By Connor Lynch
Frustration is mounting in farmhouses across Southwestern Ontario as many farmers struggle with high levels of vomitoxin in corn.
Middlesex, Elgin, Lambton, Kent and Essex Counties are the worst hit areas, according to reports from farmers and agronomists. Vomitoxin (or DON) is a byproduct of a mould that can render a crop unsellable if levels are too high.
Getting a reliable reading on vomitoxin levels has also been frustrating for many growers. Vomitoxin levels can vary wildly not only within a field but even between kernels on a cob of corn. OMAFRA recommends elevators take at least 10 samples from a load of corn in different areas of a load to ensure a representative sample. Reports abound of drivers who leave with a rejected load and head to another elevator or come back to the same elevator and see the load pass. One farmer posted on Twitter an image of a dartboard described as the “Best depiction of a DON test.”
Huron County cash crop farmer Larry Lynn has seen his corn discounted by $1 per bushel because his loads are reading over 5 parts per million vomitoxin. Most elevators steeply discount corn with vomitoxin levels that high and reject entire loads at 8 ppm or higher.
Lynn is renting bins to store his high-vom crop, based on advice from Agricorp and the Grain Farmers of Ontario. He even bought a $13,000 cleaner to get rid of the lighter kernels and reduce the fines (lighter particles where vom can accumulate). OMAFRA has said vom levels can be reduced by as much as 40 per cent with a thorough cleaning. If Lynn’s cleaner works as well as he’s hoping, it will pay for itself. “I’m trying to do everything on my end to make the best of a very bad situation.”
The extent of the damage is hard to pin down. A mid-October OMAFRA report suggested as much as 25 per cent of corn acres in the province could be affected. With most of the damage concentrated in five counties, more than 40 per cent of Southwestern Ontario corn could be affected.
As of Nov. 28, 2,000 farmers, of 8,600 in Ontario with corn insurance, had reported vomitoxin damage, with 375 reports considered to be priority (high vom corn that is wet and in a wagon that can’t be dried or delivered), Agricorp said. About 8,000 acres of corn were eligible to be destroyed, and 800 acres had been destroyed so far.
Some farmers made claims with Agricorp before harvesting and have been greenlighted to plow down their crop. Elgin County farmer Bill Walters was tearing up a field on Nov. 27. He wrote on Twitter: “High vomi corn destruction! No waiting for buggy or trucks!!”
Agricorp has offered a salvage benefit of 79 cents a bushel on corn above 5 ppm and farmers can apply to write off entire fields if they opened a claim before taking corn out of the field. Crop insurance only covers damage in the field.
Meantime, infected corn is piling up at elevators. Grain Farmers of Ontario will spend $240,000 on corn baggers to help elevators store unmarketed high-vom corn.
On Nov. 28, the provincial government said it will partially refund testing costs to farmers, support “new projects,” to improve processing and marketing of high-vom corn and work with the GFO on “research and new actions,” to mitigate vom issues in the future and find a temporary storage solution.
Two frustrations have dominated discussions amongst farmers: The unreliability of testing and the question of marketing high-vom corn. Agronomist Peter Johnson hosted a growers meeting in Essex County on Nov. 16 that drew about 75 farmers looking for answers.
Anyone hoping for a clear resolution to testing has another thing coming. Though Johnson said that, with multiple samples, most tests should at least be within a few ppm of each other, he concedes there are significant fluctuations in vom levels between tests. Even a perfectly done test has one major flaw: Vomitoxin levels can vary wildly between kernels.
“On the mid-quality stuff, (testing) is a dog’s breakfast, a crapshoot. Some growers say Russian Roulette,” Johnson said.
The GFO put $100,000 towards a team that includes OMAFRA’s field crop pathologist Albert Tenuta to review different testing methods to develop guidelines of best practices and to ensure the tests are as accurate as possible. GFO hopes to have recommendations in early December.
Marketing the crop comes with its own difficulties. Many growers have looked to the ethanol industry to take Ontario’s infected corn. But many ethanol plants produce dried distillers grains, a byproduct of ethanol production, where all of the vomitoxin is concentrated.
Aylmer-based IGPC Inc., an ethanol plant in Elgin County, announced that the week of Nov. 26 it would accept all corn without testing for vomitoxin and pay producers according to grade (vomitoxin does not affect grade). Commercial manager Brad Lindner explained the plant wanted high-vom corn to experiment with its affect on ethanol. “Somebody has to make an effort here to pursue something of large enough scale to do something about the crop out there,” Lindner said.
GFO is also looking at shipping corn out west to be blended with cleaner product for use as feed.