Does Open-Pollinated Corn Have a Place on Today’s Organic Farm?

Final report for FNC17-1099

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2017: $6,008.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2018
Grant Recipient: Stanley Smith
Region: North Central
State: Minnesota
Project Coordinator:
Stanley Smith
Stanley Smith
Expand All

Project Information

Description of operation:

I farm 205 acres organically, 150 is tillable with the balance being pasture and woodland. In the year 2000 my operation switched from conventional dairy to low input organic because herbicides and chemicals did not seem right. Currently I raise about 45 acres corn, 25 acres soybeans, and the balance is oats and hay or pasture. I have been using cover crops for several years following up by either pasturing or chopping the crop and then planting corn or soybeans. When no cover crop was planted I plant oats for silage and follow with the soybean crop. This works very well as the weed pressure in the soybean crop is minimized.

Summary:

I never thought I would be paying $200 for a bag of seed corn but yes, last year ordering my seed the cost for 80,000 seeds (about 42 pounds) was $235. I’ve grown open pollinated corn several other times but mostly for silage. Now I want shelled corn as corn is an organic farm’s life line. With all the consolidation in the seed industry there is little hope that seed prices will ever come back down and imports will continue to drive down the price of our domestic organic corn. With seed prices commanding a large portion of the input cost something needs to be changed.

My project was looking for a suitable open pollinated corn for southeastern Minnesota that could yield well enough with its higher nutritional traits that could be financially feasible. 

Seed Procurement

Sounds like an easy job but is not. I was hoping to find six open pollinated varieties in the 95 day maturity for yellow dent corn. Locally I found two and then the search began. The internet is both a savior and a curse. Several sites were found but only a few sell larger size orders for larger acres. Also few had early yellow dent corns. Thus I broadened my search to include later maturities. The curse of the internet is that you do not always get what you order. I do most of my business local and in person but that is not possible when ordering on the web. Two orders never arrived even though the checks where cashed and follow up e-mails went unanswered. I did meet my goal of six open pollinated varieties by expanding the maturity window. This made comparing yields of little value as later corn should yield higher and did in my plot.

Growing the crop

As an organic farmer I strive for sustainable production. This means I need a variety of corn that does well with no additional inputs. The land used for this project has had no off farm products added since 2000 except inoculants for seed treatment. On farm cattle manure is used when available. The half of the plot that was in soybeans the prior year did receive manure and the sod plot received no inputs. To avoid gmo drift from neighboring fields I delay planting ten days to two weeks after they complete planting. Because of rain delays this year planting was pushed back to May 31. Both plots, side by side were chisel plowed shallow and then disked, sod twice, then dragged and planted. The weather turned very hot for two weeks and then a good rainy period followed. This provided for a second germination of seed that had not found sufficient moisture earlier. Later I found that these plants where the largest segment of the lodged plant population. This shows the importance of proper seed placement and closure pressure over the furrow. Overall the plant populations where lower than I had hoped for. At cultivation a big surprise surfaced that I did not expect. The open pollinated corns where all six to eight inches taller than the check variety. Maybe just the check variety or maybe not! The taller corn at first cultivation is anyway a big plus. This also lead to earlier canopy which can help control weeds and conserve moisture. High winds in August tipped the corn to a 45 degree angle with the hybrid check showing very little damage partly because it was a foot shorter. During the next week the corn straightened up and put brace roots down leaving the plant about six inches off the row.

Harvest

With a nice September all varieties did mature but with poor drying weather harvest was pushed into November. Yields varied throughout the field because of population variation and maturity differences of the varieties. The sod plot showed about a ten bushel advantage over the soybean plot which was expected.

Nutrient content

A selling point of open pollinated corn has always been that it is more nutritious. As part of this project I wanted to find out if it was true because usually the claim is not backed up with data. All but one of the open pollinated corns in my plot had protein levels over 10%. The check tested at 8.41% protein, a 2% advantage in protein when feeding to livestock can make a big difference in cost of the ration. The other values in the feed analysis did not vary from the check. Calculating a couple feed rations using organic soybean meal @ $850 per ton and organic corn @ $9 per bushel you can save from $.80 to $1.16 per 100 pounds of feed depending on the percent protein needed in the ration. A 16% feed ration with soybean meal at 46% and corn at 8.2% protein would mean 20.6% meal and 79.4% corn. This would produce feed costing $21.54 per 100 pounds not counting other additives needed. A ration using corn with 10.2% protein would use 16.2% meal and 83.8% corn costing $20.38 or a savings of $1.16 per 100 pounds. This is assuming amino acid profiles are similar which were not tested in this project.

Conclusion

Today’s open pollinated corns are different that those grown by our grandparents, likely due to wind born pollen contamination and crossings. Growers of the open pollinated corn do not have the facilities to condition the seed as well as the large corporations thus resulting in lower seed quality. Most of the open pollinated varieties have maintained an advantage in protein content but not higher levels of minerals. There is still a problem with lodging in open pollinated corn partly due to ear placement and height of plant. With more research and dedicated individuals working on developing new synthetic open pollinated corn varieties, the future could look bright. The two corns with the highest yields had been crossed with other varieties in their past and I think that gives them some hybrid vigor in addition to more genetic diversity. I did save some seed back and plan on doing a cross next year to see what it looks like. As with anything new, go into raising open pollinated corn in a small way until you are comfortable with the risks.

Economics

Growing a crop comes down to showing a profit. Some years will be better than others so several years of data are needed to make a solid conclusion. With just one year of data this looks feasible. The check hybrid averaged 137.65 bushels per acre @ $9 dollars per bushel and would provide $1238.85 in gross income. Since the only different cost between the corn varieties was seed cost, the check seed cost about $90 per acre leaving $1148 income. The closest open pollinated in maturity was Mn13, it yielded an average of 117.82 bushels, giving a gross income of $1060.38. Seed cost with shipping was about $40 per acre leaving $1020. The additional protein in the open pollinated Mn13 variety if used as feed would save most or all of the $128 difference in gross income. In this plot the next closest variety in moisture level beat the check in yield and protein level. With current grain standards the higher protein corns are not worth anything more on the regular market so growers would have to market direct to find a better price.

Project Objectives:

Objective was to find an open pollinated corn that could compete with hybrids on today’s market. This was achieved with finding a couple open pollinated corns that did well in southeast Minnesota. The other objective was to see if today’s open pollinated corns still held an advantage in nutritional value. This was also verified with all six varieties having higher protein levels than the check hybrid.

Research

Materials and methods:

Corn seed prices have been going up rapidly while the price of feed grade corn has spiraled down. Often the hybrid purchased does not perform well as no one has any local yield comparisons. Several times a variety will be found that does well on your farm and then is no longer available. Open pollinated corn ads have often said they have a higher nutritional value but I never saw feed analysis reports backing up the claims.

My project looked at 6 open pollinated corn varieties and 1 hybrid, comparing the yield and the protein content of each. 

Research results and discussion:

I never thought I would be paying $200 for a bag of seed corn but yes, last year ordering my seed the cost for 80,000 seeds (about 42 pounds) was $235. I’ve grown open pollinated corn several other times but mostly for silage. Now I want shelled corn as corn is an organic farm’s life line. With all the consolidation in the seed industry there is little hope that seed prices will ever come back down and imports will continue to drive down the price of our domestic organic corn. With seed prices commanding a large portion of the input cost something needs to be changed.

My project was looking for a suitable open pollinated corn for southeastern Minnesota that could yield well enough with its higher nutritional traits that could be financially feasible. 

Seed Procurement

Sounds like an easy job but is not. I was hoping to find six open pollinated varieties in the 95 day maturity for yellow dent corn. Locally I found two and then the search began. The internet is both a savior and a curse. Several sites were found but only a few sell larger size orders for larger acres. Also few had early yellow dent corns. Thus I broadened my search to include later maturities. The curse of the internet is that you do not always get what you order. I do most of my business local and in person but that is not possible when ordering on the web. Two orders never arrived even though the checks where cashed and follow up e-mails went unanswered. I did meet my goal of six open pollinated varieties by expanding the maturity window. This made comparing yields of little value as later corn should yield higher and did in my plot.

Growing the crop

As an organic farmer I strive for sustainable production. This means I need a variety of corn that does well with no additional inputs. The land used for this project has had no off farm products added since 2000 except inoculants for seed treatment. On farm cattle manure is used when available. The half of the plot that was in soybeans the prior year did receive manure and the sod plot received no inputs. To avoid gmo drift from neighboring fields I delay planting ten days to two weeks after they complete planting. Because of rain delays this year planting was pushed back to May 31. Both plots, side by side were chisel plowed shallow and then disked, sod twice, then dragged and planted. The weather turned very hot for two weeks and then a good rainy period followed. This provided for a second germination of seed that had not found sufficient moisture earlier. Later I found that these plants where the largest segment of the lodged plant population. This shows the importance of proper seed placement and closure pressure over the furrow. Overall the plant populations where lower than I had hoped for. At cultivation a big surprise surfaced that I did not expect. The open pollinated corns where all six to eight inches taller than the check variety. Maybe just the check variety or maybe not! The taller corn at first cultivation is anyway a big plus. This also lead to earlier canopy which can help control weeds and conserve moisture. High winds in August tipped the corn to a 45 degree angle with the hybrid check showing very little damage partly because it was a foot shorter. During the next week the corn straightened up and put brace roots down leaving the plant about six inches off the row.

Harvest

With a nice September all varieties did mature but with poor drying weather harvest was pushed into November. Yields varied throughout the field because of population variation and maturity differences of the varieties. The sod plot showed about a ten bushel advantage over the soybean plot which was expected.

Nutrient content

A selling point of open pollinated corn has always been that it is more nutritious. As part of this project I wanted to find out if it was true because usually the claim is not backed up with data. All but one of the open pollinated corns in my plot had protein levels over 10%. The check tested at 8.41% protein, a 2% advantage in protein when feeding to livestock can make a big difference in cost of the ration. The other values in the feed analysis did not vary from the check. Calculating a couple feed rations using organic soybean meal @ $850 per ton and organic corn @ $9 per bushel you can save from $.80 to $1.16 per 100 pounds of feed depending on the percent protein needed in the ration. A 16% feed ration with soybean meal at 46% and corn at 8.2% protein would mean 20.6% meal and 79.4% corn. This would produce feed costing $21.54 per 100 pounds not counting other additives needed. A ration using corn with 10.2% protein would use 16.2% meal and 83.8% corn costing $20.38 or a savings of $1.16 per 100 pounds. This is assuming amino acid profiles are similar which were not tested in this project.

Conclusion

Today’s open pollinated corns are different that those grown by our grandparents, likely due to wind born pollen contamination and crossings. Growers of the open pollinated corn do not have the facilities to condition the seed as well as the large corporations thus resulting in lower seed quality. Most of the open pollinated varieties have maintained an advantage in protein content but not higher levels of minerals. There is still a problem with lodging in open pollinated corn partly due to ear placement and height of plant. With more research and dedicated individuals working on developing new synthetic open pollinated corn varieties, the future could look bright. The two corns with the highest yields had been crossed with other varieties in their past and I think that gives them some hybrid vigor in addition to more genetic diversity. I did save some seed back and plan on doing a cross next year to see what it looks like. As with anything new, go into raising open pollinated corn in a small way until you are comfortable with the risks.

Economics

Growing a crop comes down to showing a profit. Some years will be better than others so several years of data are needed to make a solid conclusion. With just one year of data this looks feasible. The check hybrid averaged 137.65 bushels per acre @ $9 dollars per bushel and would provide $1238.85 in gross income. Since the only different cost between the corn varieties was seed cost, the check seed cost about $90 per acre leaving $1148 income. The closest open pollinated in maturity was Mn13, it yielded an average of 117.82 bushels, giving a gross income of $1060.38. Seed cost with shipping was about $40 per acre leaving $1020. The additional protein in the open pollinated Mn13 variety if used as feed would save most or all of the $128 difference in gross income. In this plot the next closest variety in moisture level beat the check in yield and protein level. With current grain standards the higher protein corns are not worth anything more on the regular market so growers would have to market direct to find a better price.

Participation Summary
1 Farmer participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

5 Consultations
1 On-farm demonstrations
2 Published press articles, newsletters
1 Webinars / talks / presentations
1 Workshop field days

Participation Summary

10 Farmers
1 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

On farm field day was held on October 6. Was a rainy day so the time spent at the plot was minimized. Following the tour of the field everyone enjoyed lunch and refreshments and a great discussion of the merits of open pollinated corn. Corn breeder, Dr. Frank Kutka, led discussion on many topics and made it a very informative meeting. 

All the local papers ran a press release and the local paper attended the field day. An article ran in the Lewiston Journal the following week so many more were reached through the media.

The webinar on Youtube also drew interest as I’ve answered many e-mails.

Results have been sent to those attending and others interested via e-mail.

Learning Outcomes

11 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Lessons Learned:

Finding open pollinated corn seed in large quantities can be difficult especially finding varieties in the early maturity group. The internet proved to be the best way to find several varieties and personal contacts helped also. Doing a yield comparison became almost impossible because each bag of seed was conditioned, cleaned, and graded to different standards. This led to different populations which affect yield very much.

Nutritional value of open pollinated corn was a major concern entering this project. Sellers have often mentioned better nutrient values but I’ve never seen actual results from feed analysis. The laboratory results verify that the open pollinated corn I tested all had higher protein levels compared to the hybrid I used in this trial. Most were close to two per cent higher, saving money when fed to livestock but when sold as a commodity would not bring a higher price unless sold to a specialty market.

Yields varied throughout the field which was greatly affected by the population. The later open pollinated corn yields were very comparable to the hybrid check but of course were a lot wetter. Average yields from the sod field only exceeded the soybean ground by four bushel but some varieties did very well on one plot and not the other. To maximize yield two different varieties would probably work best.

Lodging has and continues to be a problem with open pollinated corn. The majority of the lodged plants in this trial were plants that germinated later and thus were weaker. Good seed placement and favorable weather is critical to help minimize the problem.

The highest yielding varietyies in this trial are actually crosses of one or more different open pollinated corns. This gives the corn a little hybrid vigor just like the hybrids have. Crossing the better open pollinated corns and saving some seed is the direction I plan on going.

Project Outcomes

1 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
2 New working collaborations
Success stories:

I plan on continuing the project and developing a new variety

Recommendations:

Creating new open pollinated corn varieties should be pursued. Every land grant university used to have corn breeding segments but few do today. Those that do are partnered with the large seed companies thus any results go to private businesses. For the organic community it is very important as almost all work is done by genetic engineering and thus cannot be used.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.