Carolina growers face grain storage problems

Gary Respess is a cotton man, grows 2,000 to 3,000 acres of cotton and is General Manager of Coastal Carolina Gin in Pantego, N.C. However, as did so many farmers in eastern North Carolina, he shifted acres out of cotton and into corn and soybeans.

Now, his 5,000 acre farming operation is about equally split between grain and fiber production.

“Cotton has been a good crop for us and building the gin in 1996 created an incentive for us to increase cotton acreage over the years. So, we are not abandoning cotton by any means, but low prices and high input costs have forced us to look at growing more acres of other crops,” he explains.

“We made the decision early to put more acres into corn in 2007. When we made the decision, it looked real good on paper. Of course, it looked good to lots of other people, too. So, we have seen a big switch from cotton to corn,” Respess says.

“What we may have done is create another monster. If all the people who said they were adding corn acres do so, and if we have a good growing season, there will be long lines and upset people,” Respess predicts.

The big problem, Respess contends, is a lack of storage capacity and not just for corn. Many growers in eastern North Carolina grew more acres of wheat to take advantage of higher prices and most of that will be followed by soybeans. What to do with all this extra corn, will be a big question, he adds.

Most grain companies have elevators devoted specifically to one crop or another. With the extra wheat planted in the fall of 2006 and expected increase in double-crop soybeans, a big question is whether buyers will fill elevators targeted for soybeans with corn. Or, will farmers have to store corn outside?

The infrastructure in eastern North Carolina, Respess contends, is not adequate to handle increases in all three grain crops. Storing corn under plastic, outside, exposed to 90-plus degree heat and humidity is gamble enough. Add to that the threat of wind and rain damage from hurricanes, and the risk factor for outside storage is astronomical.

The primary risk is development of aflatoxin in corn stored outside under plastic. A secondary risk is the long lines at the grain elevator that may put corn quality at risk.

University of Georgia Ag Engineer Paul Sumner says high moisture grain should not be held in wagons or trucks for longer than six hours. Six hour waits at local grain elevators may become commonplace.

Aflatoxin is a natural occurring toxin produced by the fungus Aspergillus flavus. The fungus can be recognized by a gray-green or yellow-green mold and can be found growing on corn either in the field or in storage.

A big problem with outside storage of corn is increased moisture — in the Midwest outside storage is common and 19-20 percent moisture is not uncommon. To avoid aflatoxin contamination, experts contend corn moisture should not exceed 12-13 percent.

Insects have also been linked to aflatoxin problems in both corn and peanuts in the Southeast. Clearly outside storage of corn would increase the likelihood of post-harvest insect damage, thus opening corn up to greater risk to aflatoxins.

Despite the recent furor over corn-for-ethanol, the vast majority of corn grown in the Southeast goes to feed chickens, cattle, hogs and fish. Aflatoxins in corn are highly poisonous, even in small amounts, to livestock, so the value of moldy corn is greatly diminished, especially in the Southeast.

Ethanol plants expected to buy a high percentage of their corn stock from North Carolina growers by the spring of 2007 have not even begun construction, and it’s unlikely any will be operational to buy corn by the spring of 2008.

All these factors point to greater outside storage of corn, and perhaps, soybeans. For outside corn storage several factors to consider include:

• Make the grain pile on a solid surface or on packed ground in a high location with a slight slope for drainage. Recognize that gravel is hard to sort out of grain when it is picked up. Plastic under the grain helps, but may complicate grain handling.

• Do not mix crop years in any storage situation. The old crop likely has molded, and the new crop is not stable in moisture content. With grain piles, you have fewer moisture control options.

• Pile dry (less than 15 percent), clean, cold corn with test weight 55 pounds per bushel and higher. Lower test weight corn spoils more rapidly.

• Build the grain pile quickly, to avoid incorporating weather conditions and wet layers (from rain or snow) into the pile. Avoid piling slowly at harvest pace unless harvest pace will build the pile in two to three days without precipitation. Try to make the pile at the end of harvest season, when outdoor temperatures are lower.

• Expect approximately a 0.5 percentage point increase in broken corn and foreign matter and a 3 to 5 percentage point increase in damage in uncovered grain piles, even under the best of conditions.

• Covered grain piles are always preferred. Free water progressively wets corn to about 30 percent moisture as it moves down the pile, so an uncovered grain pile will always have a layer of moldy corn on top (unless you are lucky enough not to have rain at all). An inch of rain will change about 6-8 inches of grain from 15 to 30 percent moisture.

Respess says the increase in popularity in Maturity Group III and Group IV soybeans may indirectly create another bottleneck for growers. These varieties have to be harvested as soon as they mature to avoid significant yield losses from harvest damage.

“We’ve seen our soybean yields go up some in recent years. Whether that is from improvement in varieties, planting beans directly into cotton stubble, or using earlier maturing varieties, I can’t be sure,” he says.

The bottom line is the combination of high prices for nitrogen, combined with corn losses to an early April freeze and damage from a weather front that battered the area with 40-50 mile per hour winds for three days in early May will likely mean an increase in soybean acreage.

In the rich coastal Carolina soils producing 40 bushels of soybeans per acre and 150 bushels of corn per acre is the norm. With some farmers cutting back 40-50 percent in cotton acreage the likelihood of corn and early-planted, early maturing soybeans hitting the grain elevator at similar times is going to be a problem.

“In the long run, I’ve never seen a market go up and not come down, so things will likely even out over time. In the short-run, we all hope for a good crop season with high yields, but that could create a real mess at harvest time,” Respess concludes.

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