Growers looking through seed catalogs this fall will see a new hybrid option, available from several seed companies, that is geared to the growing ethanol industry. These hybrids produce grain that offers above-average ethanol production for the dry grind ethanol process. Seed companies report that grain from these hybrids produces an ethanol yield that is 2 to 4% greater than that from a commodity corn crop.

The market for these ethanol-geared hybrids is a direct response to the fast growth in ethanol production. About 10% of the nation's annual corn supply now goes to producing ethanol, and this amount is expected to rise as more ethanol plants are built. Currently 72 plants produce the renewable fuel, and another 10 plants are under construction.

The new plants will be needed to handle a booming ethanol market if Congress approves the Renewable Fuel Standard. The provisions being considered would double the use of ethanol in about 10 years, boosting ethanol's share of the U.S. corn crop to 20%.

Dry grind processing

The newest hybrids are focused on the dry grind ethanol process, which accounts for half of today's ethanol production. This process is expected to overtake the wet-milling process because dry grind plants are less complex and less expensive to build. The new plants under construction are all dry grind.

The dry grind process can use corn with any biotech trait approved in the U.S. because its by-products generally are not exported to Europe, unlike by-products from the wet-milling process. Seed companies already have provided hybrids targeted for the wet-milling process. These hybrids provide highly extractable starch.

Monsanto's DeKalb, Asgrow and Holden's lines and Pioneer Hi-Bred all have identified hybrids for the dry grind ethanol process, which will be available for the 2004 growing season.

Monsanto's Processor Preferred brand

Monsanto is offering new hybrids specifically for the dry grind process under its Processor Preferred brand. The company has given other corn hybrids and soybean varieties this designation for their higher extractable starch and protein and oil levels, which make them more economically attractive to processing plants. The hybrids for dry grind ethanol must be more fermentable.

The intention is for processing plants to provide incentives to growers to plant hybrids and varieties that produce more ethanol, oil or starch. “If a grower is delivering a higher-value crop to the ethanol plant, that means the plant is more profitable and, as an owner, the grower will have an opportunity to earn more dividends at the end of the year,” suggests Monsanto's Matt Kraus. However, he adds that the program is still in its infancy.

Higher ethanol yield

Monsanto recently completed a research program where such hybrids were harvested in 2002 and then tested in six commercial dry grind ethanol plants last winter. All six plants demonstrated an overall increase in ethanol and less day-to-day variation in ethanol production with the highly fermentable hybrids compared with use of regular commercial corn hybrids. The tests showed up to a 3% increase in ethanol production.

Now Monsanto plans to roll out the Processor Preferred brand for Highly Fermentable Corn hybrids to all dry grind ethanol plants and growers for 2004. “Next year we will offer the Processor Preferred brand through our DeKalb and Asgrow brands as well as our seed partners,” Kraus says. “We tested our branded germplasm as well as Holden's. So independent companies that license germplasm through Holden's will also have Processor Preferred hybrids.”

The company will offer the hybrids in a wide range of maturity choices. “We think we're doing a rigorous job of keeping criteria of only picking the best hybrids,” Kraus adds. The selection for these hybrids does not mean just selecting for highly extractable starch or high total starch. Kraus says that higher starch or highly extractable starch does not necessarily make good fermenting hybrids in the dry grind process.

Each ethanol plant will make its own decision about whether to offer incentives for grain from the Processor Preferred hybrids.

Pioneer's Industry Select high total fermentable hybrids

Pioneer's work in the dry grind arena during the past several years is yielding 60 high total fermentable (HTF) hybrids. The company developed a rapid assay method to evaluate the ethanol yield potential of corn hybrids using near infrared (NIR) technology. Pioneer used this tool to identify the HTF hybrids. The hybrids will be across all maturities in the Corn Belt.

Pioneer analyzes more than 15,000 grain samples a year for ethanol yield and makes the data available to seed customers and the ethanol industry. The HTF hybrids are part of Pioneer's Industry Select program, which develops and markets products targeting specific end use markets.

“Selecting hybrids identified as HTF has been shown in commercial trials to increase ethanol yields by up to 4% over utilizing commodity corn,” reports Jerry Harrington, Pioneer sales and marketing public relations manager.

This translates to a substantial increase in value for an ethanol plant. For example, a dry grind facility producing 40 million gallons of ethanol a year could realize an extra $1 million to $2 million in revenue from using all HTF hybrids.

For several years, Pioneer has been analyzing and selecting hybrids with the potential for high fermentability as well as other processing values, such as highly extractable starch. The company has gone after these hybrids because it has seen the market potential. “There's a lot of interest in these,” Harrington says. “We've had individual farmers and individual ethanol producers ask us what hybrids are better than others.”

No yield lag

The hybrids are from Pioneer's elite high-yielding lines. The HTF hybrids will be available stacked with other traits such as Liberty Link, Bt, and Roundup Ready.

Pioneer plans to work with ethanol facilities by providing a customized list of HTF hybrids that can maximize plant ethanol yield. Harrington says it will be up to the plant to pay growers a premium for delivering the hybrids. But, he points out, growers who are ethanol plant owners should see added value from overall plant profitability.

Pioneer also is offering 30 hybrids designated as having highly extractable starch (HES). These hybrids are suited for the wet-milling ethanol process. Pioneer hybrids with HES have been available in the past.

Sorghum for wet milling ethanol

Sorghum may enter a period of revival if its potential in the ethanol market is realized. Currently, some wet-milling plants use sorghum to produce ethanol. Sorghum and corn produce about the same amount of ethanol per bushel. Now seed companies are working to develop grain sorghum hybrids with high starch content to make the grain even better for ethanol production.

NC+ Hybrids is working on grain sorghum hybrids with high starch content and has identified one that may be ready for sale next spring. “We have the hybrid in commercial production right now,” reports Jim Osborne, NC+ sorghum research director. “If lab tests and micro fermentation tests prove it out, we will be ready for the hybrid to be identity preserved for ethanol production as early as next spring.”

NC+ Hybrids is part of a consortium with Orion Genomics and SolviGen, which was awarded a U.S. Department of Energy grant of $7.5 million to develop high-starch-content grain sorghum. In its second year, the consortium has screened thousands of sorghum hybrids for high starch levels. Osborne says typical grain sorghum produces about 68% starch. Through their work, NC+ Hybrids and the consortium have identified hybrids that contain 75 to 76% starch.

Sorghum was planted on 18 million acres in the U.S., Osborne says, before the introduction of genetically modified crops. But when the biotech seed hit the marketplace, growers cut the number of acres planted to sorghum to about 9 to 10 million. Osborne would like to see the number of acres increase now because sorghum provides excellent drought tolerance and is environmentally friendly. It can be raised on marginal ground and will do better than corn in dry areas. In addition, it requires less fertilizer than corn does.

In the future, NC+ Hybrids hopes to conduct work on sorghum hybrids for the dry grind ethanol process as well as for products such as polymers.