Editorial: Corn mould levels unearth knowledge and testing gaps

Just when you have a system that flows effectively across large volumes of a commodity, nature throws you a serious knuckleball.

That’s the case this harvest season with corn, a normally easy-to-manage, reliable crop. This year, it has turned into a nightmare when it comes to logistics, marketing and operator safety.

A good portion of the crop (we don’t have final numbers yet) is infected with deoxynivalenol, or much more commonly, DON. High DON measurements result in levels of mycotoxin that can be toxic to animals.

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DON is one of several types of mycotoxins that can infect corn, according to the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA). It can also be referred to as vomitoxin, although there’s been a campaign by some to limit the use of that more frightening word.

The high levels of DON have come from an unfortunate confluence of environmental conditions in late summer and early fall. It has appeared in pockets, especially in the southwest, but there are cases of infected fields across the province.

The DON issue has been a royal pain for anyone with infected corn. It’s taken extra time, money and shown the need for extra safety precautions when dealing with infected corn and especially dust from that corn.

It has also shown some structural flaws in our efficient and effective corn value chain.

It’s left too many producers with no good solution, and despite a large amount of work and discussion throughout the value chain on how to manage this issue, there will be no perfect solutions for farmers. It’s messy and will stay messy. The bottom line is that there’s no good use for this volume of infected corn, measuring at such a high level.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t learn lessons from it and be better prepared next time. There are solutions that need to be found.

The most important is figuring out a better test at delivery.

I know from talking to people at elevators that they have been significantly stressed by this issue too. They are part of rural communities and want their evaluations of what farmers bring into delivery points to be accurate. The problem is that probe samples taken from a truck load or gravity box full of corn only measure what kernels happen to be near the probe. From a quality parameter and moisture measurement standpoint it works and has for years. But with an infection that may be found on only certain cobs in a field, the ability to measure DON in millions of kernels is imprecise at best and misleading at worst.

The refrain, however, is “it’s the best we have”. It may have been the best in the past, but there needs to be some serious research dollars put into a better way to evaluate grain toxins at delivery. Sensors are becoming better and cheaper and more useful all the time. This needs to be a priority.

The other major confusion point for farmers is how and when to make decisions on what to do with the crop. In a usual mycotoxin year, when an outbreak is usually more localized, some elevators will be challenged, but they’ll usually be able to accept mycotoxin-infected corn to a certain level (and it’s rare that it will get to the level of outright rejection as it has this year.) The farmer will have to take a discount and the corn gets blended with clean corn until it is useful.

This year, corn is being rejected outright because levels are too high and there’s too much to blend easily in some areas.

Some corn buyers change what they can accept depending on end-user agreements, which has also created confusion.

We need some sort of triage protocol for infected corn — a “here are the different steps you take to find an end use after a rejected load” list. The end use could be plowing it into the soil, but there’s confusion around that as well.

Insurers like Agricorp aren’t nimble. They’re made to be prudent and conservative, so we shouldn’t expect them to be, but lack of guidance from them on what to do with crop that is rejected at a delivery point has also created concerns from farmers. Agricorp’s programs are mostly meant to manage crop failures in the field, not after they’re harvested. Their salvage benefit is a good first step, but that has created confusion for farmers who usually store their own corn. Farmers who have done a good job with reducing their marketing risks by setting up sell triggers and hedging could be hit hard.

On the positive side, the corn yield is excellent throughout much of the province. That will help some farmers who have some good corn and some with DON get through. But the bottom line is that there’s a need for more whole-value-chain research on what to do next time there’s a crazy DON year like this one.

About the author

Editor

John Greig has spent his career in agriculture journalism and communications. He lives on a farm near Ailsa Craig, Ontario. Contact John at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jgreig

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