300-Bushel Corn is Coming

If a seed industry representative's forecasts come to fruition, corn used for ethanol production will stay ahead of demand. Average corn yields have doubled in the past 30 years, and new biotechnology traits and research techniques may lead to similar advancements in the next 25 years.
By Susanne Retka Schill | October 03, 2007
Cory Mescher started his new job as crop production and grain marketing specialist last spring with Aurora Co-op. in Aurora, Neb. He was hired to ramp up a new program paying farmers a premium for corn with high fermentable starch content. The central Nebraska co-op is gearing up to eventually supply the region's expanding ethanol industry, with a goal of originating 100 million bushels of corn per year for one massive ethanol plant.

Similar growth in ethanol's demand on the nationwide corn market is prompting worries about whether corn production can keep up. While farmers responded in 2007 with the most planted corn acres since World War II, another way to calm those concerns is to develop higher yielding corn varieties. EPM talked with the managers of biofuels marketing and strategy for Monsanto Co., Syngenta AG and Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc., a division of Dupont Co. The three companies hold a combined 72 percent share of the corn seed market and lead the field in commercialization of breeding technologies into new hybrids. They relate to EPM their experiences with new plant breeding tools that speed up the crop development timeline, help design corn varieties for ethanol production and increase yields.

Monsanto has boldly declared the average corn yield in the United States will reach 300 bushels an acre—double the current national average. Although challenging, it's not beyond the realm of possibilities, says Troy Hobbs, Monsanto's corn biofuels strategy leader, who points out that the national average yield in 1970 was 70 bushels per acre. In 2006, the national yield averaged 149 bushels per acre. Projecting that trend to 2030 would indicate 200-bushels-per-acre average yields. Monsanto predicts that advances in molecular breeding will push that to 250 bushels per acre. Additional biotechnology gains will boost the average to 300 bushels per acre by 2030. Hobbs compares the corn breeding industry to the computer industry in the 1960s and 1970s when inventions led to major advancements in the following decades.

Others are less willing to project future yields, but do agree that they will continue to increase. "In the future, molecular breeding and markers will have an effect," says David Witherspoon, Syngenta's head of renewable fuels for North America. "We haven't seen what we can do there to increase yields and improve quality." Molecular breeding allows plant breeders to identify desirable genetic traits and select successful hybrid crosses in the laboratory, speeding up the improvement in corn hybrids. Witherspoon adds that to get maximum yields, farmers have to control pests and weeds, some of which is accomplished through agronomics and some through corn breeding.

Biotech corn varieties have become popular among farmers looking to control weeds and insects. One type of genetically modified corn tolerates the herbicide glyphosate and allows broad-spectrum weed control. Other varieties have been modified to express the natural insecticide Bacillus thuringiensis to build insect resistance into the corn. Monsanto promotes its triple-stack traits with the glyphosate tolerance and two types of insect resistance.

Joe Foresman, Pioneer's senior marketing manager in biofuels, says his company expects to introduce its new line of engineered hybrids, Optimum GAT, in the next couple of years. The hybrids will combine traits for glyphosate tolerance with tolerance to the family of acetolactate synthase herbicides, expanding the spectrum of weed control available to farmers.

All three companies say the next round of corn improvements will feature greater drought tolerance and improved nitrogen utilization. Hobbs says corn varieties with drought genes could be used on irrigated fields to reduce water usage and maintain yields in varying weather conditions. Current varieties have already been improved. For example, Illinois growers were very concerned about dry conditions hurting last year's crop, Hobbs says, "and they ended up with near-record yields."

Improving yields lies at the core of corn hybrid work. "We're trying to take a holistic approach at Pioneer," Foresman says. Their hybrids, developed for each growing region of the country, try to improve ethanol yields per bushel and the feed value of the distillers dried grains, as well as continuing to drive yields up for farmers. "At the end of the day it is still about income per acre for the customers," Foresman says.

Designing Corn for Ethanol
In other crop improvements, Syngenta has engineered a corn variety that grows its own alpha-amylase enzyme used for saccharification. The company received U.S. Federal Drug Administration approval to test the grain in full-scale ethanol plant trials. "We're still in the development stage of the product," Witherspoon says. "We have run small-scale tests and in research-scale ethanol plant trials, but they don't answer all the questions." At press time, the full-scale trials were slated to start this fall and continue at least through 2008 to test the product in ethanol plants. Then it will undergo another round of federal approval before commercialization. Witherspoon expects that ethanol plants will contract with farmers to grow and deliver the enzyme-containing corn, which will be blended with regular corn at the plant. The product will have a wide enough operational range that precise blending won't be necessary, he adds.

High fermentable starch corn hybrids are already being promoted by the three seed companies. Syngenta's Garst brand is promoting them as ExtraEdge ethanol varieties. Pioneer calls it their Industry Select Program. Monsanto calls their program Processor-Preferred High Fermentation Corn. They all are capitalizing on the 7 percent range in total fermentable starch content of corn varieties. Foss North America has signed agreements with Pioneer and Monsanto to use the companies' calibrations in the Foss Infratec whole grain analyzers. Some ethanol plants are using the grain analyzers to establish a baseline for the starch quality of corn, Foresman explains. "We're able to identify hybrids that have this characteristic," he says, adding that trials at commercial-scale ethanol plants have shown improvements of 3 percent to 4 percent in the ethanol plant's throughput.

Witherspoon questions whether there is enough value in the high-starch corn for an ethanol plant to pay farmers premiums. "Grain segregation costs money," he says. "There's got to be enough value to cover these costs."

Monsanto ran trials in 2003 and 2004 at 14 ethanol plants where growers segregated high fermentable corn varieties and tested them in plant runs that lasted from five days to two weeks. "We found an average increase in ethanol yield of 2.7 percent with a range of 2 percent to 4 percent," Hobbs says. Fifty ethanol plants are in the network of process-preferred processors, of which 20 percent are offering premiums between 5 cents and 10 cents per bushel on the 2007 crop, he says.

Mescher says Aurora Co-op is paying a 10-cent premium on any Monsanto-Dekalb high fermentable corn variety and 8 cents on other high-starch varieties. The co-op handles the high-starch varieties at four of its 40 locations. The co-op originates grain for Nebraska Energy LLC's 50 MMgy ethanol plant in Aurora, Neb. The co-op expects to receive corn this fall at its new 1 million bushel facility alongside the site of the planned Nebraska Energy expansion. The expansion project, which broke ground this summer, is planned in two phases. The first 110 MMgy is slated for completion in the spring of 2009. A second 110 MMgy expansion will follow.

"When it hits 270 million gallons of ethanol we'll need 100 million bushels of corn a year," Mescher says. That's 1.9 million bushels, or 2,100 truck loads, per week. This year, the high-starch program is expected to gather 2.5 million bushels. Response from the region's farmers has been good, Mescher says. "We're happy with what we've seen. The farmers like the premium, as long as the hybrids put out the yield."

Susanne Retka Schill is an Ethanol Producer Magazine staff writer. Reach her at [email protected] or (701) 746-8385.