KANSAS CITY — When the U.S. Department of Agriculture releases its latest crop production estimates on Nov. 10, the market will know if the 2009 corn crop still is the second largest ever, or even record large as some private analysts forecast. But what won’t yet be evident is the quality of the crop, which is of mounting concern the longer the crop stays in the field.

To date there have been reports of fungus across the corn belt, with most concern focused on eastern areas where the harvest delay is greatest. Most reports so far have been spotty, and somewhat anecdotal, but the potential clearly exists.

“Everybody is aware of it,” one feed mixer on the West coast said, noting he had received some moldy, grade 3 corn that still was adequate for livestock feed from the western Corn Belt.

In its Oct. 9 Crop Production report the U.S.D.A. forecast the corn crop at 13,018 million bus, the second largest ever, with a yield of 164.2 bus an acre, the highest on record. The condition of the crop was rated 70% good to excellent as late as Oct. 18 but had slipped to 67% on Nov. 1 compared with 64% a year ago.

But a year ago, when the crop also was late, the harvest was 53% completed on the same date. This year harvest was only 25% done in the 18 largest producing states, far behind the recent five-year average of 71% for the date. The harvest was about four weeks behind the average, which was at 25% already as of Oct. 4, due to late planting, a cool summer that slowed plant growth and then a wet fall.
“Since 1940, this is the third slowest corn harvest on record at 19% and the slowest since 1967 when only 10% of harvest was complete on Nov. 1,” the Illinois U.S.D.A. field office said of that state’s progress. And Iowa’s state climatologist, Harry Hillaker, said last week, “Preliminary data indicates that the past month was the second wettest and third coldest October among 137 years of state records.”

Iowa is the nation’s largest corn and soybean producing state and Illinois is second in both commodities.
At issue for weeks has been corn milling quality. Some farmers, anxious to get their crop combined, harvested corn with moisture levels in excess of 25%. For storage and for milling purposes a moisture content of about 14% is necessary. The high moisture corn had to be dried before it could be stored or sold, or the price docked significantly if the elevator or mill does the drying. Rapid drying from such high moisture levels has resulted in excessive cracked kernels, making production of large flakes used by dry cereal manufacturers difficult. Some mills have been running seven days a week to make the same amount of flaking grits normally produced in five days.

Dry weather last week finally was expected to allow farmers across the Corn Belt to make rapid harvest progress, although producers with both corn and soybeans likely will favor combining the latter first because the stouter corn stalk may withstand winter weather longer.
Millers hoped the extra time in the field without rain would allow later harvested corn to further dry, with moisture levels already down to about 20% in some areas last week. But the Indiana U.S.D.A. field office said, “Recognize that grain moisture content typically decreases very, very slowly from late October onward.”

The longer corn stays in the field the greater the potential fungus and eventually lodging.
“There were isolated reports of gibberella and diplodia ear rot in corn,” the Ohio U.S.D.A. field office said last week. Kentucky and Pennsylvania U.S.D.A. offices also reported fungus problems. Diplodia does not produce mycotoxins so damage is mainly economic to the producer in lower test weight and higher dockage. But gibberella, from the same Fusarium graminearum that causes scab in wheat, is of greater concern because it is associated with mycotoxins.

But probably of greatest concern is aflatoxin, which has low tolerance levels even in livestock feed because it is a known carcinogen. So far occurrence has been limited but evident. The mycotoxin becomes concentrated in corn milling byproducts, of which distillers’ dried grains is the most significant, because non-infected parts of the kernel are removed to produce ethanol or other products. Feed merchandisers the past couple of weeks noted increased demand for wheat millfeed to replace distillers’ dried grain with high aflatoxin levels in parts of the eastern Corn Belt, especially Ohio, Indiana and Michigan.

How much impact fungus problems will have on the final production number of specific use of corn remains to be seen, but the situation requires close watch by feed and food manufacturers in the weeks and months ahead.