Business

Toxin in corn poses latest headache farmers

Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette

Corn is submerged in pools of water in a field south of Mount Vernon.
Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette Corn is submerged in pools of water in a field south of Mount Vernon.
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CHICAGO — Farmers in Iowa and elsewhere in North America are finding increased levels of a plant toxin known as vomitoxin in this year’s corn harvest.

That’s adding insult to injury for growers already suffering as the U.S.-China trade war hurts soybean exports and crop prices.

Vomitoxin sickens livestock and also can make humans and pets fall ill, and grain buyers can reject cargoes or even fine farmers for shipments that contain it.

More cases than normal are likely in the corn crop because wet weather this autumn caused the fungus to develop while delaying harvests, Iowa State University grain quality expert Charles Hurburgh said.

About three-fourths of U.S. corn is used domestically to feed livestock and make ethanol and a byproduct called distillers’ dried grains that is fed to animals.

However, livestock and ethanol producers need to blend corn that contains vomitoxin with corn that does not — to make it suitable for feed when toxin levels are high.

“Hogs don’t like the taste and don’t like the smell. They will literally starve to death before eating it,” said Indiana grain inspector Doug Titus of Titus Grain Inspection, whose company has labs at Andersons Inc., a crop handler, and energy company Valero Energy Corp sites.

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Linn Co-Op general manager Ron Woeste said he has heard anecdotes of corn mold issues elsewhere in the state, but the company’s elevators, in Alburnett and Springville, haven’t detected any toxins in corn deliveries so far this season.

About 24 percent of corn still is in the fields of Iowa’s east-central reporting district, while 28 percent of the entire state’s corn has yet to be harvested, according to the latest USDA figures. Woeste noted.

“As we move forward, that’s for sure a concern for us, and obviously we do grade every load that we send in,” he said.

Soybeans, hogs and ethanol

The quality worries come as U.S. farm income has plunged by half over the past five years and as the deepening trade war harms demand for soybeans, the most valuable U.S. agricultural export product to China, and one frequently rotated with corn.

Soybeans in the Eastern Iowa region also are taking heavy damage from the late-season rain.

Ben Mills, vice president of Keokuk Grain Inspection Service, said deliveries to the southeast Iowa grain inspector from as far north as Waterloo have had severe weather damage and mold levels.

A slight warm-up in temperatures after the early September rains created good conditions for disease to grow in the pods, from white and pink molds on the beans to purple staining within the bean.

Mills said soybean damage usually ranges from 0 to 1.25 percent of beans in a shipment, but some of the shipments he’s received are showing as much as 20 percent damage.

Most of these crops will either be destroyed or sold at a steep discount to salvage buyers.

It’s unclear how many of these shipments could be eligible for crop insurance due to specific factors in the claims process, and because soybeans yields are expected to reach near-record levels this year.

“Some of them won’t be able to get a payment because their yields are too high, despite the quality issues,” he said.

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WH Group Ltd.’s Smithfield Foods, the world’s biggest pork producer, has detected vomitoxin in corn in Iowa and Nebraska, where it is not normally a problem, a source with knowledge of the situation said.

The company, which feeds corn to hogs, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows vomitoxin levels of up to one part per million in human and pet foods.

It recommends levels under five ppm in grain for hogs, 10 ppm for chickens and dairy cattle.

Beef cattle can withstand toxin levels up to 30 ppm.

Ohio-based Andersons is warning farmers delivering corn to an ethanol plant in Albion, Mich., that corn with vomitoxin levels above five ppm is subject to rejection.

Ethanol plants in Michigan and Ohio also are testing corn deliveries for the toxin and charging farmers financial penalties if their loads contain too much, a grain dealer in Michigan said.

In upstate New York, farmers are feeding dairy cattle with millfeeds — a byproduct of wheat flour milling — instead of contaminated corn, according to a feed broker in upstate New York.

Prices for millfeeds rose about $5 per ton, to $100 per ton, for trucks in Buffalo, N.Y., on Monday.

‘The panic button’

Problems stretched over the border into Canada, too.

“I’m already getting the panic button pushed in Canada in Ontario,” said Max Hawkins, a nutritionist with Alltech Inc., a Kentucky-based feed supplement company.

Alltech had tested 45 samples of this year’s U.S. corn harvest as of Nov. 2 and found 80 percent contained vomitoxin, Hawkins said.

That is about average, Hawkins said, but he expected further testing to reveal bigger problems.

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More samples have not been examined yet because of the rains that delayed harvesting, which was 76 percent complete as of Sunday.

“It’s going to get worse,” Hawkins said.

Gazette reporter Dan Mika contributed to this story.

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