OMAHA (DTN) -- Low commodity prices are prompting some farmers to plant specialty corn to boost their income. But care must be taken when planting different hybrids next to each other, or farmers might not be able to reap the rewards of these specialty crops.
Farmers who grow specialty corn in the same general area need to communicate and plan with their neighbors growing different specialty corn to ensure these crops are preserved and premiums can be realized.
Take Adams County, Nebraska, farmers Chad Trausch and Randy Uhrmacher, who have been neighbors and friends for many years. They farm land near each other, and each grows a different type of specialty corn. They choose to work together to make sure their corn crops don't cross contaminate the other's crop.
TIME TO TALK
Uhrmacher grows corn and soybeans near Hastings in south-central Nebraska. Along with yellow corn, he also raises Enogen corn, a specialty corn hybrid with increased amounts of the alpha amylase enzyme. This corn was originally designed to be sold to ethanol plants for a premium. More recently, Syngenta, who markets Enogen, has been marketing the special hybrids to be fed to cattle.
Trausch raises corn and soybeans in nearby Juniata, just to the west of Hastings. In addition, he grows white corn, a food-grade-quality corn that can be rejected by potential buyers should it be contaminated by corn pollen from other kinds of corn.
Enogen, in particular, has come under scrutiny by both white-corn farmers and the milling industry that buys their products. The enzyme in Enogen that helps to break down starch -- a positive in ethanol production -- can be a negative for the food industry making corn chips and tortillas.
ACROSS THE FENCE
Since Uhrmacher and Trausch farm in the same general area and grow specialty corn crops in the same vicinity, the two work together when planning where to plant these varieties every year.
"Communication is key when you're planting these types of corn," Uhrmacher told DTN.
Trausch said he usually checks with Uhrmacher in the fall when he is considering his corn purchases for the next growing season. The pair will usually talk again during the winter months to make sure each other knows where the other is planting their specialty corn.
"It really isn't a big deal, we just talk to make sure we know what the other one is planning," Trausch told DTN.
Trausch said he must keep Enogen corn fields at least a half mile away from his white corn fields. He grew six quarter sections of white corn in 2017 and is planning five quarters in 2018, he said.
Most of these fields are fairly close to each other, which means he is protecting his white corn fields by planting more white corn around them. He must protect his white corn, as anything over 3% contamination will get rejected at the local elevator and he will lose his premium.
"I've never had a load rejected, and this is probably because I communicate with neighbors like Randy," Trausch said.
Trausch sells his white corn in the food-grade market, and his white corn is screened and subject to food-grade standards. If rejected, the corn could still be sold into other markets such as for ethanol production, but the premium is lost, he said.
Uhrmacher said that, when planting his Enogen corn, he must plant a 30-foot buffer when fields butt up against another cornfield. The field where he is planting the Enogen corn for this growing season is a 178-acre field in which he farms on three of the sides of the field.
GUARD THE GATE
While Enogen for ethanol is contracted between the growers and ethanol plants, there are stringent stewardship programs involved for those interested in growing the hybrids.
Chris Cook heads the stewardship program for Syngenta Seeds. He noted that Enogen is fully approved for food and feed in the U.S., and growers in the U.S. have been contracting Enogen for the past seven years.
"The company voluntarily undertakes the efforts to keep Enogen segregated, but we absolutely consider these stewardship requirements mandatory," said Cook.
"We have a team that monitors the program, and growers are even scored on how well they carry out the protocols. We have removed people from the program when we don't see the type of performance that we want," said Cook.
Interested producers are required to take training before contracts are established. Cook said growers are expected to reveal where fields will be located and to revise planting plans if they change. The company works with growers to locate buffers. Special recordkeeping and planter and combine cleanouts are required.
"We even have a seed buy-back program," Cook said. "It's not just if you have a bag of Enogen seed left over -- it's do you have a Folger's can of it left? If so, bring it in and we'll pay you the actual price of the seed just to get every last kernel of seed back."
Enogen grain grown for ethanol must be delivered to the ethanol plant and pass the Enogen quality test. Acres dedicated for feed use are expected to stay on farm and not enter the grain stream.
"Enogen isn't the only specialty corn out there," Cook noted. "The entire industry needs to work more closely, especially as more specialty crops come on the scene."
Pollen contamination remains the challenge, as nature sometimes has its own ideas, and there is no such thing as zero. But Cook said buffer rows, field placement and staggering maturities are all used to limit pollen crossing into sensitive crops.
In 2014, Syngenta began integrating a purple tracer trait to make corn produced from Enogen easier to identify from harvest through storage and processing. Most bags of Enogen seed come blended with up to 5% seed containing the purple tracer. Enogen Value Tracker, the purple tracer, produces some ears sporting yellow and purple kernels.
An online Enogen field finder is available. By entering field coordinates, the tool reveals if Enogen fields are contracted nearby.
NEIGHBOR TO NEIGHBOR
The need for neighbors to personally work together and communicate on the placement of specialty corn remains despite these tools, Trausch said. The 40-cent to 50-cent-per-bushel premium available for white corn becomes not only enticing, but critical as commodity corn markets continue to be challenged, he said.
Uhrmacher likes the fact he doesn't sacrifice yield with Enogen corn. Trausch said the premium of white corn is too good to pass up.
Both growers plan to continue on their specialty paths, and they believe mapping out a plan together is the key to getting there.
Specialty growers in some states also have the opportunity to register certain crops with a stewardship platform called FieldWatch.
Editor's note: DTN/The Progressive Farmer Crops Technology Editor Pamela Smith contributed to this article.
Russ Quinn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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