Texas Corn: Critical Crop Situation Has Producers Looking for Answers

    Ears of corn possibly contaminated with fumonisins, toxins produced by two species of Fusarium fungi. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Dr. Jourdan Bell)

    Corn farmers worried about fumonisin contamination in their fields need to immediately contact their crop insurance agent – that was the message from two emergency meetings held Sept. 27 in the Texas High Plains.

    The potential for fumonisin contamination in corn fields throughout the region prompted about 700 farmers, crop consultants, insurance agents and end-users to pack Dimmitt and Dumas meetings conducted by the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service and Texas Corn Producers.

    More than 50 percent of the corn grown in Texas comes from the High Plains region. The primary market for this corn is the cattle feeding industry, and according to the latest “The Impact of Agribusiness Texas High Plains,” it accounts for about $635 million in annual sales in the region.

    Fumonisins are toxins produced by two species of Fusarium fungi, according to Dr. Tom Isakeit, AgriLife Extension plant pathologist, College Station. Fumonisins are mycotoxins that can cause illnesses in livestock, especially horses, so there are regulatory limits to the amounts a load of corn can contain.

    Isakeit explained that not all molds growing on ears produce mycotoxins. The Fusarium fungi that produce fumonisin can be visible as a dull white coloration of the kernels, but this appearance doesn’t mean the toxin is present. The only way to determine that is with a chemical test of harvested grain.

    And therein lies the concern producers expressed at the meetings. Who should test the corn? When? Where? How? Are all tests the same? And, why are farmers being discounted so heavily compared to previous years?

    There are producer concerns with some elevator tests and the resulting discounts they are taking to the value of their corn, said Dr. Jourdan Bell, AgriLife Extension agronomist in Amarillo. Some farmers have even had loads rejected.

    So far, only the early maturing corn has been harvested, and it is estimated more than 60 percent of the crop is still in the field, Bell said. The meetings were conducted to provide producers information about fumonisin and Fusarium identification in the field, as well as notify producers to act now while they have an opportunity to deal with any potential issues in later-maturing corn.

    “Producers need to evaluate their fields, and if they have a concern, contact their insurance agent,” Bell said. “The meetings also provided the opportunity to address testing concerns and discuss standardization in sampling and testing procedures.”

    Bell said fumonisin is not new to this growing region, but the severity seen this year might be higher than usual.

    Drought and high temperatures in July followed by a wet August are factors for the fumonisin contamination this year, Isakeit said. The late-maturing crop may not have experienced these stress factors at critical growth stages and may have a lesser degree of contamination.

    The severity of fumonisin contamination can vary within a region, a field or even from kernel to kernel on an ear, he said. Even though there is widespread contamination in this area that doesn’t mean that all fields are affected.

    Isakeit said there are several things including hybrid selection, planting conditions, crop management and harvest techniques that can impact the severity of fumonisin contamination. For more information, go here and here.

    The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Risk Management Agency sent its national team led by branch chief Matt Mitchell, Kansas City, to attend the meetings. Mitchell said the priorities of corn producers who think they may have an insurable loss should be to “contact your insurance agent and file a notice of loss along with the cause of damage.”

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    This opens a claim file and an adjuster will be sent for a site visit to go through the loss procedures, explain to the producer how the claim will be handled depending upon the condition of the crop, as well as pull samples to send to an approved laboratory for quantitative testing, Mitchell said.

    Any corn testing higher than 2 ppm, or parts per million, fumonisin can qualify the load for a quality loss adjustment, depending on the individual type of policy. Test results are recognized by the Risk Management Agency, RMA, as official when generated by a Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration or GIPSA-approved lab or by a lab participating in the Office of the Texas State Chemist One Sample Strategy system.

    Discussion points being shared by RMA can be found on the Texas Corn Producers website.

    While elevators conduct a quick test that measures fumonisin levels above or below 30 ppm, there are only two certified testing facilities in the High Plains at this time – the Amarillo Grain Exchange and Plainview Grain Inspection.

    Producers attending the meetings expressed a great concern about the ability of these facilities to process all the samples in a timely manner. By the end of these meetings, several elevator and laboratory attendees had entered discussions to become part of the recognized programs.

    David Gibson, Texas Corn Producers executive director, Lubbock, said elevator operators who are seeing a problem in loads being delivered to their facilities are encouraged to get their growers to talk to their insurance agent if they haven’t already done so.

    “At the end of the day, these RMA folks will make the final decision if there is a disagreement between the producer, insurance company or elevator manager,” Gibson said. “If you have followed the right procedure and have it all documented, as a producer you should be OK.”

    Gibson said anyone with more questions is welcome to contact him at 806-763-2676, 806-786-7265 or He said he has been through this before with aflatoxin issues and knows producers have many questions.

    RMA officials clarified, after many producer questions about timing and lack of current lack of testing facilities, that once a sample is taken, the level of fumonisin in the sample will not change. So, while there is a four-day limit to get the sample to the official testing site, there is not a limit on the time for the actual testing.

    Dr. Tim Herrman, with the Office of the Texas State Chemist, or OTSC, in College Station, said the contaminated grain is under the authority of the Texas Feed and Fertilizer Control Service.

    He said they realize there is a challenge associated with the sampling and testing for fumonisin, but he expects numerous additional approved labs and designees to be operating by the end of next week using the OTSC One Sample Strategy or as a GIPSA-approved lab.

    Herrman said the OTSC implemented the One Sample Strategy program to measure and manage the risk using official equipment and methods and issue official results.

    “Our goal is to protect animal and human health, but also protect the marketplace,” he said.

    The One Sample Strategy, Herrman said, utilizes the concept of “test once, use multiple times.” The program provides legal certainty to the agriculture community while preserving market integrity through accurate sampling and testing.

    He said the One Sample Strategy facilitates risk management by training grain elevator or other end-user employees to accurately measure the level of fumonisin in any incoming truckload of corn. Employees who pass a proficiency verification evaluation are qualified to analyze samples as designees of his office.

    “We can test, and test accurately, using official procedures accepted and used by multiple places multiple times including crop insurance,” Herrman said. “Let’s do it right once and move forward.”

    Once facilities are approved as One Sample Strategy participants, they will be listed on the website, results reported as official results by the Office of the Texas State Chemist, and they will be accepted as official for crop insurance according to the Risk Management Agency, Mitchell said.

    Herrman said representatives of his office would be in the High Plains next week to qualify employees at facilities requesting participation. These samples will be accurate up to a total concentration of 100 ppm. For more information, go to One Sample Strategy.

    Dr. Cat Barr, Texas Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory veterinary toxicologist, College Station, said fumonisin is toxic because it changes the way cells communicate with each other in both animals and humans.

    The acceptable level for cattle is 60 ppm because they are ruminant animals, but horses are much more susceptible and can receive no more than 5 ppm fed as 20 percent of their diet before it can cause cell death.

    “The only way to handle fumonisin poisoning is to avoid it,” Barr said. “That means having any corn-based feed tested to verify its safety. I’m hoping our education efforts can help stop this before it gets into the feed stream. I believe we can do it.”

    More information on the fumonisin guidance levels set by FDA and regulated by the OTSC can be found here, along with the potential effects on various animal species.

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