Corn Hybrids Developed for End Use
Published on Tue, 08/18/2015 - 12:17pm
“As a customer-driven company, our goal is to consistently produce the corn hybrids that our clients rely on and that farmers need to be feeding. This is why we have always put a strong emphasis on developing corn hybrids that are designed specifically for their end use. We are the livestock feed company, so our hybrids are designed to be fed, be it silage, high moisture corn or dry grain, and when you feed a Masters Choice hybrid, you will notice the difference.”
Lyn Crabtree, Masters Choice, Owner
Designing a product for its end use seems like a common-sense approach to maximize product development. In the agriculture world, farmers across the U.S. know that one of the most lucrative and widely utilized crops in the country is corn. So what would it look like if corn hybrids were developed with specific end uses in mind? The reach of corn stretches from coast to coast, and its impact on our economy becomes more apparent with each growing season. But when we stop and think about the many uses of corn — from distiller’s grain to ethanol production to silage — we begin to get an idea of just how many different forms corn could take.
To start this process of focusing on the end-use of corn, we first need to analyze how most of the corn we grow is currently used. According to the National Corn Growers Association’s World of Corn report, the U.S. used over 13 billion bushels of corn in 2014. Of these 13 billion bushels, the largest portion, over 40%, went to livestock feed which was followed by fuel ethanol at around 30% — then corn exports which made up 11% of our usage. The remainder was spread across several functions.
40% of corn being used for livestock feed equates to over 5 billion bushels of corn being fed to livestock each year in the U.S. Over the last several years, we have learned what the ideal corn for feeding looks like. If used for silage, the ideal corn has more digestible fiber in the stalks and a softer more digestible kernel. If used to feed as grain, it will still have a softer kernel, but the stalk digestibility won’t really be a factor. Knowing this, we would expect to see a lion’s share of the corn in the U.S. having softer, floury grain. To date, this has not been the case in the U.S. Even though livestock feed is the single largest end-use of corn in the United States, a majority of the corn produced is hard, slick, and performs poorly when fed. This begs the question: “Why are we growing corn that doesn’t suit its end use?” The answer originates at the beginning of the 20th Century.
Where We Came From
In the early 1900s corn yields on average were around 30 bushels per acre and remained this way through the 1930s. We started to experience moderate increases in yield during the 1940s and 1950s. At that time, over 75% of the corn produced in the U.S. was going to livestock feed and was a softer grain than what we see today. As we experienced further advancements in technology and in farming practices through the more common use of pesticides and fertilizers, average yields continued to increase. By the end of the 1970s corn yields in the U.S. averaged around 110 bushels per acre. This unprecedented boost in yield came about from the newly introduced concept of “hybridization” – the practice of controlling pollination in corn plants to combine specific genetic qualities and maximize plant health. Hybridization began a yield race in the agriculture industry that still lingers to this day.
The corn markets in the 1970s responded accordingly to the revolution that hybridization brought to the scene. At the beginning of the decade, 75% of U.S. corn still went to livestock feed and exports made up a very minute portion of our corn usage. However, from 1970 to 1979, U.S. corn exports nearly quadrupled. This sharp increase caused farmers and those in the export market to take notice. Up to this time, over 70%of U.S. corn was being used for livestock feed and, generally, was composed of softer, larger kernels.
Though ideal for feeding, these characteristics proved undesirable for export travel. The softer kernels had a tendency to grind against each other in transit and break apart, arriving at their final destination in less than ideal condition. Rising exports created a new demand for a different kind of corn kernel — one that was designed specifically for durability in travel.
Plant breeders started to analyze what an export corn would need to look like in order to meet this need. As bushels were measured by weight, it would be ideal to have a smaller, denser kernel so more corn could be shipped in the same size of containers. A kernel with a slicker endosperm would allow kernels to more smoothly slide past one another as opposed to grinding against one another, so that the corn would not break apart as easily. A much harder endosperm would further help the kernels resist grinding in transit. Breeders were very successful in developing these types of kernels; so successful, in fact, that to this day over 90% of the corn on the market is designed for export. Unfortunately, during the process of developing the perfect export corn, limited attention was paid to how these changes could affect the digestibly of these corn hybrids.
Exports continued to rise for the next few years and hovered around 30% of our annual corn usage throughout the 1980s. Exports as a percentage of U.S. corn use peaked in 1983 at around 45%. This remains the only year in U.S. history that the percentage of export corn was even close to exceeding the percentage of corn used for livestock feed. We exported more corn in bushels the following year, but with the crop normalizing after the drought of 1983, this made up only around 30% of total corn usage. As corn prices receded from the drought, livestock feed made up over 60% of the corn used in the U.S.
The most recent revolution to the corn market began in the 1980s when we started to utilize a small amount of corn for ethanol fuel development, a trend that began to increase very quickly throughout the 1990s and into the early 2000s. Corn yields also continued to increase during this time due to the popularity of genetically modified corn hybrids. These advancements have helped farmers overcome some natural stresses such as weeds, insect and disease pressures. Average corn yields as of 2013 were hovering around 160 bushels per acre. Ethanol use has surpassed export use, becoming the second leading consumer of corn grown in the U.S. Exports now make up between 10-15% of our annual corn use and have remained there for the last 10+ years. Through the years livestock feed has remained the number one use for corn in the U.S., and this long history leads us to believe that it won’t be changing anytime soon.
“Millions of dollars are spent each year developing and utilizing processes (steam flaking, grinding, etc.) that are designed to combat the feeding effects of the hard, heavy, vitreous starch we find in most corn hybrids. At Masters Choice we go straight to the source: corn genetics.”
– Kevin Koone, Masters Choice, Director of R&D
Floury Grain: The Corn of the Future
Now that we have a better understanding of where we came from, lets see if we can see where we are headed. The driving factor behind the future of corn should be profitability on the farm, which will be guided by increasing efficiency. In response to this demand of efficiency, the largest change we will see in the seed corn industry over the next several years is the shift to more corn hybrids being developed with their specific end use in mind. We will eventually hit a wall on how much corn can be planted on the same acre. When we do, the only way to improve profitability will be to improve the efficiency of corn we are growing and using. This will likely mean that we will not be planting the same hybrid for export that we are for digestible feed usage or silage. Likewise, we may not be planting the same hybrid for ethanol use that we will to feed as dry grain.
Masters Choice has spent the last several years focused on developing hybrids for feeding. As the seed corn industry continued down the path of harder grain for export, Masters Choice headed down the other. After noticing that cows produced more milk when fed Masters Choice floury grain corn hybrids, Lyn Crabtree purchased the company. Since then, it has flourished as more dairymen each year realize the benefits of feeding corn hybrids that are intended to be fed.
Through a simulated monogastric study conducted by Analab, we have seen that no matter how finely you grind hard vitreous kernels the starch within them is much less available than that in floury corn kernels. We have also seen that the digestive systems of poultry are able to derive more energy from a floury kernel than a hard kernel through studies conducted and replicated by the University of Illinois. Still, even more evidence has been found to support floury grain used on a dairy operation.
Going beyond just starch in versus starch out, the site of digestion within a ruminant is directly related to milk production and we know that floury grain stays in the rumen twice as long as vitreous grain, whether fed as high moisture corn or dry grain. Some would lead you to believe that this is of minimal importance, because starch can still be digested beyond this point but that ignores the fact that starch digested in the rumen contributes directly to milk production. Starch digested beyond the rumen in the small intestine and hindgut does not have much affect on milk production.
“We’ve seen the benefits of feeding floury grain and have spent the last few years researching the source of them. In that time we’ve gained a greater understanding of what we need to be looking for which has resulted in the continual improvement of our lineup.
Mark Kirk, Masters Choice, R&D Nutrition
Starch digested in the rumen contributes to milk production through the production of volatile fatty acids and metabolizable protein. Microbes in the rumen digest starch and in turn produce propionate, which is the driving force behind milk production in cows. These microbes also become metabolizable protein as they proliferate and die off, due to the cow digesting them. These digested microbes contain the beset amino acid profile for milk production. A small change in the ruminal digestibility of starch has a huge impact on milk production. Dr. Charles Sniffen makes the point that when computed in CPM a starch digestibility increase from 70-78% can result in a 5lb milk increase per cow per day, as it calculates to an increase of 41 grams of metabolizable protein. Starch digested beyond the rumen contributes little to milk production, though it does contribute to tissue maintenance and body condition. An interesting note, though, is that starch structure still matters here, with floury starch still holding an edge over harder starch molecules in hindgut digestibility.
Floury grain’s advantages may not be limited to livestock feed either. Ethanol fuel production is now the second largest use for corn in the U.S. and there is reason to believe that floury grain could be better suited for ethanol and dry distillers’ grains as the softer grain grinds more easily and ferments faster. As ethanol requires only the starch portion of the kernel, this could result in less waste and lower inputs going into ethanol development when using floury grain.
Taking end use into consideration, it’s clear that the future is bright for floury grain. Whether being fed as dry grain, silage, or potentially in use as ethanol, it is a more efficient source than the slick, hard, heavy grain hybrids growers are used to. While there is still need for export, and corn that is bred for it, the more pressing matter is a greater need for hybrids that function well in their designated roles. Why spend the extra time and resources necessary to bring the digestibility of hard kernels closer to that of a Masters Choice floury kernel, when you can cut straight to the source? With over 600 dealers throughout North America and a lineup that ranges from 82 to 117 days in options from organic to conventional non-GMO or fully traited, the right Masters Choice hybrid is not far from you.
It can take time to change course, especially when you are steering a big ship. This is why many companies in our industry have spent the last 30 years pushing corn hybrids that do not meet the needs of the end user, and likely why many still do today. But take note: you will see that many of the same names that were speaking out against floury grain two and three years ago are now working to find a way to get floury options, or something close, into their lineups. There is too much science behind these findings, and too many people have seen the benefits on their operation to deny it: floury grain simply feeds better.
So, when it comes time to select hybrids this fall, remember to keep two things in mind:
1) Select Hybrids for their end use
2) Masters Choice is Floury Grain