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Enogen corn, used in ethanol production, features purple kernels. (Photo courtesy of Midwest AgEnergy)

Enogen corn comes north

BISMARCK, N.D. — Three ethanol refineries in North Dakota are working to source large volumes of Enogen corn for 2018. It's a variety that includes an enzyme that helps convert starch to sugar, making the product more valuable for ethanol production.

Three ethanol refiners — Tharaldson Ethanol of Casselton, Blue Flint Ethanol of Underwood, N.D., and Dakota Spirit AgEnergy, Spiritwood, N.D. — are offering an extra 40 cents a bushel for the product, according to a North Dakota State University agricultural economist.

There is no additional cost for the seed, but there are likely logistics and separation costs and risks.

"That's not 40 cents for free. That's 40 cents to manage this crop," said Dave Ripplinger, an NDSU professor speaking at a Farm and Ranch Economic Summit in Bismarck, N.D.

Ripplinger said traditionally ethanol refiners have to procure these enzymes from a chemical company. Enogen has been on the market since 2011.

North Dakota refiners have been "middle-term adopters," Ripplinger said. They're now looking to secure up to 16 million bushels of the Enogen corn. The state produces about 428 million bushels of corn, so the amount is about 4 percent of the total. Ryan Thorpe, chief operating officer at Tharaldson, said his company has built separate handling facilities for the Enogen corn.

Purple kernels

The corn is easy to distinguish because every third kernel is purple, something like Indian corn. He said the corn for the plant is sourced in the Casselton area, probably from 75 to 100 farmers who contract with Syngenta with a Casselton delivery point. The farmers only get the full 40-cent premium if they use a package of crop protectants prescribed by Syngenta.

Tharaldson started bringing it in in January and started using it Feb. 1.

"We use a 15 percent inclusion rate and will use it for the next six months straight," Thorpe said.

He said the ethanol plant has a commitment to continue using it for the next three years.

Phil Coffin, chief marketing officer for Midwest AgEnergy, which owns Blue Flint and Dakota Spirit AgEnergy, said those bio refineries are running a pilot program in the first quarter of 2018 using Enogen corn.

"We have contracted sufficient acreage for the upcoming 2018-19 crop year to operate our plants year around using Enogen," he said. "We have a multi-year agreement to use Enogen corn in our plants."

The two plants are each producing 70 million gallons of ethanol per year. At standard ethanol yields, this will require 7.5 million bushels of Enogen corn or about 55,000 acres of the crop each year at the state average yield, Coffin said.

In the ethanol process, the first process is to mill it. Next is adding an enzyme to turn the starch to sugar. The sugar is fermented by yeast into alcohol, Ripplinger said.

Enogen is said to reduce the viscosity of corn mash and can cut costs for natural gas, other energy, water and chemicals.

"In this case, the enzyme that is added is actually in the corn. Instead of being bought and added at the facility, when they mill it, it's present," he said.

"Our plants substitute 15 percent of our corn feedstock with Enogen corn to provide the optimum level of enzyme in each batch," Coffin said.

Farmers can't market Enogen in normal commercial markets.

"As they deliver the corn, it'll be tested at the facility and obviously needs to test positive for that trait," Ripplinger said.

Farmers have to weigh the time it takes to find a separate field to produce Enogen corn. They must harvest and keep the corn separate and must ship it to the refinery on-call.

"The pitch for this technology is made by Syngenta and their Northrup King representatives," Ripplinger said.

"It's kind of a package deal," he explains, with the seed and delivery arrangements linked.

In Nebraska, some farmers are considering whether to add Enogeto cattle rations. Enogen first was introduced in 2011. University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension has conducted a series of studies on Enogen Feed hybrids being fed to feedlot cattle although feed efficiency results were inconclusive as of a 2018 report.

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