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Published February 18, 2013, 10:47 AM

Sustainable ag's ethanol link

The key is more corn acres.

By: Orrie Swayze, Agweek

WILMOT, S.D. — Increasing corn acres substantially is our best opportunity to make agriculture sustainable.

Today’s reduced tillage, cover crops and corn rotations are reversing farming’s historic, unsustainable mining of soil carbon.

Even no-till farming will mine soil carbon unless corn or other C4 genetics’ almost miraculous water efficiencies are utilized to produce enormous quantities of biomass above and below ground.

South Dakota State University’s review of 25 years of soil sample documentation indicates that South Dakota reduced farmer tillage practices, together with no-till and high-yielding corn dominant rotations, have increased soil organic matter.

No-till cuts erosion by 98 percent, and corn’s deep root systems protect ground water by scavenging leached fertilizer nutrients and bringing them back to the surface.

No-till includes more than one-third of U.S. crop acres and is trending toward capturing half of U.S. acres within 10 years.

Today, the majority of U.S. farmers largely use the reduced tillage practices that South Dakota farmers use, making nearly all of the state’s farmland a gigantic carbon sink if substantially increased corn acres are included in crop rotations.

Sustainable farming is optimized as farmers continue the trend toward cover crops plus diverse minimum and no-till corn rotations that today also significantly reduce agriculture’s nitrous oxide greenhouse gas emissions and commercial nitrogen requirements.

Call for corn

Diverting adequate crop acres to corn ethanol acres will make sustainable farming possible and still produces a similar amount of protein as distiller’s proteins, causing little market disruption.

Conversely, increasing switchgrass or sod acres on a comparable scale will significantly reduce food supplies, causing chaotic grain market disruptions.

Importantly, opening markets for higher octane E-30 ethanol blends will incentivize increasing corn acres, also growing farmland’s cumulative carbon sink.

Most important, E-30 slashes carcinogenic and mutagenic emissions associated with benzene-type octane enhancers, dramatically reducing their medical costs and related tragedies.

Editor’s Note: Swayze is from Wilmot, S.D.