The U.S. corn industry faces a huge challenge: how to supply burgeoning demand for the nation's fast-paced growth of the ethanol industry that could take almost 25% of all corn produced within just four or five years.

To meet that challenge, seed companies are in high gear to develop new biotech hybrids with traits to boost ethanol yield, and add feed nutrient value to the distillers' grains left over as a by-product.

Seed companies have varieties high in fermentable starch that could boost ethanol yields by 2-4%.

Many hybrids high in fermentable starch are also the highest yielding hybrids, says Russ Sanders, director of marketing for quality traits at Pioneer Hi-Bred International. Seventeen of Pioneer's top-20 selling hybrids in North America also are higher in ethanol yield potential, he says. In total, Pioneer is marketing 135 hybrids with high-fermentable starch in its ethanol variety lineup.

Sanders adds that Pioneer isn't charging a premium for its ethanol lineup, noting that “few, if any, ethanol plants are paying growers of such hybrids a premium.”

One challenge for seed companies, Sanders says, “is that we're chasing moving targets.” For example, the ethanol industry is experimenting with low-temperature technology and fractionation — to mechanically separate the corn germ on the front end instead of grinding up the corn. Or in other words, remove much of the oil and protein from the high-starch portion of the kernel. Such a technology, Sanders says, “has an effect on the grain specifications guiding what we decide to invent.”

Some of what Pioneer is looking at involves ways to boost total ethanol yield and alter the starch design. Other research efforts create a by-product feed protein high in lysine and methionine. Sanders also says that through biotechnology, creating corn with higher fermentation efficiency is coming, while keeping other important input traits such as insect protection and herbicide resistance.

He says some early hybrids with more general improvements will hit the market within three to five years, while “some pretty exciting things” that Pioneer isn't ready to discuss publicly are five to seven years away. Sanders sees different classes of corn for ethanol, feed and other uses coming.

Syngenta Seeds has worked with the University of Illinois in categorizing its corn hybrids by amount of fermentable starch. The result is more than 100 hybrids, including some of the company's most popular, highest yielding hybrids, says Jim Graeber, the company's market development manager. Syngenta's ethanol breeding program looks for new hybrids that bring additional value to ethanol production and ultimately to corn growers.

High disease tolerance is another priority for new Syngenta hybrids, because more corn on corn is likely to be grown. And Syngenta is looking at ways to develop corn with higher quality distillers' dried grains, he says.

Renessen, a joint venture between Cargill and Monsanto, has developed a corn fractionation process. When added to the front end of an ethanol plant, it will separate the corn kernel components providing ethanol, higher value feed products and fewer distillers' dried grains, according to Monsanto officials.

Earlier this year, Renessen received U.S. regulatory approval for its Mavera high-value corn with lysine. Monsanto says this new corn will provide a chance for ethanol plants to improve co-product value streams. Officials say that the product, which is the first feed biotech trait to receive approval, will be field-tested in Illinois and Iowa in 2007, and will launch commercially in 2008.

Monsanto's present lineup of hybrids high in fermentable starch for a dry grind ethanol plant carry the traits of high yield, maximum insect resistance and herbicide resistance, says Rob Elliott, processor preferred market manager.

He says that in the past year, five or six ethanol plants were paying premiums of 5-12¢/bu. for hybrids high in fermentable starch, and he “anticipates that quite a few more plants will differentiate corn” that way. This will be driven by two factors: plants see value in buying such corn and the “sheer competition” for corn. Plants can handle the corn normally; there is no need for segregation, he says.

Is there any downside for growers considering ethanol-friendly hybrids? Not in the view of Roger Elmore, an agronomist at Iowa State University, who says that these high-end products have already proven themselves: They are high-yielding varieties with other desirable traits that just happen to also be high in fermentable starch. It's also very easy for farmers to look at the data of the hybrids and compare yields and other traits, he says. “In the long run, these hybrids will improve the efficiency of ethanol plants. Whether that gets in a farmer's pocket or not is a question.”

Will There Be Enough Corn?

Beyond improvements in the kernel of corn for the ethanol industry, Monsanto's Rob Elliott says a crucial question is: “Can we grow enough corn?” He believes there is no question that U.S. corn growers can, and here's why: Yields are rapidly increasing through biotechnology.

Elliott thinks a 180 bu./acre average yield in 2015 is far more probable than 165 with new corn hybrids “in the pipeline” due to biotech breeding traits of drought and cold/stress tolerance and nitrogen utilization “which will change the yield equation.”

The National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) agrees that there will not be a corn shortage. “New biotech hybrid technology will further accelerate the yield curve,” NCGA says. Moreover, the trade group says, demand for non-ethanol corn use is flat, and distillers' grains will increasingly displace corn in beef and dairy rations, and eventually poultry and swine rations.

Others, however, are not so sure. Purdue University agronomist Tony Vyn says the biggest challenge for the industry is “not a minor change” in corn that will result in increased ethanol yield — the “corn kernel is nearly a perfect match already” — but to meet the demand for high corn yields in an environmentally and energy-efficient way.

“My fear is that the increase in demand for corn and feed and food use will push Midwest corn farmers in the direction of corn following corn, which will increase nitrogen fertilizer needs and moldboard plowing that will make more soil susceptible to erosion,” he says.

Furthermore, Vyn believes that estimates by NCGA and others about future yields are overly optimistic. He asks, “Is a 4% increase in ethanol yield what we should be focusing on, or is it more important to be able to have a 20% increase in yield 10 years from now with no more net energy inputs and no more soil loss used to produce 1 bu. of corn?”

University of Nebraska agronomist Ken Cassman agrees. What is desperately missing from the equation, he says, is research from land-grant universities on how to increase corn yields, but money for such efforts has virtually dried up in recent years. He adds that standardized methods for measuring corn conversion efficiencies for ethanol of new hybrids are developed by individual seed companies without scientific peer review.

Cassman also shares Vyn's environmental concerns that pressure on more corn production could bring. He notes that right now the ethanol industry is supported by environmental groups such as the Sierra Club, but that could evaporate if corn is grown in a way that damages the environment.

Cassman says the congressional mandate to produce 7.5 billion gallons of ethanol by 2012 appears likely to be reached two or three years early if current rates of expansion continue. Based on trend yield increases, that would take 23% of the nation's corn supply.