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Hybrid technology may change the landscape of drying grain

September 1, 2007 By    

When Cooperative Energy Co. entered the propane market in 1969, about 70 percent of its business came from drying corn. Now it’s down to 27 percent, says General Manager Brian Dreessen.

Some are pointing to hybrid technology, which helps farmers control various factors of the growing process.

“Drying is becoming less of a commodity with what has happened to the industry with hybrids,” he says. “Hybrids are being bred to have a fast dry-down time.”

How much of a concern is this for Dreessen and his Sibley, Iowa, company, which sold about 1.4 million gallons of propane for drying grain last year?

“It is a concern. We must try to pick those gallons up in the other markets, whether it be domestic, commercial or standby systems,” he says. “But on the other hand, if it saves money for our local producers in the agricultural business, we support it because we work with them hand-in-hand.”

Seed companies have spent a lot of money to improve hybrids as farmers try to yield more crops per acre, says Mark Leitman, director of agricultural programs for the Propane Education & Research Council.

“They’re improving the standability of crops; they will hold up in the field longer and in some cases dry better naturally as a result of that,” Leitman says.

“I don’t know if it’s a battle, but it’s a reality that technology has changed,” he adds. “Just as propane appliances have gotten more efficient over the years, science and technology have improved corn genetics to do a better job.”

Kevin Devereaux, general manager of Chandler Co-op in Chandler, Minn., also sees hybrids changing the future of drying grain.

“I can remember people telling me five or six years ago crop drying was going to go away and it would be a thing of the past due to hybrid technology,” says Devereaux, a manager at the company for 30 years. “But depending on the weather, grain drying can still be a pretty significant piece of business for us.”

Leitman remains optimistic about propane’s role in drying grain, especially as long as the market for corn-based ethanol remains strong.

U.S. farmers planted almost 93 million acres of corn this year, a 19 percent increase from 2006, because of the ethanol boom. If conditions are right, the largest corn crop in more than 60 years could result, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service reported.

But there is a catch. Scientists already are discussing the future of cellulosic ethanol, which can be made from any organic matter, and might one day overtake the need for corn — and the need to dry it.

In the meantime, Leitman reminds the propane industry of its need in the agricultural sector, from heating to fueling irrigation pumps to pest control, among other usages.

So, will the need be there for grain drying? If so, for how much longer?

“I look for grain drying to become smaller and smaller, mainly because of the technology of corn seed and corn hybrids today,” Dreessen says. “We’ll adapt our company. We’ll still be here to service small corn-drying needs and not put as much emphasis on corn drying as we have in the past. We’ll move to new ways to use propane.”

Devereaux concurs: “It will be there for us, but it’s going to fluctuate. It will be boom or bust. The years that are going to boom are going to be fewer and fewer because of the hybrids. There probably will be more bust years than boom years.”

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