Iowa is going through a quiet revolution, and Bill Couser is smack in the middle of it.
Couser, a cattle and grain farmer in Nevada, Iowa, is also president of the spanking new LincolnWay Energy LLC, a coal-fired, 50-million gallon ethanol processor that is set to begin churning out fuel any day now. He also grows seed for Monsanto and feeds several thousand cattle — each enterprise a small but important spoke in the co-generational wheel that is evolving here and in other places around the Corn Belt.
Couser is an example of how biofuels are helping farmers move up the food value chain. They no longer produce only raw commodities and take whatever price they can get.
Consider: the seed his family grows goes into seed bags and is planted locally. The crop he grows is channeled to feedlots or the nearby ethanol plant from which he hopes to receive dividend checks. The distillers' grains that come out of that plant can be fed back to the cattle he raises. The ethanol produced at the plant can be used in the vehicles he drives.
"The thing we're excited about is, nothing leaves the community as a raw commodity," he says. "Every kernel we grow or produce, we're using the final product- whether it's the seed we produce, or the corn we grow commercially, bringing the co-product back to feed to the animals in the feedlot. Every cost savings is net dollars in your pocket.
"Basically we're eliminating the middlemen," he adds. "The final goal for us is selling private label beef in-house, to keep adding to the processing. That's pretty exciting."
Couser modified his rations to include 50% distillers grains for the feedlot cattle. "Actually, distillers grains are more user-friendly than whole corn because of the process of going through fermentation," he says. "It's a more palatable source of energy."
Couser has lowered his fertilizer bill too, thanks to the manure gleaned from his cattle lot. "We have 1,000 acres we don't apply any P and K to, just nitrogen," he says. Every input that we have, we also utilize the output."
The new ethanol plant will burn Wyoming coal, a 50% savings over natural gas based on recent prices. But the folks at Lincolnway Energy were looking down the road when they invested in their new facility. They spent several thousand dollars more to install a fluidized bed in the energy center, which means they will be able to use energy sources other than coal someday if those sources become more economical. "We could be using some kind of combination of wood, or corn stalks - whatever is burnable," says Couser.
The next step - someday - is to use cellulosic material as the ethanol source. "We're not going to be able to grow enough corn in the future," says Couser. "Right now the most efficient feedstock to make ethanol is corn. There's no way we can become totally self sufficient in the United States from corn so we'll have to develop new ways to use other materials, like switchgrass. It'll come - the market will demand it."
Is this a model for row crop agriculture? Eventually. But it takes a while to get everybody into this mindset. You just don't go and change how a farmer farms or a business operates overnight. It takes time for people to accept new ideas, the new flow of inputs and outputs.
"Not everybody's going to want to do it this way, but everyone might want to look at this new generation of being able to utilize the kernel within their community and quit sending the raw commodity out," he says.
"When you look at the whole picture here, we're pretty excited."