Q&A - Corn's Cruel Summer

Iowa State University’s resident grain quality expert Charlie Hurburgh looks at corn quality, corn genetics and the role ethanol will play in the future of corn through the lens of the most devastating drought in his memory.
By Tim Portz | September 11, 2012

Summer 2012 was a trying one for corn producers, with many of them watching helplessly as parched crops sizzled in hot, dry conditions. To make matters worse, drought-weakened fields are more susceptible to fungal contaminations, which kept Hurburgh’s phone ringing throughout the summer. Hurburgh talks about how the drought played out on his farm, how improved genetics saved this year’s crop from being a total loss and how critics have missed the contributions to increased corn yields, stimulated in part by increased demand from ethanol producers.

First things first, you have some corn acres in central Iowa. How do things look there?

We are in a fairly good area, relatively speaking.  I’d say we’ll probably net 140 bushels per acre down from a more normal 200 to 220 bushels.  Our kernels are small but modern genetics really hang tough in the face of stress, more so than many people outside agriculture understand.

When was the last time you saw conditions this dry?

1988 I think but even then it was not this bad.  This is the longest dry period I really can remember.  My dad said we plowed up the corn in 1956 but I can’t remember that.

The drought, falling corn harvest estimates and the ethanol mandate have been national news this summer and the subject of much debate. Did anything about the debate surprise you?

Not really.  There were many people who did not understand the growth curve that corn production was, and still is, on and therefore were looking for a reason to say we are using too much corn for fuel. 

How much more drought-tolerant are the corn hybrids typically grown today? For instance, how much more devastating would this summer’s weather have been on corn seed with genetics from 20 years ago?

Well, I don’t know that I could give it a percentage, but this has been a gradual trend over the last 10 or 15 years and most of us in farming have noticed this, that the falloff in yield has been decreasing, and at the same time we’re increasing our plant population. There has been a steady increase in the ability of corn to go a long time without moisture without experiencing a large yield loss. This year, it’s not just a question of going a while, its going almost a whole season without moisture. Even now, we may end up with 120 or 140 bushels per acre and it hasn’t really rained since June. That’s pretty good.  Without modern traits, I think fields would have been dead by Aug. 1 or earlier in most areas, with virtually no yield.

Mainstream interest in agriculture continues to escalate with books about food production sitting atop bestseller lists. In his book “Omnivore’s Dilemma,” Michael Pollan is pretty critical of monocultures and modern corn production. What is the best argument for our current production approach?

With scientific management, fertility continues to increase.  The high prices are actually a benefit in this regard because of fertilizer loss, and application of extra inputs is more expensive now than before. 
To answer the question, there is an exploding demand for calories in the world, for food, feed and fuel.  That is not going to stop. If we do not keep creating new energy for whatever use, the net impact would be shortage, higher-yet prices and most likely war.  There seems to be a belief that we would be better-off to go back to a lower tech, more crop diversity, with a greater focus on local markets.  With that approach, total output would fall and someone would have to pay the price.  It’s sort of elitist to think that we could have a social system that serves us without intrusion from others who would not be so fortunate.  The higher prices for agricultural products are creating more potential wealth for farmers everywhere, although other places struggle to distribute not only the grain but, more importantly, the wealth.

Could an argument be made that the increased demand for corn for ethanol production has led to increased research in yield and corn vitality, thereby ultimately increasing the amount of corn available for feed and food usage, instead of decreasing it as industry critics often suggest?

Absolutely. Ethanol increased the demand for corn, which then increased the price for corn, making it possible to invest more R&D dollars into a whole bunch of things including precision farming, chemical placement, fertilizer placement and so on. All of those things cost money to develop and they cost money to do. We now have the money to do them. There is no question our yield increase curve is supported by the higher value of the crop that was originally driven there by the ethanol industry. As an example, we couldn’t pay the price we paid out for a bag of seed with the traits we now have if we were getting the buck fifty per bushel we used to get from the market and 50 cents from the government, we just couldn’t have done that.

How are ethanol plants currently handling inbound grain inspection? How should they be?

Corn quality makes more difference than it gets credit for. Protein, oil, mold damage and, of course, mycotoxins affect both ethanol yield and DDGS quality.  When you receive 100-200 trucks per day, it’s sometimes hard to think about inspection beyond moisture and test weight, which comes with moisture.  That’s typical and sometimes the buying side expects the processing side to just take whatever can be bought and make the best of it.  
Anyone in the ethanol business needs to be screening their inbound grain. There is just no question that this year there will be some aflatoxin in corn supplies. Producers need to know if it is in their particular area, as it will be regional. Ethanol plants that serve export or dairy markets are the producers that will need to be most cognizant of aflatoxin levels in their inbound corn.

You have spoken about a cap on corn-derived ethanol being a mistake, as ethanol would be a great candidate to continue to provide a market for ever-growing corn crops. In light of that, as we build more demand for corn, whether in an ethanol plant  or for other uses, how do we reconcile years like this one when harvest falls short of demand?

Absolutely true.  Every system has variations. A system that is fundamentally driven by the weather can have large variations, as we’ve seen this year.  Yet, at the recent Farm Progress Show, the stars of the show were the increased drought-resistant corn hybrids.  The long-term trend is steadily up in corn yields and in potential acres planted to corn, both in areas now (seeded) in other crops or in no crops (not seeded) whatsoever.  Corn is the most efficient converter we have of sunlight to readily useable energy and yields more units of grain per acre than any other choice.