Corn quality control
The most uniform characteristic of the 2012 crop was its jaw-dropping variability.
Although some farmers face major financial setbacks, most yields fell short of worst-case scenarios. But fighting downed cornstalks, plugged combines, and harvest fires were only the initial hurdles.
“The more stress the crop is under, the more stress producers will have,” says Chad Hart, Iowa State University Extension ag economist. “They'll have to give more time and thought to managing this year's harvested crop.”
Beyond the striking variability of this year's corn yields, two other characteristics were initial sources of concern.
1. Test weight/kernel size
Despite earlier worries, there were relatively few reports of test weights triggering major discounts. “Test weight wasn't a huge factor,” says Kim Holsapple, grain manager and merchandiser for Total Grain Marketing, Effingham, Illinois. “Most of our corn averaged about 56 pounds.” In southeast Kansas, low test weight corn (less than 50 pounds per bushel) was reported. “I'd say the vast majority was above 50 pounds per bushel, maybe even above 52,” says Doug Shoup, Kansas State University Extension specialist, Chanute.
Bob Nielsen, Purdue University agronomist, isn't surprised. “Low test weight corn doesn't have anything to do with yield,” he says. “The higher the moisture, the lower the test weight.”
2. Moisture content
Hart says they fielded many reports of corn being 16% to 18% moisture when combining got started. And then 50 feet down the row, it was up to 22% to 24%.
“Many elevators recognized these quality issues and went out of their way to help,” he says. “Some elevators in northern Iowa cut drying rates by one half to encourage early harvest.”
The advantages of this incentive were twofold:
- Drought- and wind-damaged downed corn posed harvesting and marketing headaches for farmers and grain handlers.
- Heat, drought, and wind damage created the perfect breeding ground for aflatoxin and other molds. “An early harvest gave producers the chance to catch it, stop the growth, and keep it at manageable levels,” Hart says.
Drying the crop to consistent levels prior to storage is key. “Corn with any potential for aflatoxin can't be dried below 120°,” says Iowa State University professor Charles Hurburgh, who heads the Iowa Grain Quality Initiative. “Drying it in half batches helps. In cases of highly variable moisture, for example from 15% to 30%, dryers won't equalize moisture in one pass.”
Holsapple adds, “With prices extremely high at harvest, many producers sold right out of the field. Some didn't want to take the chance of storing it in their bins at 15 parts per billion of aflatoxin and finding out later this winter that the level was up to 200. We closed a little early some days so we could quickly dry down everything hauled in that same day.”
Iowa was the first of several states to petition the FDA to permit corn with more than 20 parts per billion (ppb) of aflatoxin to be blended with corn with lower levels or no aflatoxin for use as animal feed. This allowed corn to be marketed to feed mills and fed safely to livestock.