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Special feature from the  Farm Outlook Fall 2012  magazine

2012: A complicated, frustrating year

By Jim Youngquist

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[October 26, 2012]  In a normal, typical production year, it can be said that the "yield is what comes in from the field." But this was far from a normal or typical corn production year.

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 into August.

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 rainfall amounts.

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 sampling.

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 manufactured feed.

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The USDA has set specific levels for the presence of aflatoxin in animal feeds:

  • 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 livestock

  • 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 their bins.

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 profits.


Be sure to check out all the articles
in the Farm Outlook Fall 2012 magazine:

  • 2012 in review

  • 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

    • Troy Rawlings: Benefits of GMOs

  • An optimistic outlook

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