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Where does all the corn go?

Farmer Keith Alverson with his dad, Ron and the seventh generation of Alverson’s to live on the family’s farm near Chester: Kennedy, Connor and Caiden. The photo was taken during corn harvest seven years ago.

The 2022 South Dakota corn harvest is complete. And a recent National Agriculture Statistics Service (NASS) report forecasts farmers across the state harvested more than 650 million bushels of corn.

So, where does all the corn go once it leaves farmers’ fields?

Corn harvest wrapped up for Keith Alverson the first week in November. Reflecting on bushels-per-acre yields, the Chester-area farmer says he feels pretty good considering the dryer than normal conditions this growing season.

“We were about average on soybeans and slightly below average on corn, which we felt like was a success because we were still several inches behind on annual precipitation,” Alverson said.

Depending on moisture and soil health, his corn fields yielded between 120-to-200 bushels an acre. The sixth-generation farmer says he markets nearly all of his bushels to the local ethanol plant.

“The primary market that I consider is Dakota Ethanol up in Wentworth. We’re about 10 or 12 miles from Dakota Ethanol, so it’s a nice, close location. My family has been involved in the plant, my dad was on the original steering committee back when they put up the plant and we’re investors as well, so it feels like we are supporting our hometown area,” Alverson said.

Ryan Wagner raises corn about two hours north of Alverson’s family farm, near Roslyn. Like Alverson, Wagner also markets most of his corn through area ethanol plants.

“We haul to Glacial Lakes Energy in Watertown, we are members there and also POET in Groton, which is also a good market for our corn. So, you know, from our farm, I’d say at least 90 percent, if not more of our corn ends up being turned into ethanol,” Wagner said.

Across South Dakota most of the corn harvested is marketed to ethanol plants explains DaNita Murray executive director for South Dakota Corn.

“Two out of every three rows of corn in South Dakota ends up as corn ethanol. This isn’t a percentage, but it certainly gets the point across that most of the corn in South Dakota, in a typical year, is going to end up on the fuel side,” Murray said.

Even corn not marketed direct to an ethanol plant may find its way there, explains Scott Mundt, general manager of Dakota Ethanol.

“Just because it goes to an elevator does not at all mean it is not going to an ethanol plant. We procure our grain, both from the farmer producer and then there is a portion of our grain we will procure from commercial grain facilities, which will be the elevators,” Mundt said.

Once it’s processed the corn leaves the ethanol plant as two products: fuel and livestock feed.

Again Scott Mundt.

“Out of that corn, we take the starch product and we turn that into ethanol and the protein and fat component of that kernel, it turns into a feed product, dried distillers grain, and that is returned as a livestock feed product,” Mundt said.

Travis Antonsen is the senior vice president of grain marketing and rail logistics for AgTegra. He said most of the corn the cooperative does not market to South Dakota ethanol plants will be marketed to livestock feed markets.

AgTegra is South Dakota’s largest local agriculture cooperative.

“South Dakota has an exportable surplus of corn, and it needs to find the next best market. In a normal year, most of this goes to the Pacific Northwest to be exported. We’ll sell to exporters. They will load ships and it will go overseas. This year is a little different. With the lack of corn, corn production was hurt in Nebraska, the drought in Southern Plains of Kansas and Oklahoma – we are actually shipping a fair amount of rail cars with corn going south to feedyards in Texas and other livestock consumers down in southern states, whether it is Kansas, Arkansas or Texas. Wherever the best value is for that corn is where we go in a nutshell,” Antonsen said.

Following harvest 2022, AgTegra expects to ship a little over half of the corn they handle into railcars heading out of state.

Lura Roti grew up on a ranch in western South Dakota but today she calls Sioux Falls home. She has worked as a freelance journalist for more than two decades. Lura loves working with the SDPB team to share the stories of South Dakota’s citizens and communities. And she loves sharing her knowledge with the next generation. Lura teaches a writing course for the University of Sioux Falls.