Corn Commentary

Best of Times for Agriculture?

Dr. Lowell CatlettCorn prices may be lower but eternal optimist Dr. Lowell Catlett says it’s still the best of times right now for agriculture.

“Historically, there’s never been a better time to be in agriculture,” said Catlett this week at the Bayer CropScience 2014 Corn and Soybean Future Forum being held in Germany. “The world has never known so much wealth, we’ve gone up 20 fold in the last 20 years.”

And that means more protein, which is good for corn and soybean producers. “We got to double meat protein production because of world wealth in the next 25 years,” said Catlett. “And if we double that, we’ve got to do it with some feed products with animals that are grown intensively – better health, better feed efficiency, and less impact on the environment.”

Listen to a quick interview with Dr. Catlett from Germany here: Interview with Dr. Catlett

Of course, if you have ever seen Dr. Catlett in action, you know he is not only an optimist, but a funny and informative entertainer – listen to an excerpt of his remarks this week here: Dr. Lowell Catlett Remarks

Newspaper’s Credibility At Issue

In 36 years of being directly involved in agriculture and the issues that make it so…interesting, frustrating, rewarding, and painful…I have only seen one positive story written about the issues effecting the profession, especially ethanol, in the Chicago Tribune. I remain convinced to this day that it was a mistake that slipped by editors and that the cub reporter responsible is driving a cab in the Loop and speaking in tongues.

I think it is ok to say this Windy City pub never met a farm policy or ethanol issue they didn’t like to bash, facts aside. Apparently farmers are immune to the whims of business considerations like making enough to pay the bills and plant another crop. Why else would the Trib opine that farmers are getting more for their corn after a 25 year economic drought that saw farmers getting $2 to $2.50 a bushel regardless of real world cost or demand? (Let alone make such comments in the wake of prices just dropping 40 percent).

So, following their direction, I guess all of you farmers can get off your combines and retire. Apparently you have spent your entire life, not to mention several generations, involved in the most under appreciated hobby in history. No more production of food, feed, or fiber. No more ethanol fuel because we are just going to continue to depend on prickly and dangerous oil producing nations for their finite black gold.

On a more serious note, I think the Tribune needs to be called on the carpet for the sham they have been selling to the public for years that they have a pro-business/pro-jobs position.

Despite dozens of third party experts bringing them information backed by science that exposes the errors in their thinking the Trib, especially its editorial writers, remain steadfast in their spewing of misinformation and loathing of ethanol despite its emergence as a critical economic engine in much of the U.S. Are these folks not suspicious or troubled at all by the millions of dollars being spent by the petroleum industry in recent years to damage the reputation of ethanol. One of the tenants of good journalism is to follow the money in trying to understand societal issues. Clearly Goliath is trying to squash David and somebody should be asking why.

Here are a few of the factual perversions in their latest diatribe:

  • Farmers are not planting as much corn as possible. In fact we are 20 million acres shy of planting the acres we did in the 1920s.
  • The Trib notes we use 40% of the corn crop to make ethanol. Actually we use the equivalent of only 27% of the crop because only the starch from the corn kernel is used to make ethanol. The protein for livestock feed is concentrated, easier to transport and a high value product.
  • Blaming corn for higher meat prices is also off base. Declining domestic meat consumption and the outrageous cost of transportation of all food products to market – thank you big oil – has something to do with that.
  • Plant diseases and pests are nothing new. Farmers deal with them all the time and do so very well thank you. Goss’s wilt that you reference touches only 10% of the corn crop, and is far from being devastating, unless of course you fall in the 10%.
  • And did you actually criticize crop insurance in one breath while also intimating we should take away a farmer’s ability to choose what to plant? That will make the kids want to return to the farm business.

Immigration Policy Impacts Food Affordability

Thanks to highly mechanized planting and harvesting, plus the advantage of a crop that can be stored for long periods of time, corn growers are largely able to function without the use of a migrant work force. But, even those row crop farmers who don’t directly employ migrant laborers have a reason to care about comprehensive immigration reform.

The dairy industry is very dependent on a stable work force – year round, not just seasonal – and Dairy Farmers of America Board Chairman Randy Mooney made some pretty compelling points during a USDA forum on comprehensive immigration reform held Friday in Kansas City.

dfa-kc“We know from experience that too few domestic workers want these jobs and the issue is bigger than dairy,” said Mooney. Highly perishable specialty crop producers obviously need these workers, but Mooney says corn, bean and wheat farmers do as well, to meet the needs of the farms that buy their products. “For example, the U.S. dairy herd consumes more than 133 billion pounds of feed in the form of corn, corn silage, soybean meal and alfalfa each year,” he noted.

“Because of America’s farmers, we enjoy abundant, safe and affordable food in this country,” Mooney said. “In order to ensure that continues, we need Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform,” Mooney added. See Mooney’s remarks at the event in the YouTube video below.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was the keynote speaker at the Kansas City event. “We are blessed by the most productive, most innovative and most hard-working farmers and ranchers,” Vilsack said. “American agriculture is the greatest in the world, but we risk that if we don’t have certainty in our farm policy and we don’t have comprehensive immigration reform.”

The comprehensive immigration bill being considered by the Senate – with a final vote expected possibly this week – includes provisions for agriculture including a new “Blue Card” program for current experienced farm workers and a new agricultural visa program to meet future labor needs. The provisions in the bill were the result of an agreement reached between farm worker groups and agricultural organizations.

What to Expect When You’re Expecting (Next Year’s Crop)

BabyCornCorn 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.

Aflatoxin Rears its Ugly Head

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.

Hot? Irritable? Cranky? Imagine Watching Your Paycheck Burn Up Too

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.

News: Common Sense No Longer Common

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.

Useless nostalgia for a past seen through rose-tinted glasses aside, Americans today benefit from the safest food supply in recorded history.  They have a much wider array of healthy, safe choices than could have been conceived in a pre-penicillin past.

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.

French Illegally Banned GMO Crops

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?”

The Underrated Value of Distillers Grains

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.

Surprise! More Corn Than Expected

More corn stocks than expected showed up in the latest report out from USDA on Friday, which was a big surprise for many of the market watchers.

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!



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