Breeding Success

FROM THE NOVEMBER ISSUE: A new breed of corn, produced with the ethanol industry in mind, promises more corn oil yield and higher-protein distillers grains.
By Matt Thompson | October 15, 2019

Charlie Brown, CEO of Brownseed Genetics, says a lesson his dad taught him has been the guiding principle of his company. “My dad in the ’70s told me, if we as farmers made 10 more cents per bushel instead of 10 more bushels per acre, we can double our profit,” Brown says. “And that always remained with me.” He adds that his goal is to increase the value of grain.

And he hopes his company’s new corn hybrid, E+, will help increase the value of corn for growers and ethanol producers alike. In July, Brownseed announced a partnership with Benson Hill Biosystems, and the new corn hybrid. The new corn is designed to increase oil production—the breed yields about 9 percent corn oil—and protein for distillers grains. “This is a project that I’ve been working on for over 20 years,” Brown says. “We found a way for corn to express more oil and protein and simply by increasing the size of the embryo in the kernel.”

Brown, who has been working with Kurt Dieker, director of technology for ICM, says that while yield is important for growers, “net profit per acre is what counts. That usually means exercising discipline in seed selection, input costs, marketing and crop quality. Brownseed focuses on the things we can control, and that’s seed cost and grain value. These variables will increase net profit per acre.”

Dieker says the larger germ size in the E+ corn results in higher amino acids in distillers grains. “In this case, what we’ve seen is slightly higher glycine content and some of the other essential amino acids that aren’t as prevalent in corn,” Dieker says. “When you make a larger germ, that germ also happens to have most of the better proteins in it. And when I say better, I mean bio-available.”

The corn also has a higher protein content, which is concentrated into distillers grains. “Basically, whatever your incoming corn composition is, the nonstarch components, you’re going to concentrate it approximately three times,” Dieker says. “So, incoming corn, if it is 2 percent higher in protein, then outgoing distillers grains would actually be 6 percent higher in final feed value.” Dieker also says the new breed allows producers to make more money per bushel, through increased oil and protein production, without having to produce more ethanol.

Tried and True
In pilot testing, Dieker says distillers grains from the hybrid were higher in amino acid, and oil was still recovered at the 6 percent retainer. “So you can monetize the additional oil by getting a better price for it than distillers grains, which is why everybody separates oil today.” Leftover protein can be concentrated into traditional distillers grains at 30 percent protein, or a higher-protein product at 50 percent or higher, Dieker says.

Brown says that although the E+ hybrid contains more protein and less starch, the starch alleles are more fermentable, meaning there isn’t a reduction in ethanol yield. “The kinetics are really good in this corn,” he says.

Dieker agrees, saying the lab trials bore this out. “In other words, the starch was more accessible, faster,” he says. “But you still have less starch. So starch convertibility is the same or slightly better, but total starch content is less, but you are switching out for protein and oil.” The same results were achieved in pilot-scale trials, Dieker says.

In addition to lab and pilot-scale trials, Southwest Iowa Renewable Energy in Council Bluffs, Iowa, did a multiple-day run with E+. Dieker says while not statistically relevant, SIRE saw the same results as the lab and pilot trials. “They saw fermentation kinetics really didn’t change all that much. They basically ran normal alpha amylase doses and they saw increased oil recovery rates. The feel-good test would say that yeah, with commercial scale fermenters we saw the same thing we saw with the pilot plant, and we saw the same thing we saw in the lab that we’ve replicated multiple times.”

Dieker says most ethanol plants should be able to handle the new hybrid without major modifications to their equipment. “Up until 25, 35 percent inclusion rate of a Brownseed, you probably won’t have any modifications,” beyond adjusting the oil separation centrifuge. “They’re really just cutting that stream differently because it has more oil in it,” he says.

For higher inclusion rates, plants may need further modifications to handle the increase in oil production. “[They] may actually need to add an oil centrifuge, expand oil separation capacity, or you may need an advanced technology like ICM has to be able to make sure that that oil goes the right way to be able to separate it,” Dieker says.

Strength Through Partnership
Brown says he’s excited about his company’s partnership with Benson Hill Biosystems. He says that, to this point, Brownseed has been using classical breeding techniques to produce E+, taking five to seven generations to make a breed of corn. The partnership with Benson Hill, however, will allow the company to produce new varieties in three generations. He adds that gene mapping and use of Benson Hill’s prescreening software will be a benefit for Brownseed. “They’re basically bringing the tools of a large breeding program to a smaller independent such as ourselves,” Brown says.

In a release announcing the partnership, Benson Hill CEO Matt Crisp echoed Brown’s goal of bringing value to growers and ethanol producers. “Brownseed’s focus on varieties with both quality and productivity benefits can generate greater profitability for growers, livestock producers, and the ethanol industry,” Crisp said. “Together, through this partnership, we will broaden the Brownseed portfolio so these hybrids can be grown across the Corn Belt.”

Benefits in the Field
In addition to more corn oil and protein, the benefits for ethanol producers include sourcing more local corn, Dieker says. “The more they understand about what’s going to go into the ground and what its benefits are, I think the more they can help originate more and more of their own corn, which has a financial benefit as well,” Dieker says.

There are also benefits for corn growers. “We’ve put together a production method we call Sidekick, where a grower will blend 25 percent of our E+ with 75 percent of their favorite commercial variety,” Brown says.  The strategy raises the oil level of the grain harvested. Figures from 2018 in southwest Iowa and northeast Nebraska showed average jumps from about 3.5 up to 6.68 percent oil on a dry basis, Brown says. “So the Sidekick program has a lot of benefits to it, as far as lowering the bar of entry to a grower. We’re only asking them to change 25 percent of something they’re already very comfortable with, so we’re finding that growers are accepting the product really well because of that.”

Brown says E+ is distributed through licenses to seed companies. Ethanol plants have leveraged relationships with growers to gain access to the new seed. “Whatever type of contract they need logistically to handle, that’s set up by the ethanol plant, and what we provide is the agronomy and technical support in the field,” Brown says. “We’re, so to speak, the boots on the ground to help the grower produce the crop and we hand it off to the ethanol plant and, downstream, they take care of the processing.”

Dieker says the company is looking for more plants to assist with trials. “We are going to pick those advantageously, because Brownseed, being a smaller company, we can’t go and do 40 trials,” he says.
And for Brown, it comes down to what his dad taught him about helping farmers make more per bushel. “We feel this could be a very important product for the rural ag economy in the U.S. Every dollar goes around a town seven times and the amount of value we can bring to an ethanol plant and local growers and their local towns, we’re very encouraged by the potential of it,” he says.

Author: Matt Thompson
Associate Editor, Ethanol Producer Magazine