There are no oil-well pumpers in Doug Armstrong's northeastern Kansas cornfields, but oil is important to Armstrong's income.
Markets - and premiums - for high-oil corn are growing faster than pigweed, and Armstrong grows about 500 acres of the specialty crop each year, in rotation with soybeans.
>From less than 200,000 acres planted in 1996, high-oil corn jumped to nearly a half-million acres last year. And premiums on the crop are higher than on virtually any other specialty corn except white corn.
Many growers are just now experimenting with high-oil corn, but Armstrong is no late-comer to it on his Atchison County farm.
"I've grown high-oil corn for the past six years," he says. "My hogs got me interested. I figured I could save money on input costs so I started planting Pfister's Kernoil single-cross hybrids."
High-oil corn worked well in swine rations. Oil content averaged 7.5%; protein was 1-2% higher than in conventional hybrids. Amino acids were a little higher, too. Lysine averages about 0.3l%, compared with conventional corn at 0.25 or 0.26%.
"The additional fat in the corn saved on ration costs," adds Armstrong. "Supplemental fat costs 18-20 cents per pound. From the first, I noticed less dust. Milk production from sows increased and baby pigs accepted weaning rations better."
There used to be a yield drag with high-oil corn compared with high-yielding normal hybrids, a drawback reported by other farmers growing high-oil hybrids.
"Then, in 1996, Pfister patented its TopCross grain production system," says Armstrong. "Elite hybrids are developed as male sterile, and high-oil pollinator seed kernels are blended in the bag. This gives both high yields and high oil content."
In fact, Pfister's SuperKernoil may outyield conventional hybrids, because of a longer pollination period. During pollination, which lasts up to 12 days, the oil genes from pollinator stalks are transferred to silks on male-sterile plants by air moving through the field.
In 1997, DuPont bought Pfister's high-oil corn system and began licensing other hybrid companies to use the technology.
When Armstrong began growing high-oil corn, there wasn't a nearby market for his production, other than his own hungry hogs. But in the past two years, markets for high-oil corn have climbed to the top of the niche-grain market. About half of the high-oil corn grown in 1997 was contracted to local elevators or with DuPont-Continental Grain agreements.
"Now we've got Continental Grain and ConAgra here at Atchison, both paying premiums for high-oil corn. Feed manufacturing companies and most grain-handling facilities at Atchison and St. Joseph (MO) will be contracting high-oil corn in 1998."
The premium varies from buyer to buyer, but averages about 25 cents /bu, Armstrong says.
"DuPont also has a program where it pays an extra 3 cents per bushel on the first 250,000 acres of high-oil corn contracted in each area," he says.
Livestock farmers may become as interested in corn genetics as they are in animal genetics, predicts Gary Allee, University of Missouri animal nutritionist.
"In the future, fewer hog farmers will grow their own corn," says Allee. "Why shouldn't a crop grower produce a corn that is specifically designed for hogs? Once hybrid companies see the market potential, things will be happening."