A laboratory in Ankeny, IA, faced a flood of business this fall. As corn and soybean harvest progressed, seed breeders rushed samples to the Monsanto lab for testing. There, lab technicians put the samples through high-tech tests such as near-infrared (NIR) analysis to identify minute differences in protein and oil levels. Other tests determined the amount of nutrients such as sugars and amino acids in the grain. The Iowa lab and Monsanto's other lab in St. Louis expect to analyze millions of grain samples a year. Many of the lab tests are turned around in a day or two.

Trait driven

The new hybrids and varieties with traits for specific markets such as ethanol production and food processing have spawned the growth of grain analysis labs. Most seed companies analyze grain. But large seed companies such as Monsanto and Pioneer Hi-Bred have entire groups dedicated to grain analytics, which is the job of analyzing grain composition and predicting its performance for grain processors or feeders.

Grain analytics has changed greatly over the past several years because of the investment companies now put into it. Seed companies need to quickly and precisely analyze the content of grain produced from seed. This helps them bring the new products with special characteristics to the competitive marketplace in a timely manner.

Better technology has shortened the time it takes to analyze grain samples. At Pioneer, it used to take 21 days to characterize the energy value of a hybrid for poultry or swine feed. “Today, with near-infrared technology, we can characterize a hybrid in 21 minutes,” reports Russ Sanders, Pioneer account management director.

Organized analytics

At Monsanto, grain analysis previously was conducted in small labs scattered throughout the company, according to Dawn Latham, quality manager at Monsanto. Four years ago, the company centralized all crop analytics into one group. “This way we can have lots of instruments in one place to increase the throughput of samples,” Latham says. In addition to the two labs in the U.S., Monsanto operates four grain analytics labs around the world.

“Our focus is high throughput analysis with fast turnaround so the breeders can make their decisions right away,” Latham says. “We're very busy in the spring before planting and from September to November when the seed comes out of the ground.”

Pioneer's analytics lab is located near company headquarters at Johnston, IA. Just north of Des Moines, IA, Pioneer also operates a livestock nutrition center, considered one of the most extensive feed digestibility research facilities in the world. Both are part of an effort to provide a complete package of characterization data on seed products for everything from stalk strength and drought resistance to energy digestibility and ethanol yield. The grain analytics lab takes in thousands and thousands of grain samples from across the country. “This helps the company understand not only genetics, but the effects of the growing environment,” Sanders explains. “As you suspect, a drought year may affect the composition value of the grain. We try to get at that through an aggressive level of sampling in multiple locations.”

Crop analytics supports many programs in a seed company, including genomics, biotechnology, molecular breeding and conventional breeding. The testing helps the breeding and selection teams know if traits are inheritable through the generations. The labs also help provide analysis for regulatory submissions.

Near infrared

The technology for examining grain composition continues to improve. At the forefront is NIR analysis, which uses light spectra to look through grain and interpret its compositional value. Key to the NIR analysis is the interpretation.

“The real work comes in developing the software that drives how the NIR spectra are read,” Sanders says. “Pioneer has concentrated heavily on developing these software calibrations to measure high extractable starch, high total fermentable and high available energy. We feel we've made great progress in developing the calibrations to use NIR to characterize existing products for their specific end-use purposes.”

Portable NIR

Expect to see NIR move to the field. This fall, Monsanto is allowing ethanol plants access to NIR equipment for analysis of harvested grain. Monsanto reports that NIR analysis should help processing plants understand which hybrids yield the most ethanol. Monsanto continues to characterize Asgrow and DeKalb brands as well as hybrids from independent seed companies to identify high fermentable corn (HFC) hybrids. HFC hybrids are more fermentable in the dry grind ethanol process and are marketed under the Processor Preferred label.

Future products

As grain analytical tools improve, expect to see more new products with specific characteristics. “Not all corn is the same,” Sanders says. “You can exploit differences in hybrids if you know how to measure those differences.”

The next new products in the Pioneer queue are high-available-energy hybrids for animal feed. “Roughly 75% of all corn goes into the feed market,” Sanders says. “So it is critical for us to see if there are differences [in hybrids] there.”

The company conducts feed trials in the livestock nutrition center to measure digestible energy levels of different grain hybrids. Some hybrids will contain highly digestible starch for hogs, and Pioneer hopes to identify them. All information related to end-use functionality of Pioneer's seed products are part of a new branding campaign called IndustrySelect.

As crop analytical tools and genetic breeding of corn and soybeans improve, growers will face more seed choices. They will consider not only agronomic traits, but also end-use traits that could help open more markets for their crop.