Corn farmers might be wise to take a cue from a certain sector of their counterparts in traditional business sectors and learn the value of expectations management.
In 2012, farmers felt the brunt of their own success as, after years of continually pushing the boundaries of how much they could grow using fewer resources, a massive drought hit the Corn Belt hard. Fields of young corn plants, the beginning of what many anticipated to be a record corn crop, withered in the relentlessly dry heat. Corn production powerhouses, including Illinois, Iowa and Indiana, found their crop would not meet initial projections.
For their inability to (literally) make it rain, these farmers faced massive cries from media outlets’ sensationalized stories. Ever vigilant in their quest for higher ratings, many journalists eschewed responsible research in favor of “commonsense” commentary, crying over and over that consumers would be shocked when they saw their grocery bills come fall.
From their self-claimed moral high ground, media mercenaries lobbed a frenzied attack. Will Americans starve to feed their cars? Should draconian rationing measures be instituted? Were the Mayans right?
With the USDA’s annual crop reports released, a clearer picture of the 2012 crop is forming. Corn farmers, who faced a serious adversary in Mother Nature, managed to grow 10.8 billion bushels of corn. No, the crop did not break all previous records, but it made the top ten lists.
Despite the worst drought since the Dust Bowl, farmers raised the eighth-largest corn crop since the United States started keeping records. Through better seed varieties, developed through biotechnology, improved practices and cutting-edge technology, our nation’s corn farmers fought back against Mother Nature’s assault.
They struck major blows at key times. Iowa took the front despite the drought, growing 1.87 billion bushels of corn. Minnesota and Nebraska stepped up production and buttressed the crop, growing 1.37 and 1.29 billion bushels respectively. Even Illinois, who saw their normally chart topping yields shrivel in the sun, made a major contribution to the nation’s overall totals, producing 1.28 billion bushels.
The lesson therein? Corn farmers fell victim to their own success in 2012. While striving to produce even more bounty year after year, their achievements became commonplace. Thus, when these over-achievers faced a natural disaster, their efforts were met with backlash instead of understanding support. When their fields suffer, farmers suffer. Yet, this fact was largely ignored.
The eighth-largest corn crop on record does not generate the sort of excitement that a record-breaking harvest may have. It does show the strength and reliability of U.S. farmers. Even in the face of a drought that would have decimated the crop only decades ago, they succeeded in providing a top ten crop. Expectations placed upon America’s farmers have obfuscated the triumphs of 2012.
Sadly, it is a story that deserves telling. Though neither glamorous nor sensational, U.S. corn farmers can provide a dependable abundance that Americans can count on for food, feed, fuel and fiber. Maybe this does not make a headline, but it does provide for a secure tomorrow. That’s an expectation farmers are proud to meet.
As the corn harvest takes off way ahead of normal, yet another consequence of the epic 2012 drought is rearing its very ugly head – aflatoxin, which is caused by a fungus that just loves the kind of weather we’ve had this summer.
“Hot, dry conditions actually promote the fungus Aspergillus flavus,” said USDA plant pathologist Dr. Kitty Cardwell. “When the plant is stressed, particularly high heat stress, it really disposes the crop to be vulnerable to this fungus getting into the grain. Then when it’s harvested and put in storage for awhile, the toxin starts building up in the grain.”
Reports of aflatoxin have already been coming in from states including Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa and Indiana. Last week the Iowa Department of Agriculture started requiring aflatoxin screening and testing of milk and is also instituting a state-wide corn sampling program. “It will show up in the milk if aflatoxin affected corn is used for feed for dairy cattle,” said Dr. Cardwell, noting that there is zero tolerance for aflatoxin when it comes to food that can be fed to infants and young children.
While there are normally reports of aflatoxin every year in some areas, Dr. Cardwell expects that some farmers who have never had the problem will be facing it this year. She offers some advice for growers to self test for the fungus. “Take 10 kernels and put them in a moist paper towel for a day or so,” she said. “If what grows out of the kernel is bright, pea green, that will be Aspergillus flavus.” If all of them turn bright green, it’s time to get your corn tested at a lab.
Can you imagine the feeling of waking up in the morning and realizing that it would be 13 months before you got another paycheck? The drought has farm families across the Midwest pondering just that as relentlessly hot, dry conditions turn the nation’s heartland from a breadbasket into an oven.
In a recent story from Voice of America, DuBois, Ill. farmer Alan Bowers Jr. explained what many family farmers in the central and southern Corn Belt feel as they watch the crop that they invested time, sweat and money in this spring wilt. Blowing away, the corn becomes part of the dust that normally yields the most abundant crop in the world.
Using a simple, yet eloquent analogy, DuBois compared his corn and soybean crop to a paycheck. Drawing on this common idea, he places in stark perspective how dire the situation facing many farm families may seem.
This candid look at farming stands in contrast to the multitude of mainstream news stories promoting the fallacious idea that farmers do not care about the crop. The emotional toll of seeing hard work wither due to circumstances well beyond human control aside, crop insurance ensures that family farmers like DuBois can make ends meet until the next season. It ensures that natural disasters do not cause our nation’s agricultural sector to disintegrate.
Crop insurance places exists because Americans value their abundant, affordable, safe supply of food and the farm families who produce it. Americans understand the integral role these hard working individualists play in the fabric of our national character and in our economy. Maintaining their ability to farm next year when confronted with such enormous, unstoppable obstacles makes sense. Understanding their frustration in watching the crop slip away does too.
As drought conditions persist, remember that the people who grow food, the people who raise it and those who eat it all must endure these trying conditions together. Looking toward one another with understanding and compassion can ease the stress placed on one another, even if it cannot ease the stress placed on the crops.
Today, the Associated Press demonstrated why common sense is no longer common and often does not make a significant amount of so-called sense. In a story written to promote a Eurocentric anti-modern meat agenda, the media source rambles on about the evils of administering antibiotics to sick cattle, pigs and chickens. Fear-mongering at its finest, the author uses sparse quotes from agenda-driven groups, unaccredited consumers and specialty producers who would personally benefit from a ban, to supplement the single, credible quote from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration which states clearly, when taken on its own, that indiscriminant antibiotic use is not favorable.
The questions ignored are myriad. Do antibiotics have a role to play in animal agriculture? How are they actually used on a normal American farm? Why do the current regulations remain in place?
The author, through crafty copy, attempts to sway the reader from asking these basic, simple questions through a subtext appealing to the idea that all readers with common sense would make the same assumptions he does. If using antibiotics can be bad, it cannot ever be beneficial. If the interest groups and niche marketers seem like good, conscientious people, then the family farmers who day in and out produce safe, nutritious, affordable food choices in abundance for the country must be the party at fault. The more modern technology, here in the form of medication, used to produce that food, the higher the chance that it will not be as wholesome as what our forefathers and mothers ate.
How can the average person find information, both facts and firsthand accounts, from knowledgeable sources willing to explain what they say? In the case of food questions, CommonGround volunteers across the country share true accounts of how they grow and raise food on their own farms. Plus, their stories are supported by credible, complete information from actual experts.
If you want to know more about antibiotics than the mainstream media is able to provide, take a moment to meet Teresa Brandenberg, a cattle rancher from Kansas. A young mother who cares deeply for both her family and her cattle, Teresa understands the government regulations for antibiotic use, the reasoning behind those rules and how it affects families, both hers and yours.
Maybe, it could more accurately be said that common sense still plays an important role in the life of most Americans. With so many urban and suburbanites far removed from the farm, asking questions about what feeds their families both natural and responsible. Talking to the people who live that story makes a lot of sense.
Listening to over-hyped, sensationalized accounts of farming written by Washington media? Maybe that is what doesn’t make sense after all.
France’s top administrative court on Monday overturned a government order banning French farmers from planting genetically modified crops France’s agriculture ministry imposed a ban in February 2008 amid concerns over public safety, but its decision had already been called into question by the European Court and has now been annulled by the State Council.
Truthfully, their ongoing and Zombie-like fight against proven GMO technology has been like watching a bad movie that you just can’t stop watching. The ludicrous and persistent effort has been watched by farmers, scientists, regulators and some consumers without cable TV around the world. And one might suspect there might even be some betting pools initiated regarding who would finally put a bullet in the head of this persistent, riveting political theatre. (Ok, I have France planting their first GMO crop in 2013 with 3-1 odds).
Both courts overturned the national ban declaring the French Government presented no scientific evidence of any risk to health or the environment from these crops. EuropaBio’s Director of Green Biotechnology Europe, Carel du Marchie Sarvaas, said: “These judgments from the highest European court and the highest French court send one message loud and clear: bans of GM crops cannot be based on political dogma. As both judgments state, no ban on planting GM crops can be declared without valid scientific evidence, something that France and other European countries have not produced.”
Even if French corn growers don’t get to enter the modern world of corn production in 2012, this is yet another positive sign that the belabored and disingenuous GMO soap opera is on its final legs. Forgive me for saying this but I can hear the EU fat lady signing.
The French court’s decision also offers support for what U.S. scientists, regulators, and industry have been saying all along….there has been copious scientific testing and years of actual use in the real world and the GMO bogeyman remains firmly in the closet where he belongs. However, evidence rises that France will launch new restrictions. French president Nicolas Sarkozy said this week the government was preparing a “new safety clause” to forbid sowing of MON810 produced by Monsanto.
“The French government keeps and will keep its opposition against the cultivation of the Monsanto 810 maize on our soil,” Sarkozy said during a visit in southwestern France. Why do I have this feeling that President Sarkozy DVR’s the “Walking Dead?”
A new USDA report gives even more credit where credit is due to the value of the ethanol co-product known as distillers grains or DDGS in livestock and poultry feed.
The major finding of the report is that a metric ton of DDGS can replace an average of 1.22 metric tons of corn and soybean meal feed. “We found that, on average, for the past 5 crop years (2006/07-2010/11), 1 mt of distillers’ grains substitutes for about 1.22 mt of corn and soybean meal combined in the United States,” concludes the Economic Research Service (ERS) report. That means that almost a full 40 percent of the corn used for ethanol goes directly back into the feed supply.
As of 2010/11, DDGS replaced soybean meal as the number two feedstuff fed, and is second only to corn. An increasing amount of soybean meal is being replaced over corn in livestock rations. The report also found that as DDGS market share for beef cattle have declined, market shares for dairy cattle, swine, and poultry have increased. Beef cattle’s DDGS substitution rate for corn is remains higher than any other type of livestock/poultry but is the lowest for soybean meal.
“This report reiterates what we have been saying for years: ethanol produces both fuel and food, in the form of high protein animal feed known as distillers grains,” said Growth Energy CEO Tom Buis, noting that distillers grains cost livestock producers about 25 percent less. “This valuable feed displaces a greater volume of field corn and soybeans, is less expensive to the producer and is much more nutritious for the animal.”
Geoff Cooper, Renewable Fuels Association Vice President of Research & Analysis, believes the report has important implications regarding ethanol’s impact on feed grains availability, feed prices, land use effects, and the greenhouse gas (GHG) impacts of producing corn ethanol.
“USDA’s new analysis clearly shows the importance of accurate DDGS accounting,” Cooper said. “The Environmental Protection Agency and CARB should immediately adopt these new findings into their GHG modeling for the RFS2 and LCFS. The resulting decrease in ethanol’s lifecycle GHG emissions could be significant.”
Earlier this year, RFA compared the production of DDGS to only the amount of corn used for feed. With estimated production of 39 million metric tons of distillers grains for feed in the current marketing year, that is the “equivalent to the 4th largest corn crop in the world, and is enough feed to produce 50 billion quarter-pound hamburgers – seven patties for each person on the planet – or enough to produce one chicken breast for every American every day for a year.” Accounting for soybean meal substitution, that makes even more!
What we call DDGS in general can also include a number of other individual ethanol co-product. There’s a whole alphabet soup of them – DDG, DWG, DDGS, DWGS, CDS, corn gluten feed (CGF), wet corn gluten feed (WCGF), and corn gluten meal (CGM). The report suggests that future industry surveys could be more precise if they estimated the effects of all the different ethanol coproducts on the U.S. feed complex.
This report includes some of the most specific and well-researched data on distillers grains production, consumption and the ratios by which it is being used in the different livestock and poultry markets. Read it here.
Despite the fact that corn stocks are reported to be 34% lower than a year ago, it was expected to be much worse, even just a few weeks prior to the Friday Grain Stocks report. Earlier this year, USDA was predicting corn stocks would finish the year at just 675 million bushels, less than a three-week supply. But as of September 1, stocks instead totaled 1.13 billion bushels, with summer disappearance indicated at 2.54 billion bushels, compared with 2.60 billion bushels during the same period last year.
The report left even USDA’s Chief Economist Joe Glauber scratching his head. “Obviously our analysts are going to be looking at those numbers, but it poses a puzzle in that regard,” said Glauber. Some think the numbers are just off, while others think it could be that livestock producers are using less corn for feed than expected.
That leads us to say don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, because having corn stocks higher is a good thing for everyone. “Pushing corn stocks back above one billion bushels is important for the psyche of the market,” said Renewable Fuels Association Vice President Geoff Cooper. “Having more corn available should somewhat ease supply concerns brought on by poor growing conditions this year and provide more of a buffer until farmers complete the harvest of this year’s crop.”
With corn prices higher this summer, livestock producers may have been using more distillers grains (DDGS), the by-product of ethanol production. When the amount of corn used for ethanol feed co-products is combined with feed and residual demand, total feed demand becomes 6.35 billion bushels, or 47 percent of expected use in 2011/12.
So, if we did look that gift horse – or cow or pig – in the mouth, we might just find more DDGS than corn there. Surprise!
Probably because they know that “curtailing” policies created to promote domestic, sustainable, renewable energy will fatten the wallets of their benefactors, not the animals they feed. If these poultry pushers and meat marketers have their way, the production of corn-based ethanol will cease altogether.
Not only would this flood the market with unsustainably cheap corn, it would impact what consumers pay at the pump. In modern America, almost every citizen relies on motorized transit, be it public or private. As studies have shown , without ethanol consumers will pay more for every gallon of fuel thus negating grocery aisle savings.
Higher fuel prices impact more than the cost of filling up the family car. Nearly all goods purchased in the United States are transported to the final point of sale from another destination. Higher fuel prices mean that each of these products will reflect the increase. By channeling all corn from ethanol production, they would have us trade a more reasonable fuel cost felt throughout the economy for momentary meat savings. But then again, poultry and meat are trucked to grocery stores too.
A recent Food and Water Watch paper that was extremely critical of the ethanol industry got me thinking about the question, what is the perfect price for corn?
The paper included the following table, which tracks corn prices, cost of production and the difference paid to farmers when input costs are higher. While FWW only focuses on the “pass through subsidies” these deficiency payments represented for ethanol producers, it rightly notes that the farm policy provides benefits for “all industries that rely on corn as a key input.” That includes livestock producers and food processors, two industries that use as much or more corn than ethanol production.
So, between 1999 and 2008, corn prices went from a low of $1.82 per bushel to a high of $4.20. Since 2005, the taxpayer has had to pay nothing for corn because the price has been more than the cost of production – which means corn growers have actually been able to make a profit on their crop instead of just break even. But production costs also continue to rise. If the price per bushel of corn was $1.82 in 2008 and input costs were $3.65 per bushel, the taxpayer cost could have been $1.82 per bushel, instead of zero.
Obviously, any industry that has corn as part of their own input costs, wants it to be as low as possible so they can make a profit, so it is understandable that those in the livestock and food processing business are unhappy with the higher corn prices. But, my question is, what is the ideal price for the commodity that would make everybody happy?
It would have to be at least slightly more than the cost of production for farmers to save taxpayers money, but farmers are impacted by some of the same input costs that affect all other industries, especially energy. As long as prices for fuel and other energy-related costs go up, production costs for every industry will rise.
The latest season-average farm price for corn is projected by USDA to be a record $5.50 to $6.50 per bushel compared with the 2010/11 forecast of $5.10 to $5.40 per bushel. But the cost of production is expected to be close to that, so what is a fair price in terms of the difference?
Please comment if you have an opinion. I’m curious to hear from both corn producers and users.
We often hear about friction between the producers of corn and livestock over the growth in the production of ethanol. One Iowa farmer had an idea to diversify his operation and do both! Judging by the tour that the TATT Global Farmer to Farmer Roundtable participants received at his farm, Couser Cattle Company, he’s doing it very successfully.
Our host was Bill Couser. Bill conducted a fascinating presentation about his marriage of row crop farming (corn/soybeans), livestock production and ethanol production! You can see a portion of his explanation in the video below. He used a long table to display all the products he produces starting with an ear of corn and winding up with ethanol (2.81 gal/bushel of corn) as well as by-products like DDGS and ultimately fine quality beef. I loved his description about the whole food vs. fuel debate, “It’s rubbish!”