysical Research Letters, found that the midwest also saw significantly more precipitation and lower temperatures during the summer months over the same period of time. They concluded that the changes were not merely correlated, but that the land use change actually caused the regional climate changes.

The authors explain that each time plants take in carbon dioxide, they release moisture into the atmosphere through pore-like structures called stoma. With more plentiful and robust plants due to intensive agriculture, the amount of moisture corn and soy crops collectively release into the atmosphere has increased in the midwest since the 1950’s. This extra moisture, the study found, has caused summer air to cool and more precipitation to fall. In the last fifty years, average summertime rainfall in the midwest has increased by 15 percent and average summer temperatures have dropped by 0.5 degrees Celsius.

Roger Pielke Sr., a senior researcher at the University of Colorado at Boulder commented on the study, he said, “This is a really important, excellent study. The leadership of the climate science community has not yet accepted that human land management is at least as important on regional and local climate as the addition of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere by human activities.”

Since completing the study, the researchers have developed a formula that accounts for the causative relationship between plants and regional climate changes that can be entered into U.S. regional climate models. It correctly predicted those changes that have been observed in the midwest over the last 50 years.

The study opens the door for further research into land use changes and how they can affect local climate.

As global temperatures rise, future of agriculture uncertain


10138422325_3480e014f0_o
Soybean yields could decrease by as much as 40 percent due to rising temperatures. (United Soybean Board/flickr)

 Jenna Ladd | January 20, 2017

Without further action to curb greenhouse gas emissions, global temperatures are expected to rise as much as 6.1 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial averages, which may meaningfully impact agricultural outputs.

According to a recent study by the the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and the University of Chicago, rising temperatures could significantly reduce U.S. grain harvests. Using a set of computer simulations, the researchers found that yield reduction could reach 40 percent for soybeans and almost 50 percent for corn by the end of the century if carbon emissions are not cut drastically. Wheat would fare slightly better, with its yields decreasing by an estimated 20 percent.

The researchers said, “The effects go far beyond the U.S., one of the largest crop exporters. World market crop prices might increase, which is an issue for food security in poor countries.”

A report by the European Union’s Joint Research Centre came to a different conclusion. They found that wheat may actually benefit from higher concentrations of carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere, while corn yields would decrease.

Although the global temperature has reached record highs for three consecutive years, U.S. corn and soybean yields were seemingly unaffected. Thanks in part to genetically modified seed, which can have adverse environmental impacts, corn and soybean output was higher than ever in 2016.

However, the extreme drought of 2012 serves as a reminder that agricultural productivity is vulnerable to a changing climate. That year, U.S. corn harvests decreased considerably and caused global corn prices to skyrocket.

Soybeans may play bigger role in nitrate levels than previously thought


corn-and-soybean-1000x477
IIHR’s water-quality monitoring network has generated interesting data that contradicts some widely-held beliefs regarding corn and soybeans and their impact on nitrate in Iowa’s streams. (IIHR)

Jake Slobe | September 28, 2016

New research shows that soybeans may play a key role in the transport of nitrate from farmed fields to the stream network.

As Iowa farmers have planted more acres of corn to meet the increasing demand, many models predicted that nitrate concentrations in Iowa streams would increase as a consequence. However, a new study conducted by the UI’s IIHR-Hydroscience & Engineering group and the Iowa Soybean Association, published in the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation, challenges many of these predictions.

As the amount of corn planted increased and the amount of soybeans decreased, fertilizer application increased by 24 percent in the watershed. Surprisingly, the nitrate levels in the river saw no increase and in some cases saw slight decreases.

The study evaluated 7,000 water samples in the Raccoon River Watershed from 1999- 2014 and had access to fertilization data for 700 fields in the watershed. The result from the study has led researchers to believe that nitrate levels are less dependent on corn production than previously thought.

IIHR —Hydroscience & Engineering researcher Chris Jones says that clues to the reduction in nitrate levels can be found in the differences between corn and soybean  growth, soil chemistry, and the decay of other crop residues. Conversely, the dead and decomposing soybean plants can increase the amount of nitrate in the soil vulnerable to loss.

“We know we can’t just focus on fertilization of corn. We need a systems approach to improve water quality. It also demonstrates the power of monitoring water quality. Without this data, we could easily have missed this important and counter-intuitive conclusion.” 

As a result, Jones says he believes that declining amount of soybeans planted may have reduced the cropped areas most susceptible to nitrate loss, more than compensating for the increased fertilizer inputs on corn production.

 

Iowa State researcher looks at corn’s adaptive powers


9941691675_034fd6a547_o
The corn plant can grow in high elevations near mountain ranges or at sea level, researchers at the Iowa State University are taking a closer look at what makes this crop so versatile. (jev55/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | September 20, 2016

An Iowa State University researcher is taking a closer look at how corn has adapted over many centuries to prosper in several different environments and elevations throughout the Americas.

Matthew Hufford, an assistant professor of ecology and evolution and organismal biology at the University, is co-principal investigator of a collaborative study with scientists from University of California at Davis, University of Missouri, and the National Laboratory of Genomics for Biodiversity in Irapuato, Mexico. The research project recently received a five year, $4 million grant from the National Science Foundation. About $800,000 of those funds will be used to support Hufford’s laboratory at Iowa State University.

Hufford said that gaining a better understanding about how corn adapted to grow beyond its origin in Mexico could help plant breeders to produce crops that perform better. He said, “With this project, we hope to identify good candidates for genes that played key roles in helping maize adapt,” he added, “You could use that new knowledge to design corn to deal with the environmental challenges of today, like climate change and other stresses.”

Corn started growing in the hot lowlands of southwestern Mexico about 10,000 years ago. Hufford explained that in a relatively short amount of time the plant has changed to grow in much higher elevations with different climates across the Americas. After he compared highland corn to lowland corn, Hufford found that highland corn is darker in color and equipped with macrohairs that insulate plant when temperatures drop. Striking differences such as these help explain how the plant is able to grow anywhere from near sea level up to 13,000 feet in elevation.

Moving forward, the researchers plan to cross highland corn with lowland corn in order to study the genetics of parent and offspring varieties.