Germination rains came at the right time and not in overwhelming
amounts, so there was little or no early puddling or ponding to
cause replants. In fact, the early part of the season seemed to be
cause for celebration, until the rains stopped in early June and the
heating began in the first part of July. The earlier celebratory
attitudes turned to bitter pessimism when the high heat continued
Withering cornfields throughout the county were not a pretty
sight. Some despaired, many prayed. One operator who shall remain
nameless remarked that given the dire circumstances, he had doubts
their operation would be in business for the 2013 production year.
Drought was the word on everyone's tongue. There was a three-week
period in late June through mid-July when no rainfall at all was
reported in Logan County. Then, when rains returned, they were in
strips and spots.
Some corn on high ridges withered and died. Weather radar showed
rains north of Logan County and south of Logan County, but rains
approaching from the west evaporated when they reached the Illinois
River valley. Conditions were reminiscent of the drought of 1988.
Some corn that did not get rain for pollination failed to even
produce ears. In western Logan County where there is more sand in
the soil, some fields were evaluated early, insurance claims paid,
and the non-producing corn was mowed to the ground. The USDA and
University of Illinois Extension advertised courses, presentations
and essays available to producers to turn ear-less cornstalks into
silage for animal feed to gain some cash from low-producing fields.
Those were some of the extremes.
Drought-tolerant hybrids performed surprisingly well and remained
alive when most of us watching the weather and the crops thought
they should have withered and died. Both Allen Shew of Chestervale
Elevator and John Fulton at the Logan County U of I Extension office
said that if this was 10 years ago, the corn would have already
died. Newer drought-tolerant hybrids resist the heat and seem to
tolerate the drought.
With RTK and the use of computers, production statistics could be
perfectly gauged. Raw production numbers reported in the county were
anywhere from 0 to 170 bushels per acre, with the norm being
reported at 23 to 160.
Most producers reported that the production of a given area was
dependent on the rain that fell. Those who examined farm tiles found
that while the tiles, some 24 to 48 inches below the surface, were
bone dry, there was still some soil moisture in the root vicinity
supporting the plants at critical times.
Some other producers reported that although their fields received
no significant rains, their corn crop was putting out normal
production due to superior soil types that were holding moisture and
adequately keeping the plants from undergoing stress. One of the
producers with acreage on the east side of Airport Road reported
normal production levels of 150 to 180 bushels per acre despite low
The harvest began early this year. Corn that arrived at the
elevator in the second and third week in August came in with typical
moisture percentages, according to Shew at Chestervale. This was
surprising in light of the heat and the lack of rainfall. The
individual kernels seemed to be somewhat smaller than usual. The
harvest proceeded normally and finished early.
As the first loads came into the elevator, it became apparent
that even though the drought-tolerant hybrids had produced corn, the
quality of that corn had been compromised.
Molds are normal in harvested corn, and every year's crop has its
own mold challenges.
Aspergillus is a common mold
present every year. However, during drought years (1988, 2005 and
2012) the normally occurring variety of Aspergillus is replaced by
Aspergillus flavus, which puts off a toxin in the mycotoxin family
called aflatoxin, a carcinogen. This corn crop was above average in
aflatoxin because of the lack of rainfall and the heating qualities
of the season.
According to Don Ludwig at Elkhart Elevator, loads of corn with
less than 20 parts per billion aflatoxin were accepted and loads
with more than 20 ppb were rejected.
The normal process of testing at the elevator starts with a
5-pound sampling with a probe that is inserted in a random place in
the load of grain and vacuumed up at a random depth in the load.
Part of this sampling is placed in a screening tray and examined for
quality, deformity, discoloration and trash. Part of the sampling is
put in a device to measure moisture. And part of the sampling is
ground up and made ready for aflatoxin testing.
A number of years ago the aflatoxin test consisted of shining a
black light on the sampling. An acid present in aflatoxin glowed
under the black light and indicated the presence of aflatoxin. These
were commonly called "shiners," according to Ralph Shew at
Chestervale. More recent research has shown that sometimes aflatoxin
may be present despite the lack of glowing kernels, and therefore
more precise measurement processes were needed.
The modern aflatoxin test consists of mixing the ground sample
with a methanol solution and put into an incubator for 3 minutes.
Then a reactive strip similar to a litmus strip is inserted into the
incubated sample, and then into a digital reader to obtain the
quantitative results. This test is now used with every corn and bean
Corn that has large quantities of aflatoxin present can be used
to produce ethanol. The aflatoxin is not passed on to the ethanol
product. However, in most ethanol operations, the grain byproducts
are modified and manufactured as high-protein animal feeds. Care
must be taken that the aflatoxin is not passed on to the
[to top of second column]
The USDA has set specific levels for the presence of aflatoxin in
20 ppb is the accepted limit for aflatoxin in grains
destined for human consumption, or for consumption by
immature animals, or when the destination is not known.
100 ppb is the accepted limit for aflatoxin in grains
destined for breeding cattle, breeding swine and mature
200 ppb is the accepted limit for aflatoxin in grains
destined for finishing swine of 100 pounds or more.
300 ppb is the accepted limit for aflatoxin in grains
destined for finishing beef cattle.
Aflatoxin present in the 100-300 ppb range in dog foods has been
known to cause liver failure in dogs if fed over an extended period.
The dog may or may not recover if put back on a diet with low aflatoxin levels. Livestock producers have reported that exposure to
aflatoxin in feeds can cause a larger than average occurrence of
aborted fetuses. Aflatoxin is known to produce cancer in humans.
Ludwig commented that this production year was frustrating in
light of the whole aflatoxin issue. The majority of loads were under
20 ppb. The aflatoxin testing at the elevator is done in accordance
with what would be acceptable to the consumer, usually Archer
Daniels Midland. There were cases when the test showed that the
sampling was 20 ppb or lower, but the FGIS-licensed test accepted by
the state and insurance companies showed that the sample was not
acceptable and over 20 ppb. That produced greater frustrations for
producers and elevators alike. Loads of grain were left in trailers
on the siding, waiting for a final decision.
To put the issue of aflatoxin presence in an understandable
light, in a Reuters article about corn production and aflatoxin, 20
ppb aflatoxin is the equivalent of seven infected corn kernels in a
whole railcar of corn.
According to Bill Sahs, a load that is rejected at the elevator
can be sold off to grain salvagers. If the market price of corn is
$8/bushel, then the salvagers might offer $3/bushel. The salvagers
take the aflatoxin-corrupted load and blend it with clean corn to
produce corn with an acceptable aflatoxin level and sell it off at
full market value. This blending procedure is legal in Iowa and
other parts of the U.S., but may or may not be legal here in
Illinois at this time.
A typical approach at elevators is that loads at or near 20 ppb
might be discounted from full market value to protect the elevator
when it comes time to sell it to the consumer.
There was some statistical information that corn from outside
rows had a greater amount of aflatoxin than inside rows. There was
no statistical information available concerning whether there were
any greater amounts of aflatoxin in acreage that has been managed in
a corn-on-corn scheme.
So, this year was different. What came in from the field wasn't
the yield. The raw numbers had to be adjusted to offset for the
amount of contaminated product. And this contamination is very
potent. The good news was that prices were high for accepted loads.
The USDA reports that Aspergillus flavus infects corn that has
been damaged by insects, suffered wind or hail damage, or has been
subjected to an early frost, cracking the outer husks.
The surprise at the elevator, however, was realized toward the
end of harvest. Ludwig reported that the total volume presented at
the elevator was not down as much as was predicted. For corn, 90
percent of the volume for average years was trucked to the elevator
during harvest, and 80-85 percent of the normal soybean crop. Were
the production estimates predicting catastrophically low yields off?
The answer was not in the production estimate but rather in the
handling recommendations for corn with aflatoxin. It was recommended
by the USDA that producers avoid on-farm storage for undried corn
because Aspergillus flavus would continue to produce aflatoxin in
Instead, farmers rushed all their production to the elevators to
offload the liability as early as possible. At the elevators the
corn was dried to below 13 percent moisture, stabilized and made
ready for storage to stop aflatoxin production.
This year it is expected that the lower yields would be realized
at the elevator later in the season because there will be few, if
any, late-season loads from on-farm storage.
Some have argued that we currently have drought-resistant
hybrids. In this yield discussion, we have stated that what we have
currently are drought-tolerant hybrids. Drought-resistant hybrids
must be developed which have the genetic qualities to resist
Aspergillus flavus and stave off aflatoxin even in heavy drought
years like 2012.
An effective yield is the production that produces a profit.
In light of the production and yield problems this year, many new
procedures will likely be put in place, such as genetic
modifications, chemical applications, fertilizing, post-harvest
treatment and handling to increase effective yields and protect
[By JIM YOUNGQUIST]
Be sure to check out all the articles
Outlook Fall 2012 magazine:
Yields: Complicated by aflatoxin
Hybrids saved us
Insurance claims in drought
Impact of drought on ag loans
Droughts: 1988 vs. 2012
Roundup: A view from all sides
How were the
farmers markets affected?
Introduction: Troy Rawlings