2014 Corn Crop: Bumper Bushels, Good Quality

An Ethanol Producer Magazine survey provides a snapshot of the new crop. 
By Susanne Retka Schill | February 16, 2015

A bumper crop of corn was harvested in 2014, guaranteeing healthy supplies for ethanol production, feed and other uses. Overall, the quality was good, although cold weather toward the end of the growing season dented the final numbers in Iowa. “Even though we had record yields in Iowa, we would have had record-record yields,” says Charles Hurburgh, Iowa State University extension corn quality expert. “If it hadn’t been quite so cold right at the end of the grain fill season, we could have added another 3 to 10 bushels per acre. The potential was there. We had plenty of moisture, but with the cold weather at the end of grain fill, the starch didn’t pack into the kernels quite as well as if that last two or three weeks had been mid-70s, low 80s.” 

Tracking the impact of corn quality for ethanol production has not been done in the past, Hurburgh says. With his help, Ethanol Producer Magazine prepared a survey sent to management at 109 plants. The responses from Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin, showed the impact of that late, cool season, with test weights all over the board, from less than 54 pounds per bushel to 57 or better. The accompanying map shows the average quality reported by state, with the replies from non-Corn Belt states aggregated into one response. 

While the 41 percent response rate for this survey is considered extremely good, realistically, with just one or two, or up to seven responses from each state, this survey provides only a snapshot of this year’s corn crop quality as experienced by the ethanol industry. Hurburgh adds that agriculture surveys of this type usually get good response rates, as did this one, and comparing this data to the U.S. Grain Council’s corn quality survey indicates this survey’s results are in high agreement. “I’ll bet that you had maybe over 2 billion bushels of consumption represented. If you can get that much of the product represented you’ve got a pretty good idea of what the situation is.”

A survey like this is helpful for a particular plant to gauge how its corn supply compares to others in the industry, and should be particularly helpful for marketing distillers grains, Hurburgh explains. While the quality parameters of anhydrous ethanol are not impacted so much by corn quality, any issues with the raw material are amplified by three in the distillers grains, he says, adding, “There’s no question that at some point, information that covers an industry like this goes from being helpful to becoming a competitive issue,” he says, “which is why reporting at the aggregate level is as far as we can go.”

The survey provides other insights. “We did a survey in 2006 in Iowa, and plants said then that they measured just test weight and moisture.” He’s very pleased to see that most respondents measure every incoming load of corn for the four standard grade factors of test weight, moisture, total damage and broken corn and foreign material, although a much smaller number report measuring every load for protein, oil and starch. “It doesn’t surprise me at all that only a few test for oil and protein and few more for starch and toxins. Those things are not so easy to get, although protein and oil are easier to get on a load-by-load basis with an NIR (near infrared grain analyzer), just like starch is.” That intensive measurement may not be needed, he adds, because that level of data isn’t helpful. “You notice, though, there are more who do the composition testing on a composite sample.  That’s more like what will come out of the tanks.” About three-fourths of the respondents were testing composite samples of corn for starch content, a few less test for protein or oil and a similar number test composites for aflatoxin or vomitoxin. The survey also gives hints of what may be ahead, as one plant reported composite loads are checked for fiber, another plant checks for density, and one other tests for ash, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium and sulfur.

“With the degree of raw material acquisition we have now, chances are producers just want to know the averages that will reflect the average content of the DDGS,” Hurburgh explains. “As we go forward and plants begin to ask questions like, ‘What can we do about it? Can we make it better?’ Then you have to measure every incoming load.”  Toxin testing is slow and expensive, he continues. “You’re not going to check every load, except in extreme cases like 2009. We got some really bad corn in the eastern Corn Belt that year and they had to test every load. They couldn’t afford not to. But most of the time, the composite will tell if there’s going to be a problem in the DDGS.”

As the industry matures, Hurburgh says measuring corn quality will become more important. “The more that we do with the corn, other than just grind it and put in a fermentor, the more the properties of the incoming corn become important,” he says, “For example, with front or back end fractionation, all of a sudden the oil content has a great deal to do with how difficult or easy it’s going to be to get a good yield of oil per bushel.”  He also predicts that as the industry moves toward consolidated management, a more industrial thought process will emerge as the new managers bring a different mindset. “They come from other industries that don’t regard their raw material as a commodity,” he says. “Agriculture has always regarded its raw material as a commodity, because there was a lot of it and it had relatively low value, but that’s all changed.”

For related reading, see a story about a suvey-based report released by USGC

Author: Susanne Retka Schill
Senior Editor, Ethanol Producer Magazine