Crop Tour Day 5

Pioneer Production Plant and Abengoa Bioenergy Plant

Several crops hold a prominent place in the history and iconography of the United States. Cotton was once “King” in the antebellum Southern States, whereas later generations of American school children would sing of “amber waves of [wheat] grain” blanketing the plains. Nowadays, soybeans command respect and attention… Yet a Midwest Tour of the American heartland leaves no room for doubt: Corn is King.  Today’s visits to Abengoa Biofuels and Pioneer Seeds highlighted the science that explains why corn is now planted on over 90 million acres in North America.

In response to the demand for corn, companies such as Pioneer are continually developing and producing high quality seed to help farmers remain profitable in an ever more competitive market. The hybrid seeds produced by seed companies such as DuPont Pioneer allow farmers to achieve higher yields compared to the traditional methods such as planting saved seed from past years. Darin Doerr, plant manager at DuPont Pioneer’s York Nebraska seed production facility, gave us insights into how Pioneer has been accomplishing this. Situated on top of the Ogallala Aquifer, in some of the richest soils in the Midwest, York County provides the ideal environment for seed corn production. From their extensive breeding program, to the facility we were able to tour today, pioneer is providing new hybrids to meet the needs of the mid-western farmer.

Together with solid agronomy, the practise of cross-pollinating inbred lines to create F1 hybrids allows farmers to take advantage of hybrid vigour. Kyle Kocak, a research scientist and plant breeder at Pioneer, discussed the dramatic increases in maize yields that have been achieved over the years, with recent gains of 3 bushels per acre per year. Kyle explained that genetics are only responsible for about sixty percent of this yield gain, with the rest coming from advances in agronomic understanding. He suggested that the practise of good crop management in combination with solid advancements in genetics will allow the full yield potential of corn to be reached.

Darren explained the process of developing corn genetics for DuPont Pioneer, beginning in the field.  To produce F1 hybrids, two inbred lines are planted in combination in the field at a ratio of 4:1 or 4:2.

Planting is timed to ensure that the lines enter the reproductive stage together. Due to the fact that corn plants are both male and female (monoecious), the plants designated to be female must be detasseled to prevent self-pollination. To achieve 99.7% of tassels removed, the York plant uses machinery and employs 2500 seasonal workers to manually de-tassel female plants. Following pollination, the male plants are destroyed to prevent the non-hybridized ears from being harvested. Once the crop has matured, ears are harvested whole and sent to the seed production plant. The facility draws on 30,000 acres of pioneer seed corn grown within a 30-mile radius from the plant.  These fields are cultivated by roughly 100 independent farmers, who work under contract with Pioneer. The contract agreement allows DuPont Pioneer to offset their risk, and gives farmers competitive rates to increase farm income.

The timing of our visit was perfect as seed corn harvest was just starting up in the area and we were able to see most of the process in their facilities first hand.  Our tour of the plant started at the unloading pits, where truckloads of corn are dumped into a modified grain pit and conveyed to be de-husked. Seed corn is harvested on the cob to minimize damage to the kernels during harvest. Seed corn processing has to be as delicate as possible to avoid damage to the embryo of the seed, so that it is high quality when it is sold. Seed corn is carefully dried, shelled, sized, treated, and packaged to meet customer needs. The seed is shipped to suitable growing areas where farmers will manage these genetics with sound agronomy.

Following lunch, we continued to Abengoa Bioenergy, an ethanol plant also stationed in York, Nebraska, to learn about one of the major end uses for corn produced in the Midwest. We arrived at the plant and met with Mitch Stewart (plant manager), Dalton Johnston (QSE manager) and Dylan Misger (plant engineer) who explained the ethanol industry and inner workings of the plant. Abengoa Bioenergy first opened the York site in 1993 and is one of many ethanol producers in the Midwest. Approximately 90-95% of all ethanol plants in the United States are contained within the American Midwest, where the bulk of the corn is grown. The York facility produces 55 million gallons of ethanol from 19 million bushels of corn annually, and to our surprise is considered a small facility. However, ethanol is not the only commodity the plant produces. Ethanol byproducts such as corn oil, wet and dry distillers grains and Specialty Denatured Alcohol (SDA) are also produced.

 

Distiller’s grains in particular are profitable and sought after by livestock producers as they are a highly concentrated source of protein. Mitch Stewart claims that ethanol sales get Abengoa Bioenergy to break even, however a good contract on distiller’s grains makes the plant profitable.

Ethanol production often receives large scrutiny from the public regarding the food vs. fuel debate and their effect on air quality. Mitch addressed all of these concerns, including his take on the food vs. fuel issue. Mitch explained that the Abengoa plant in York is just “borrowing the energy”. Ethanol production involves the removal of starch from field corn (which is non-digestible for cattle), and the conversion of what is left into a high quality protein meal (which can then be fed to cattle).  As such, the use of corn for ethanol production does not remove it entirely from the food chain, and actually results in a high quality feed for cattle used throughout the region.   This cycle creates a net carbon balance, due to the fact that the carbon release by the plant came from and will later be sequestered by the corn plants.   Further, the carbon dioxide emissions from the plant used to be captured and converted into dry ice for use in the food sector. The Abengoa plant in York no longer utilizes this method, as the carbon dioxide capturing facility was shut down, but may start again in the future. However, scrutiny concerns over carbon dioxide emissions are negligible as it was a recycling method that releases the carbon dioxide later on and did not eliminate these emissions. The energy balance of ethanol production (energy used to produce it vs. energy produced) has been debated, and it appears there is no clear consensus.  These concepts are still debated, but there is a continued need for ethanol to meet demand and it has become an important industry in the midwest.

For local farmers, what are the economic consequences of corn’s bounty and dominance? In Nebraska corn farmers enjoy several market options: selling to elevators, delivering their harvest to ethanol plants, or producing seed corn under contract to multi-national seed companies.  Yet profits under any of these options are tied to the corn price set at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and are impacted by the Farm Bill.  As the price threatens to break $3.00/bushel this year, farmers’ balance sheets struggle against the bountiful supply of King Corn.

 

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