Crop Tour Day 10
September 5th was day 10 for of the trip. We departed the hotel around 8:00am after packing up and loading up the bus. Before leaving, we all made our way to the lobby for our continental breakfast, another morning of eggs, sausage, and biscuits.
Our first destination of the day was the Great Plains Ethanol Plant, where we arrived at approximately 9:00 AM. Here, we had the privilege of meeting Mitch Stuhr and Dustin Taylor, who provided us with valuable insights into ethanol production and the processing of corn by-products. While we were visiting, we were all put into a classroom and a summary of operations was given to us. Throughout the presentation, we had the opportunity to examine samples that illustrated the various stages of ethanol production and the resultant products at each juncture. The examples that Mitch handed out included whole corn, and showed us what the corn would look like after it had gone through the hammermill, after water was added, etc.
The plant's impressive growth over the years was also highlighted. Initially designed to produce 25 million gallons of ethanol, it quickly expanded to 37 million gallons within a year. By 2002, the plant reached its current capacity of approximately 50 million gallons. During Covid, production saw a major increase as the demand for sanitizers like Lysol wipes and sprays skyrocketed which made the price reach up to $10-11/gallon when in a normal year, Mitch would only receive $2-2.5/gallon for the same B-grade ethanol.
Mitch shared insights from 1996, a challenging year for ethanol production due to high corn prices. Instead of purchasing as much corn, they decided to purchase another distilling unit that year to increase production in the future. Along with capacity improvements, they were also able to improve product quality by their method of refining. For instance, in 2012 they began producing B-grade ethanol, and after COVID, they installed a USP system so they could continue to manufacture alcohol to be used for sanitizing products.
In the early days of this processing plant, they were able to extract 2.6 gallons of ethanol per bushel of corn and as technology gets better as they have been able to improve that to 2.9-3.0 gallons per bushel of corn.
To oversee the entire operation was a room with large computer screens with advanced software that required 2 months to be taught by the people that manufactured the software program and 6 months before someone would be able to run the whole program by themselves.
In a year, the plant will process 19 million bushels of corn, yielding 55 million gallons of ethanol, 8,000 tonnes of corn oil, and 47,000 tonnes of corn oil. Mitch will use some Enagen corn but is not a primary choice as it does not seem to be worth the extra cost of purchasing. The reason the Enagen corn would be more expensive is because it has an enzyme in the kernel that could help with breaking down the starch in corn, and thus improving ethanol productions’ efficiency. In producing ethanol, alpha amylase is used to break down the starch into complex sugars, after that, glucoamylase is added which will break down the complex sugars into simple sugars so that the yeast can be more efficient at producing alcohol. The yeast's conversion of sugar yields 1 lb of CO2 and 1 lb of alcohol for every 2 lbs of sugar, a less efficient process but necessary for large-scale production. Green Plains ships out approximately 28,000-29,000 gallons through rail carts, this equates to 160,000 gallons of alcohol a day and 6 rail cars a day.
We toured the rest of the plant after leaving the boardroom and got to see the rest of the plant, where we got to see DDGs, the distillation area, and lots of full grain trucks making their rounds.
After that, we were back on the bus and headed to our next stop, lunch. We split up, with people going to either Taco Bell, DQ, Jimmy Johns, Wendy’s, and Walmart. After we were all finished up and loaded on the bus for the 3rd time of the day we headed to our next stop, Corteva seed plant.
The tour arrived at the Corteva Agriscience: York Seed Production Facility at 1:15PM. We were greeted with the crew that was going to give us the tour, consisting of the facility manager, a few agronomists, salespersons, and other positions. We went over a safety debrief, met the crew, and started in on the history and information on the facility. The York production plant, established in 1993, is used as a research facility. There is also a production facility located in the York region. The region has many other competing seed production facilities, as they are located on the Ogallala Aquifer, making all the land they grow on 100% irrigated with no limits.
They maintain minimal communication to avoid sharing proprietary information. Safety measures, such as training, equipment, and a shower trailer for accidental pesticide exposure, are occasionally shared.
The York facility employs 87 full-time staff, spanning roles from managers to agronomists, machine operators, and factory workers. Seasonal employees, around 25 in number, are hired during peak periods, often from Texas. The facility collaborates with approximately 100 growers, who are responsible for cultivating seed corn per Corteva's specifications. Growers provide field location maps, ensuring neighboring crops are considered to prevent contamination and crossbreeding.
Kyla, a field operations manager, elaborated on the field production process. The first step is planning, where Corteva headquarters collaborates with local agronomists to determine seed corn field locations, varieties, and acreage. This works like a puzzle, and they have technology that will help plan out this. They will then distribute the seed to the growers, leading into the second step of planting. The growers must plant the seed, working one on one with the agronomist to get this done. When it is planting time, they will use a female corn planter, which will plant 4 rows of female corn, then either a 1 or 2 row gap, before another 4 rows of female corn. 60 heat units later, they will use a male planter, which will plant the other 1 or 2 rows of corn that got blocked off previously but will plant male corn. The reason why the male rows variety is due to the strength of the male; if it is weak, they will plant two rows to allow for more pollen available, and if it is a strong male variety, then they will only need 1 row.
The third step is flower management, focusing on de-tasseling. Corteva has crop scouts that will deal with the row corn plants. They walk to the field to remove Rouges, which are odd corn plants, ones that are too tall, too short, and other noticeable features. They will then start the de-tasseling process. They have a machine that will cut the tops off the female plants, preventing them from self-pollinating, and two days later, they will use the wheel pullers. These two processes will remove 97% of manual labour after. They will then have a contracted crew from the 1099 company which will hire approximately 1500 summer staff. These workers are responsible for walking the field of corn and making sure there are no more tassels on the plants and to remove any they might find.
The fourth step is pre-harvest. During this step, agronomists are scouting the fields making sure their insect and disease management is under control. The main things they are looking for is corn ear worm and increased disease sensitivity. The male corn is removed once pollination has occurred, usually done by mowing those rows. Cover crops like radishes are often planted in these rows to control weeds and soil compaction. Defoliation is preformed at this step. The crops are sprayed at about 50-60% moisture with a solution that works similar to salt water, triggering the plant into early maturation. When the plant starts to die, it will put all of its resources into the seed, so this will optimize seed size, and keep the seed at a uniform size; not too large or too small. The agronomists will also be scouting the fields for potential yield, and they have same apps that will help. Ear Photometry will take a picture of the corn cob and will count how many kernels are on the cob, then will determine how many bushels should be harvested from the field. Scio is used similarly, but to determine the moisture content of the cob. The field is usually harvested at 35% moisture.
The final step is harvest. Corn is harvested with kernels on the cob and in the husk using a picker, rather than a combine, to maximize yield potential without kernel loss or damage. Once harvested, cobs are transported to the production facility.
The tour group then got into the PPE provided and split up into three groups with 2 employees each, for a tour of the production facility.
The production line begins with trucks delivering whole cobs to the facility, aiming for 120 trucks daily, though the actual count varies between 100-120. Two unloading docks, each capable of holding two trucks, allow multiple seed varieties to enter the facility simultaneously. Strict rules and barcodes on each truck ensure variety separation throughout the process. Samples are taken from each truck load for testing. Before cobs enter the building, there will be sprayed with water to help control the dust once in the facility, and also will under a camera that will scan for empty cobs and excess trash, which the grower will get docked if the levels are too high.
Cobs proceed through a husk-removing machine, leaving kernels still intact before heading to a sorting process. This plant has three automated sorters that will sort the cobs based on data collected from a camera. These machine uses “fingers” to sort out the good cobs, the cobs that need to go back through the conveyor belt if the husk was not removed, and the bad cobs that cannot be used. The plant also has multiple workers that sort the corn on a conveyor belt. This is an extremely difficult job because of the repetitive, daunting task. They are sorting the same way as the automated sorter, but the building is not big enough to add all automated machines.
Cobs are taken to the dryer using two separate lines to keep zero contamination. There are 5 dryers with high security on all dryers which helps to guarantee segregation. The dryer is a dual pass which means it uses the air 2 times by pushing the air up and then back down. The security on these dryers is so high that if the technology detects an error is occurring or if someone opens a part of the dryer, the entire system will shut down and a close inspection will have to occur to guarantee separation and no cross contamination. The cobs enter the dryer at about 35% moisture and needs to get to 13% moisture before heading to the next process. It will take 4 hours for every 1% moisture dried.
The dried cobs are then passed through shelling machines, with two separate lines for different seed varieties. This section can store up to one million bushels of corn and employs intricate tracking systems to ensure variety segregation. Shelling involves applying pressure to the cobs to gently remove kernels. The emptied cobs and husks are repurposed as silage for animal feed.
The corn kernels then go through a cleaner again and get sorted into similar size and colour. The seed will be sorted on size and density. One variety will be sorted typically into 4 categories; 2 flat kernel sizes, and 2 round kernel sizes. It also can be pickier on what kernels pass through and will remove kernels that will not be viable, like kernels that are too moldy, ones with insect damage, too small or large, or ones that are not dense enough. The variety will then continue down the line, separate in the new sizes.
In the treatment section of the plant, there are two different conveyer belts used. A white one, which is used for untreated seed. This seed could be going to producers who need this specific feed or to test quality of seed before spending money on treatment. Treatment is automated and employs a specific ratio of 18 different treatments. Following treatment, the seeds are dried in a bed dryer to prevent clumping when packaged.
Upon packing, the plant will add 5-10% of a minor/refugee, coated in purple to tell apart from the rest of the red, main seed variety. The minor, which is an original variety of corn, is used so that if insects get into the seed, they will go for the original rather than the new variety, preventing the insects from adapting to the pesticides faster. Seeds are then packaged in bags or boxes, labeled, and often stored in coolers to preserve germination rates. The bagging line can process 20 bags per minute, with 30 bags per pallet. Between seed batches, the bagging line is thoroughly cleaned using vacuums and compressed air.
They will do a germination test and samples for each batch of seed. For the germination test. They will put 100 kernels in a wet paper towel for a few days to see how many of the seeds are viable. The seed boxes can be reused, and they each go through a cleaning system that will allow each box to be inspected before reuse. Boxed that are not up to standards will be sold to be recycled. If a seed bag has been returned from a dealer, the seed will go through the entire process (from after sheller) to guarantee quality of product and then will be repackaged. There are 4 warehouses, which can store 1 million units. This will allow for seed to be stored for a bit if needed, or to store seed that was returned before being tested.
We also very briefly talked about what a sample code means and how to read it. A sample code was: P1185WAM. The code starts with a ‘P’, indicating it is a product of Pioneer. The next number will refer to the number of days needed for maturity above 100 days. For example, ‘11’ means 111 days. The next two numbers were just there to separate the variety. The letters after represent the traits included. If there was a letter like ‘W’, that would mean white corn. The letters ‘AM’ at the end stand for Acre Max, which correlates to the minor that deters the insects.
After our tour we thanked our tour guides and got a picture with these guides under the Corteva sign at the front of the plant. We then drove to our hotel which was an hour and a half away. We had a bit of downtime before loading the bus and heading to the olive garden for dinner, a highly anticipated dinner spot. It was a wonderful day of expanding our agricultural knowledge.