AgDM newsletter article, November 1997

Opportunities in value-added grains

Roger Ginderby Roger G. Ginder, Extension Economist, 515.294.6260,

The interest in value-added grains is increasing among farmers, elevators, and processors.  In this article I outline the major forces driving this interest in value-added grains.  I also discuss some of the specialty types of corn and soybeans currently being developed and insights into some that may be developed in the future. 

Changes in the grain industry

Several forces now at play will create changes in the grain production and marketing systems of the future. Three of them are discussed below.  These changes will occur at an accelerating rate over the next decade. Taken together, these developments are likely to propel significant increases in the production and use of specialty grains over the next decade. 

Increasing diversity of production systems
The first force is the increased diversity developing at the farm level. The similarity among farming operations of 40 or 50 years ago is rapidly fading.  It is widely recognized that huge size differences have developed among farms. But the differences don't stop there. Big differences now exist in tillage programs, production practices, financial structure, leasing arrangements, and a host of other farm characteristics.

Unlike the 1950s, there is no longer a one size fits all strategy for farmers. Looking over the fence doesn't guarantee the right answer anymore. As farmers seek the best strategy for their specific situation, the answers that emerge are likely to be different from the ones their neighbors use. A good strategy for success on one farm could be a total bust for other farm operations.

Changing genetics
Genetics is a second strong force now propelling changes in the grain production and marketing system. While there has been a long and steady stream of significant genetic improvements over the past 50 years, the flow has accelerated during the past decade. As the heavy investments now being made in genetics research begin to pay off, most experts expect even more sweeping genetic breakthroughs during the next decade.  In addition, the focus of genetics programs is becoming much broader. Breeding and genetic engineering programs are looking well beyond the traditional traits (such as yield, dry-down, maturity, and ear drop) into the chemical traits contained in the grain itself.

Changing demands of end users
The third force is the changing demands end users of corn and soybean products are beginning to express. The needs and expectations of intermediate and end users are becoming much more specific. They often focus on the presence or absence of specific physical or chemical traits. Up to now, processors and end users have been willing to accept broadly defined commodity corn and soybeans. They simply adjusted their processes or feed ingredient formulations based on the average composition of product received.

Processor demand -- Although processors have long recognized the value of specific traits to end users, they have also needed to source large volumes of grain on a continuous basis to keep their plants operating efficiently. Getting the precise traits needed in the proper quantities has proven difficult or impossible in the high volume bulk commodity marketing channel. Without advance planning and coordination in the marketing channel, grain with the desired traits is mixed and remixed as it moves through the channel.

Feed industry demand -- End users in the feed industry also see potential benefits from specialty grains. Like processors, feeders are in the business of converting corn and soybeans into products for end users – in this case, meat, milk, poultry, and eggs. Different nutritional requirements for hogs, cattle, and poultry have long been recognized and a great deal of emphasis has been placed on combining ingredients for the specific diets needed by each species.  However, the level of precision in animal diets has been blunted by the variability in specific traits contained in commodity grain and meal. Use of average values for corn and meal means that some lots may contain somewhat more than the required level of nutrients while others may be slightly deficient. But this is likely to change for both processors and feeders as we move through the next decade.

Examples of specialty grains

Below are examples of specialty corn and soybeans currently being developed.  Also included are some that may be developed in the future.

High oil corn
High oil corn (HOC) production is already gaining widespread acceptance by producers and end users. In 1996, 370,000 acres were grown and some estimate that  1,000,000 acres were grown in 1997. Livestock feeding will be one of the first beneficiaries.  Significantly higher fat content and more of the essential amino acids available in current HOC hybrids already make this product more valuable to livestock and poultry feeders.

High protein corn
Using high oil corn and similar hybrids with broadly demanded traits can serve as a platform that will permit even more specific traits to be stacked into end products. This will be especially important in livestock feeding.

Research is in progress that will bring improved high protein corn hybrids onto the market with both higher oil and protein. End users in both the food and the livestock feeding segments of the market will be better able to select hybrids with an overall high protein content as well as higher levels of specific amino acids.

Specific amino acid profiles can be added to high oil corn hybrids to meet the very specific feeding requirements for each livestock species at different points in their life cycle. Beyond that, there is likely to be an opportunity for some large-scale feeders to obtain grains that are tailored to their individual nutrition programs and the animal genetics they are using.

Potential feed corn developments
Further out on the horizon are possibilities that go beyond meeting the basic nutritional requirements for animal feed and into the characteristics of the final product produced. Combining special trait grains with specialized animal genetics holds the promise of even better livestock products in the future. Meat texture, color, consistency, flavor, and nutritional characteristics may ultimately be affected by traits in the grain, meal, and other feed ingredients.

Traits are also being developed that will help solve animal waste disposal problems. For example, hybrids are now being developed with low phytate levels that will reduce the pass through phosphates levels in the animal wastes.

Specific corn starch traits
Waxy maize and other hybrids (with more specialized starch characteristics) are already being produced and marketed in many parts of the corn belt.  Research currently under way will make even more specific starch traits available over the next decade. End users who desire specific cooking characteristics for processed foods or reduced calorie content in processed food products will be better able to select corn hybrids that provide these characteristics in the next few years.

Specialty soybeans
Producers and end users of soybeans will also be able to choose from a wider selection of varieties and traits. While many producers are aware of opportunities to produce food grade (clear hilum) soybeans for tofu and fermentable varieties for miso production, there are a number of new approaches now available for other more specialized versions of soybean production.

Soybeans with high oleic acid traits are being developed for their stability in food and industrial uses. Other soybeans will yield oils lower in saturated fats which are more desirable for persons on fat restricted diets. At the other end of the spectrum, some seed companies have developed varieties that produce oils that are naturally more saturated.  Such oil does not require hydrogenation which lowers end user costs and reduces the level of undesirable byproducts of hydrogenation (e.g., trans-fatty acids).

Still other soybean varieties that have lower levels of the sugars (stachyose and raffinose) which can lead to flatulence in humans, livestock, and pets are now under development. Intermediate and end users prefer these traits because they reduce processing time and promote better feed efficiency in poultry, swine, and fish.


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