Top Crop Manager

Finding the right hybrid for ethanol

Fermentable starch but one consideration.

November 13, 2007
By Top Crop Manager

10aIn a climate that preaches production of higher-value commodities, economic
reality still dictates the lowest price to the consumer is the ultimate winner.
And ethanol processing facilities are the latest venture to become ensnared
in this debate.

Ethanol companies have been the subject of considerable scorn during the past
few years, mostly because of a current trend that favours lower-priced US corn
over domestic product. That lowest-cost approach makes better economic sense
for processors selling gasoline to price-wary consumers. Against that scenario,
the potential for grower premiums for higher fermentable starch hybrids is somewhat
limited. If processors cannot reap the benefits of enhanced traits, there is
little chance producers can attract premiums.

But an interesting relationship is developing between Syngenta Canada, near
London, and Commercial Alcohols, based in Brampton. The two companies are taking
the slow and steady approach in testing various hybrids for higher fermentable
starch levels to determine what, if any, production enhancements they provide.
Gary Bauman, technology and agronomic services manager for Syngenta Seeds, is
very encouraged by recent developments between the two parties and says the
results have been enough to pique interest and continue testing.


Testing small, thinking big
Part of the success Syngenta and Commercial Alcohols have enjoyed is based on
the size of the testing facility. With its batch plant in Tiverton, Commercial
Alcohols was able to run small amounts of corn through its facility, as opposed
to shutting down its continuous plant in Chatham. "That's why we decided
to stay away from there, and ask where else could we go to develop the foundation
of something that's believable," says Bauman. With his science and technology
background, he wanted to proceed slowly and recognize every contingency rather
than stumble through a larger process. "That's where we're at and will
continue to be for the next while. We can't push too hard, running ahead and
doing tests that don't mean anything in the end."

The tests they ran in June 2005 used one hybrid, Syngenta's N43-C4. Five hundred
tonnes were run through the Tiverton plant in three replicated tests and compared
to some of the commercial mix they use as part of their normal operations. "The
actual numbers for yield improvement of ethanol through the plant was 102 to
105 percent of their commercial base and for them, a three percent improvement
is of interest," explains Bauman. He adds that it has sparked interest
in tests with larger quantities and perhaps using more than one hybrid against
the commercial mix, all of which will require more work for 2006. "If we're
looking at more than one hybrid, we have to select the hybrid, find the growers
who are willing and have on-farm storage to keep it, and schedule it to go through
the plant. That's going to take a little more time to pull together."

Always slow, always steady
But Bauman is not panicking. The goal is to balance hybrid performance and consistency,
with a commitment to higher-value crop production. "The material is there,
the genetics are there and the main thing is that Commercial Alcohols is interested
and continuing to look at this with us," says Bauman, acknowledging that
growers want some kind of premium for growing these enhanced hybrids. "We
have to show the value, and our next step is to confirm the value for the processors
and have them realize the logistics that are needed to allow them to secure
this product on a consistent basis. In order for this to happen, there needs
to be enough premium for people to do all these steps to provide them with what
they're looking for."

He adds the informal partnering between Syngenta and Commercial Alcohols means
there is a more co-operative assessment of needs and benefits. It is not a matter
of one lobbying for their own interests but recognizing each other's strengths
and limitations. "We have to continue to show them there's more improvement
coming," says Bauman. "The material we have right now has not been
specially bred for the results that we've been getting, so there's a lot of
potential for improvement. Ultimately, there is some opportunity for new traits
with enzymes that could improve performance even beyond what we're seeing now."

A collective approach
Another suggestion from within the industry comes from Mycogen Seeds. Although
the company has five of its own Processor Preferred hybrids for 2006, Virgil
Edlin, marketing manager for Mycogen Seeds at Dow Agro Sciences Canada, acknowledges
the difficulty in attracting the interest of ethanol processors. He agrees with
Bauman's assessment that there must be a value to the processor before a premium
for the grower can be addressed. "That's exactly where we are with this
issue of getting the sustainability to fulfill the contract at the plants with
the volumes, and doing that on almost an IP-based model," says Edlin.

In this climate of higher-value commodities, he suggests that size does matter.
For all of the desire to become part of that vast and limitless potential, the
issue of volumes and consistency may be too large for one company to handle.
"Maybe we need to leverage on our partners and competitors in the marketplace
to do so," says Edlin. "We know the criteria, we're testing, we're
getting hybrids that are processor approved and supported, and we're promoting
them, thinking the market could turn around and we're preparing for that. But
we're recognizing that we just can't go it alone. We have to get some of the
bigger players in the market to support it, ethanol production facilities to
support it and even get grain handlers in on it."  

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