Since he started custom baling cornstalks, Ryan Handlos' business has increased nine-fold.

“In 1998 — my first year of custom baling — I made 1,000 cornstalk bales. Last year, I put up 9,000 bales,” says Handlos, who also custom bales hay, runs a cow-calf operation and operates a custom feedlot with his dad, Gary.

Handlos, of Carroll, IA, attributes the growth in cornstalk baling to the boom in ethanol production.

“More corn is grown in this area than there used to be,” he says. “There are three ethanol plants within a 50-mile radius of my farm and two more are scheduled to be built in the near future.

“The cornstalks are replacing a lot of the hay that used to be brought into this area. Livestock producers can cover their protein needs with ethanol by-products, so all they need is the roughage, and cornstalks supply that.”

“Beef prices are good right now, so the feedlots have been expanding,” points out Dan Belzer, marketing manager for Vermeer Manufacturing, Pella, IA. “Cornstalks mixed with wet or dry distiller's grain make a high-protein, low-cost feed. Many of our customers are making more cornstalk bales for feeding purposes these days.”

Handlos starts baling cornstalks in late September and finishes in early December. Depending on travel time, field conditions and the weather, he can typically make 300-500 bales in a day with one baler. His record is 1,075 bales in a 22-hour stretch, but he doesn't recommend doing that on a regular basis.

He employs his cousin part-time to do most of the hay mowing and raking and the cornstalk raking. A neighbor, who goes to Iowa State University, comes back on weekends to help, too.

After the corn is combined, the stalks are field dried to 15% moisture before they're windrowed with a 20' rake.

“Early in the season, I might have to wait up to a week after the corn's combined for the moisture to drop to 15%. But as the season progresses, I might only have to wait a day or two,” says Handlos. “I have a moisture tester on the baler, which helps me monitor it closely.”

Some harvesters chop the stalks before raking them, although it's not necessary for baling.

“The stalks dry faster if they're chopped, especially if Bt varieties are used,” says Vermeer's Belzer. “Chopped stalks are also easier on the baler pickup because they're detached from the ground and they're more absorbent when used for bedding.”

After Handlos finishes baling a field, he uses a bale mover to transport them to the edge of the field or to a feedlot or farmstead. “This is a service I added last year. Now my customers don't have to touch the bales until they're ready to feed them.”

He wraps each 5 × 6' bale with three or four layers of net wrap. “I gave up using twine about three balers ago. With net wrap, the bales have a nicer shape. I could get by with less than three or four rotations, but I want to be sure the bales stay together. It's cheap insurance.”

Cornstalks are a bit harder on his baler than hay, he says.

“It's a dirtier environment, but the return on investment is higher. I can get more bales done in a shorter amount of time because there's more volume. My biggest hayfield is only 40 acres, but when I pull in to do cornstalks, I might be there for a day or two.”

For the first time in three years, Handlos raised his rates in 2005.

“When fuel went up in 2004, I just absorbed the extra cost myself. But I just couldn't do it again last year,” he says.