Saying #2 yellow corn will soon be a thing of the past may sound sacrilegious. But some Minnesota corn growers hope that's soon the case.

They're working to build a better ear of corn — through management, not genetics — that will add value to the crop.

“We're improving grain quality by improving its consistency,” says Al Cotter, Hutchinson, MN, corn grower and member of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association. “When we say that the grain has 8% protein and 5% oil, every bushel will have 8% protein and 5% oil. We'll have a higher grade of corn — a quality grain we can put a tag on.”

Improving consistency means reducing variability. And reducing variables within a field of corn to provide constant oil, protein and/or starch contents seems a daunting task. But Gary Malzer, University of Minnesota soil scientist, thinks growers can learn what corn needs to grow precisely.

Malzer, who set up the five-year study, has already done extensive research on site-specific nutrient management and fertilizer rates and how they affect yield. He's using that data to help learn how those management practices and other factors affect grain quality.

“If I supply more nitrogen, my protein content goes up and may continue to go up even though my yield stops. So maybe we could have some impact on the grain quality by managing the variability that I have within that field,” he predicts.

In his prior research, Malzer extensively grid-mapped and soil-tested a 30-acre field near Windom, MN. He plans to use that field, as well as 10 others around the state, to show that both soil variability and fertilizer rates can influence corn grain quality. And that site-specific nitrogen and phosphorus management could reduce the field's corn grain quality variability.

So where does the profit come in? “Variability in the quality of any commodity restricts its potential value,” Malzer says. By determining what variables influence grain quality and how to influence them, he hopes to help growers produce the crop quality they desire.

That, in turn, will be a selling point as producers market to end users like corn ethanol plants, says Cotter.

Dry distillers grain, a by-product of ethanol production that's sold as animal feed, is now produced with varying levels of protein. “By making the corn more consistent — and we think we can make it very consistent — we can make the dry distillers grain very consistent and bring up its value. We can demand a higher price,” Cotter says.

Although the study is now concentrating on protein, it will also consider oil and starch contents.

“This is going to be a long-term effort,” says Malzer. “Part of it will be working with end producers who might be willing to pay more for a given quality.”

Different end users, whether they're hog or poultry producers — or even a company like Frito-Lay — may each require a different grain quality. But each opens a door for added value to the producer and the end user, Malzer says.

Soybean production may also benefit from site-specific management. “In many ways, the results from soybeans are more interesting than in corn. Protein, oil and grain yield response to nutrient management varied considerably last year within the same field.”