Distillers grain prices don't decline as fast as corn prices
As fall approaches, the prospects for a record large corn harvest are materializing, resulting in lower corn and ethanol coproduct feed prices, explained Darrell Mark, Adjunct Professor of Economics at South Dakota State University.
“Between Aug. 2 and Sept. 27, the price for dried distillers grains plus solubles (DDGS) in South Dakota declined from $206.75 per ton to $198.20 per ton (as is basis, or moisture included). Wet distillers grain plus solubles (WDGS) prices dropped from $73.40 per ton to $65.40 per ton (as is basis),” Mark said.
He added that during this same time period, modified distillers grains plus solubles (MDGS) decreased from $76 per ton to $65.50 per ton (“as is” basis). The price ethanol plants bid for corn during those two months fell from $5.49 per bushel to $4.50 per bushel (“as is” basis).
“Both corn prices and distillers grain prices are well below year-ago levels as this year’s national average corn yield rebounded from 123.4 bushel per acre last year to the upper 150’s this year,” he said. “As cattle feeders evaluate purchases of corn and ethanol coproduct feeds, it is necessary to compare prices on a dry matter (DM) basis because the moisture contents of the feeds vary by product.”
Mark said that on average, DDGS is 90 percent DM while WDGS is 35 percent DM. MWDG generally has a DM content of 50 percent. Thus, the “as is” DDGS price of $198.20 per ton translates to $220.22 per ton on a DM basis. The $65.40 per ton “as is” price for WDGS is $186.86 per ton on a DM basis. MDGS has a DM price of $199.40 per ton when the “as is” price is $65.50 per ton.
“So, on a dry matter ton basis, WDGS is lowest in price and DDGS has the highest price. This is typical and reflects both the area’s production of distillers grains, as well as the demand for the products,” he said.
Mark said ethanol plants in the western Corn Belt states typically don’t dry distillers grain to 10 percent moisture (DDGS) as much as they do in other parts of the country because nearby cattle feedyards can feed the wetter coproducts and it results in an energy savings from drying the feeds less.
On the demand side, most MDGS and nearly all WDGS would be fed to cattle. While cattle feedyards also can feed DDGS, they have to compete with the pork and poultry industries, as well as the export market for DDGS. Additionally, international exports tend to favor DDGS over WDGS and MDGS because it results in transportation of less water.
“Not only do cattle feeders compare the prices of the various coproducts to each other on a DM basis, but they also have to compare it to corn prices to create a minimum cost ration,” Mark said.
One way to do that, Mark said, is to divide the DM coproduct price by the DM price of corn (in dollars per ton units).
Seasonally, Mark said coproduct prices tend to increase relative to corn prices in the fall during harvest.
“This occurs even as the prices for both corn and coproducts usually decrease in the fall, and results from corn prices dropping more than coproduct prices. This fall, corn prices are also dropping faster than coproduct prices,” he said. “Coproduct prices relative to corn prices are not only higher than the five-year averages, but they are increasing more than the seasonal averages increase during this time of year.”
By the end of September, Mark said coproduct prices as a percentage of corn prices (DM basis) were over 100 percent, meaning that coproduct prices were higher on a DM basis than corn prices. Only two months ago, coproduct prices were 85-90 percent of corn prices.
“This 15 percentage point increase in the price ratio typically extends through the end of the fourth quarter of the year,” he said. “So, will coproduct prices continue to increase relative to corn prices or was the seasonal increase in the price ratio realized earlier than usual this year? It is most likely that the seasonal increase in the relative price ratio occurred earlier this year.”
When coproduct prices trade higher than corn prices, Mark said the quantity demanded from cattle feeders and other buyers declines.
“While it is possible for cattle feeders to feed coproducts that are higher priced than corn—due to cattle performance improvements resulting from the cattle being fed coproducts—generally it becomes economically infeasible beyond about 110 percent of corn price,” he said.
He added that cattle feeders will have access to much larger corn supplies in the weeks ahead as fall corn harvest ramps up. As a result, coproduct inclusion levels in feedyard rations will likely decrease until coproduct prices decline relative to corn prices and may even be eliminated for some new fall placements.
Mark said the current situation means there is little incentive for cattle feeders to lock in coproduct prices at 100-110 percent of corn prices, assuming that they can purchase corn in the cash market.
“With the glut of corn harvest yet to come, corn basis levels will likely weaken, presenting an even better corn buying opportunity in the weeks ahead,” he said. “The one caveat to this is that grain farmers may be unwilling sellers of corn at these price levels that are more than $2 per bushel lower than a year ago.”
He added that lower priced corn should improve ethanol plant processing margins and increase production of both fuel and coproduct feeds.
“As supplies of coproduct feeds increases, prices will eventually decline.” — WLJ