Farm bin tests look for value-added traits

An empty coffee can may be all the equipment you need to earn a bonus for value-added components in your beans. Or corn. It takes sophisticated equipment to test for components such as oil and protein, but an Iowa State University (ISU) study this spring shows it's simple to get a good sample from a bin.

You can spend a lot of time probing a bin for grain samples. But if it contains just one variety from a uniform field, a simple coffee can full scooped off the top is enough to test if your grain qualifies for a premium, according to the study.

"This study indicates that, for well-distributed composition factors in a controlled situation, where the farmer has managed what grain went into the bin, a coffee can sample is good enough," says Charles Hurburgh, professor-in-charge, Iowa Grain Quality Initiative. "There still may be times when a farmer does want to take multiple probes of a bin to test for physical factors, such as moisture, FM (foreign matter), insects etc., that aren't likely to be distributed uniformly."

Those premiums are still a small part of the market, but grain companies are beginning to pay more for what components are in your grain, not just the grain in your bin. The GMO (genetically modified organism) issue has created market premiums in some areas for non-GMO beans. And in the western Corn Belt, farmers can get a premium for soybeans with high oil content.

In the study, funded by Soybean Digest, six 3,000-bu bins were extensively sampled by ISU researchers and the samples sent to the ISU Grain Quality Lab for analysis. Soybeans were tested for protein, oil, fiber, carbohydrates and moisture. Corn samples were tested for protein, oil, starch, density and moisture. In addition, 24 participating Iowa farmers supplied their own samples, which were analyzed for the same components. All bins tested contained a single variety or hybrid. A total of 41 on-farm bins were sampled - 16 corn and 25 soybeans.

"We used a deep probe to collect grain at 1' depth increments from five location points in the bin," explains Steve Johnson, project leader. "We randomly sampled each point at a depth from 1' to 5'. We then repeated the process and randomly sampled the five points between 6' and 10'."

The data (see chart) show that while moisture, predictably, varied at different points in the bin, the genetic characteristics in the grain were consistent.

"That's good news for farmers because it lends confidence to the sampling techniques needed for precertification or prescreening of grain. That's going to become a big deal as farmers grow more value-added grains," says Hurburgh. "The grain industry is used to taking grain in random order as farmers deliver it. But when the grain has specific values based on its components, the random order of load management doesn't work as well. They need to know what's in the grain before it's in the pit so it can be identity-preserved."

Some of the bins in the ISU/Soybean Digest study are on farms managed by Hertz Farm Management.

"We were interested in working with the testing technique and curious to see what we'd find out," says Jim Frevert, company vice president. "I was also curious to see what variations we'd find at different depths for oil, protein and moisture. This is an area that we want to be involved in and we need more experience."

Roughly 10% of the acres controlled by Hertz Farm Management grow contract, or value-added, crops, according to Frevert. That's a number he would like to see grow.

"It's obvious to us that with identity-preserved grains and changes in technology, more grain is going to be produced for a specific end processor," he says. "We've inventoried all our farms so we know how much value-added grain we can grow and store."

The company's first steps toward value-added crops was hybrid corn and seed beans. High-oil corn was added to the list two years ago.

"Value-added crops aren't always the answer," Frevert says. "With some of today's high-yielding hybrids and varieties and an aggressive marketing program, you can match the price premiums."

The study also shows that new test equipment can reliably analyze grain components, according to Hurburgh. "The measurement technology is advancing rapidly and improving its accuracy," he says. "That should be a comforting factor to farmers."

Hurburgh hopes to have a prototype tester out this fall that will use near infrared reflectance (NIR) technology to test for the presence of GMO in soybeans. "It's not intended to measure low concentrations, but can be used as a first screen to prevent the big screwup at the elevator," he says.

"At the country elevator, the big screwup, where somebody doesn't know what's in the truck, is the biggest risk," Hurburgh says. "One truckload can contaminate an entire bin.

"The NIR test provides a reasonable backstop to prevent those mistakes. It's quick and far less expensive than other tests available for GMOs," he says. "But it's not a replacement for tests that can detect and certify low levels." So, it's nice to know that as technology becomes more advanced, and more complicated, it still may take only a coffee can at the farm level to provide that expensive equipment with all the data it needs.