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iSeeChange: Rodman's Bales of Cornstalks

About a month ago on thealmanac.org, Don posted a photo of a fellow with a big semi-load of bales – but they weren’t hay, they were cornstalks. The use of forage other than the traditional alfalfa and other grasses is becoming a necessity for some ranchers. 

Drought has made it more common now, but Judd Rodman has been harvesting cornstalks for cattle feed as far back as 1990. Based south of Paonia, he employs five people who help him harvest, bale and deliver cornstalk all over the Western Slope.

"It started out with a feed lot, that I was selling to," he says, " and they grind all their feed. They grind the hay, and blend the stalks together. And that was one of the big starting points with it.With this shortage of hay in these drought years, that’s where the demand for the cornstalks starts. The cattle guys don’t have enough hay to feed their cows, plus the price of hay went so high they can’t come out on it, and the cornstalks are cheaper. And if they feed protein along with it, it works out to balance the ration out and saves them some money."

"The big square bales," says Rodman, " the four by four by eights, in a normal year, we’ll still do anywhere from 2,000-3,000 bales. This year was a lot more bales, because of the demand for them. The biggest problem this year was finding enough cornstalks."

Rodman buys the stalks from local growers, flailing and baling in fields that have already been harvested. Like any agricultural endeavor, it has its pitfalls. There’s wrestling with the machinery and the uncertainty of the weather. But so far, it’s been worth it. Rodman says that harvesting what used to be waste products is going to increase, because of economics.

"Right now, you’re looking at anywhere from $200 to $280 a ton on the price of hay," according to Rodman. "On the hay you’ll have 22-25 ton on a semiload. On a load of cornstalk bales, you’re looking at roughly in the neighborhood of $100 a ton. Big difference. With what the economy is, more and more people are finding out they have to feed a waste product, which is cheaper, so they can make more money. Even though the price of cattle are higher, the rancher isn’t making any more money than he did 10-15 years ago, because everything he’s gotta buy is up in price. So you have to find ways of cutting corners but yet not hurting the cattle with doing it. But you need to find ways of saving money."

Milo – or sorghum – and pinto bean stalks are also being used for feed. They both have more protein – but the milo, for example, is in Nebraska. For the rancher, the added charge for freight, about $4 per mile, can make a product prohibitive.

"This year, a lot of the hay that did come in here, came out of Idaho," Rodman says. "So you’re looking roughly anymore with the trucking end of it, it’s $4 a loaded mile. So say, 500 miles, there’s another $2000 to come in. If you’re hauling from Olathe up here to Paonia, you’re looking at a whole lot less freight than you are coming out of Idaho."

And if you wanted any cornstalk bales this Spring, you can’t get them from Rodman. "I had one fellow call," he says, "and he wanted 30 semi-loads of it. And I told him, I’m not gonna be able to do it. I couldn’t get enough bales this year."

Marty Durlin contributes freelance news features, including coverage of Delta County Commissioner's meetings and local governmental issues.