Season of challenge for corn growers

Corn farmers continue to get hammered by derecho damage, low prices, uncertainty over whether or not they will be able to use dicamba next year and continued demand bottlenecks for ethanol due to the coronavirus. But efforts continue to expand corn markets, with important recent developments in ethanol and fish feed.

Derecho damage figures coming in

An Aug. 26 webinar held at short notice, hosted by satellite-imagery company Flurosat, demonstrated the value of remote imaging for assessing crop damage and guiding farmers in how to file claims and make decisions about how to proceed. Host Manal Elarab, global head of business development for Flurosat, noted that the same storm also knocked out power across wide areas of Iowa, leaving some farmers without power for days. Before the storm hit, Iowa corn fields were two weeks ahead of last year’s average growth, estimated at heading toward 200 bushel-per-acre yields, and 97% of soybeans were blooming.

According to the webinar presenters, damage assessments continue to come in after the damaging Aug. 10 storm that sent 140 miles per hour “derecho” straight-line winds across several midwestern states. Iowa was the worst hit, with estimate of up to 43% of the corn and soybean crops flattened. The derecho struck 57 Iowa counties, with an estimated 8 million acres of corn and 6 million acres of soybeans damaged. Extensive crop damage was also seen in Nebraska, Missouri, and Illinois, where the storm spawned at least 12 related tornados.

Aerial and satellite images of fields with various hybrids planted were able to show the storm’s effects on the different hybrids, to quantify damage and guide decisions about which field and varieties were salvageable, according to Michael Morris, district manager for Terravion, a subscription aerial imagery company, who spoke at the webinar. Remote imaging is important for assessing long-term responses. Morris said some farmers are reporting that corn that initially seemed to withstand the storm has “given up,” and some blown-over corn is getting moldy. Final damage figures may be greater than first reported.

Dicamba uncertainty continues

One big question for corn farmers is whether or not they will be able to use three dicamba formulations next year that must re-apply for Environmental Protection Agency registration after a Ninth Circuit judge ruled in favor of a lawsuit filed this spring by environmental groups. The Ninth Circuit vacated the registrations of Xtendimax with Vaporgrip Technology, Engenia and FeXapan, although he later agreed that EPA could allow use of existing stocks for this year’s growing season.

What to do about next year? The major seed companies have reportedly sent out letters authorizing dealers to offer rebates to farmers if they buy dicamba-resistant seeds and the labels are not re-registered, with partial rebates if dicamba formulations are approved only for pre-emergent application.

Bob Hartzler, professor of agronomy and weed Extension specialist at Iowa State University, who writes extensively about these issues, told High Plains Journal, “If we want dicamba, EPA has got to get older formulations off the market. If these new formulations are supposed to reduce volatility, why allow older formulations?”

Before the storm, Hartzler co-authored an article documenting that dicamba drift damage this summer was the worst ever recorded in Iowa. It was so widespread that it could not be attributed to specific fields of origin. In a July 3 review of recent dicamba research, he concluded, “Combining this volatility [of dicamba formulations] with the extreme sensitivity of non-resistant soybean makes it essentially impossible to use current formulations of dicamba in a landscape where both resistant and susceptible soybean are grown without significant crop injury.” No one knows at this point whether the dicamba re-registrations will be successful or not. He said “landscape-scale” studies of dicamba drift with new formulations are needed.

Thanks to new, faster techniques of gene editing and the recent relaxation by EPA of regulation of gene-edited crops, seed companies may be able to develop and stack resistant traits faster, as Bayer has done with its announcement of a corn variety that resists five different types of herbicides. But this means that farmers’ weed-control options will be getting more complicated and possibly more expensive.

Farmers are running out of herbicide options, especially post-emergence products said Hartzler, due in part to increasing metabolic resistance by weeds to multiple types of herbicides. Resistance to nearly all the herbicides used on corn and soybeans has been identified in waterhemp and Palmer amaranth. The biology of these two weeds allows resistance to spread rapidly across the landscape.

Motion filed on E15 waiver

On Aug. 21, the National Corn Growers Association and Renewable Fuels Association kept a promise they made in June. They filed a motion to intervene in a lawsuit filed by oil interests challenging the EPA’s May 2019 final rule allowing a waiver for summer driving for E15 gasoline, gas with up to 15% ethanol.

The waiver formerly applied only to 10% ethanol. The prior different treatment of the two blends had to do with something called the Reid Vapor Pressure volatility index. In its Aug. 21 filing, the RFA argued, “This disparate treatment of E10 and E15 made little sense. The volatility restrictions are intended to limit evaporative emissions, and the 1-psi allowance promotes the sale of ethanol-blended fuels. Yet adding 5% more ethanol to E10 uses more ethanol and lowers volatility and evaporative emissions. … The Final Rule removes a volatility restriction for E15 that EPA long ago removed for E10—enhancing consumer choice while reducing volatility and evaporative emissions. This Court should not allow the petroleum industry and its allies to stymie competition in this comparatively small but important portion of the U.S. transportation fuel supply.”

Study: DDGS makes safe, efficient fish feed

Meanwhile, a new study from the National Corn to Ethanol Research Center confirmed that distillers dried grains with solubles, a high-protein byproduct of ethanol production used as a quality animal feed, can be used as a safe, efficient feed for aquaculture. NCERC collaborated with the Center for Fisheries, Aquaculture and Aquatic Sciences of Southern Illinois University-Carbondale.

The study conducted a feeding trial on tilapia using DDGS from corn from an Illinois ethanol plant. Red tilapia was used for the project due to its fast growth and high performance in intensive culture systems.

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Comparable weight gain

The National DDGS Library at NCERC provided a sample base to understand the nutritional risk and benefit of using DDGS as a common aquafeed ingredient. After several months of feeding, results showed that the fish survival rate was high and average weight gain comparable to traditional diets without DDGS.

Crop-derived ingredients for farmed fish feed have become more common as aquaculture has rapidly expanded and it is no longer sustainable to use feeds composed wholly of fishmeal from wild-caught fish.

Low residue levels

In addition to feed efficiency in tilapia, the team studied the amount of antibiotic residue found in the DDGS from ethanol plants across 13 states, with most being in Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and Minnesota. DDGS were tested in collaboration with the Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville Department of Chemistry.

All samples showed residue levels substantially below the 2% allowed in animal feed. The work provided positive critical risk factor information in DDGS’s ability to be safely used as an animal feed. “The Illinois Corn Marketing Board is pleased to see the results of this study point towards an opportunity for more corn co-product demand. Farmers are operating under very tight margins and they need every opportunity to sell more corn domestically and internationally,” said Illinois Corn Marketing Board President Roger Sy.

The U.S. Grains Council said it would use this data to promote additional DDGS sales to the Southeast Asia aquaculture industry. Cary Sifferath, senior director of global programs, said, “I know our Southeast Asia staff were very happy to see the executive summary of both the tilapia trial and antibiotic survey. They see a 3 to 5% inclusion rate of DDGS in most tilapia diets in the Southeast Asia region, and with this data, hope to bump those numbers up to a 10% inclusion rate.”

David Murray can be reached at [email protected].