Aflatoxin variability angst; Kansas elevator reports high toxin levels

Sep 14, 2012

Southeastern Kansas farmers are learning there could be something worse than drought-diminished corn yields. As harvest wrapped up near Hartford last week, producers hauling in average yields of 30 to 35 bushels an acre were often met with more devastating news: Much of that corn contained aflatoxin.

Aflatoxin is a set of toxic chemicals produced by two different molds on corn, brought on by drought, heat and plant damage. At certain levels, aflatoxin is unsafe for some livestock.

As if drought isn’t enough to worry about, elevators increasingly are docking farmers for aflatoxin-ridden corn as more farmers hit the fields.

Some corn samples taken at Hartford’s Miller Elevator registered far above the acceptable aflatoxin levels.

Readings for aflatoxin were all over the board, further complicating the situation.

“The variance of aflatoxin in a load of corn, even in a probe sample can be great,” said Ronda VanHoose, office manager at Miller Elevator, Hartford branch.

“When I took probe samples this year, I pulled what I needed for in-house aflatoxin test, and the remainder of the probe sample was sent to the state lab for insurance sample, approximately five pounds.

“One test at the elevator was 125 ppb (parts per billion) and the state test was 400 ppb, another was 32 ppb at the elevator and the state test was below 15 ppb. Pretty big variance on five pounds of corn; just a few bad kernels can make a big difference.”

When corn began rolling in during the first week in August, aflatoxin readings were below the all-important 20 ppb, VanHoose said.

Farmers are docked for anything above 20 ppb, and elevators can reject loads with much higher readings.

Elevators contacted by DTN last week in regions where harvest was just getting started showed readings below the 20 ppb threshold as well. In areas of southern Indiana and southern Illinois where harvest was further along, readings were as high as 300 ppb, according to Deb Etheridge, vice president of insurance at Peoria, IL-based Water Street Solutions.

Docking farmers

VanHoose said her elevator had no choice but to dock farmers.

At Miller Elevator, farmers are docked 20 cents per bushel for readings of 21 ppb to 50 ppb; 40 cents for readings 51 ppb to 100 ppb; $1 per bushel for readings 101 ppb to 200 ppb; and the elevator rejects loads testing above 200 ppb.

Though some elevators contacted by DTN said they were using black lights as a tool to detect aflatoxin, VanHoose said black lights were not very helpful.

“The black light is a worthless tool for finding aflatoxin,” she said.

“It will detect fungus, but not aflatoxin. Last year we tried the black light. We had some samples that looked like a pan full of lightning bugs and sent these samples and some good-looking samples to a state lab for testing.

The bad sample had minimal aflatoxin. The good sample was over 100 ppb.

“Last year was a major learning experience for us.”

Missouri samples

Many Midwest elevators could be facing more aflatoxin than they’re used to as combines start going full steam ahead in areas hit hard by drought and heat this summer.

Because of such widely variable readings from one sample to another, farmers could be facing a range of scenarios depending on an individual load.

Similar variability was found in parts of Missouri the first week of September.

According to information from the Missouri Department of Agriculture (MDA), test results released Sept. 7 from MDA’s feed and seed laboratory in Jefferson City found that in 51 samples tested, 12 samples tested positive for aflatoxin.

Those levels ranged from 10 ppb to more than 240 ppb, with the majority of samples testing below 60 ppb.

VanHoose said test variability has caused problems in the past two growing seasons.

“It would be great if the insurance companies would accept the test at the elevator, if the test used is one that does parts per billion and not a pass/fail test,” she said.

Texas experience

Waxahachie, TX, farmer Scott Averhoff said he remembers his 1998 aflatoxin nightmare like it was yesterday.

His corn crop somehow made it through the drought, only to be hit hard with aflatoxin.

“All 900 acres of corn, plowed under,” he said.

Fourteen years later, farmers in the region have found a way to beat wide test-result variability often seen from multiple tests. The federal Risk Management Agency now allows some Texas farmers and elevators to use just one certified aflatoxin test for all purposes.

The one-test program is used at Apex Grain Co., Inc., in Hillsboro; Blackland Grain and Storage, Inc. in Heidenheimer; Northeast Texas Farmers Cooperative in Sulphur Springs; and Itasca Cooperative Grain Co. in Itasca.

Averhoff said Midwest farmers should take note: Don’t do anything with your crop without having a thorough understanding of your crop insurance.

Farmers who harvest first and put aflatoxin-tainted grain in the bin could violate crop insurance rules. Yet, a grower has to harvest a little to get enough grain to test.

After Texas farmers suffered through years of variability in aflatoxin readings, Averhoff was one of several producers to approach the Texas state chemist with the idea of allowing just one test to be used for all purposes.

The state’s one-test program involves just a handful of elevators, but Averhoff said the system has simplified aflatoxin concerns for farmers who fear what the next test will show.

In the program, elevators are required to use a certain type of testing protocol and employees are trained to use that system.

“You never remember when the crop insurance tested high and the elevator didn’t,” Averhoff said. “At least the farmer gets a fair shake. The buying entity doesn’t have to worry. For me, we found a pathway to solve the problem. The bad part is the guys in the Midwest are not used to dealing with this.”

Averhoff said farmers need to educate themselves about their crop insurance policies in order to have a thorough working knowledge of how that coverage deals with aflatoxin.

“I can’t stress enough to get written instructions from insurance adjusters” on steps to take if you suspect aflatoxin, he said.

“They’re (insurance adjusters) going to get backed up with claims. Insurance companies don’t have enough resources in the field to deal with this.” — Todd Neeley, DTN