Right corn kernel traits give feed efficiency and value a big boost

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LINCOLN, Neb. – All corn kernels may look the same, but hidden beneath that yellow shell are characteristics that can make a big difference in feedlot cattle performance and, ultimately, producer profits, University of Nebraska research shows.

Animal scientist Galen Erickson headed research on the nutritional value of different corn hybrids that promises to make cattle feeders and corn growers more competitive.

Hybrids. This study indicates that selecting hybrids with favorable chemical and physical traits could dramatically increase feed efficiency.

That could add up to significant savings for the cattle industry.

Trials. This Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources research involved seven commercially available corn hybrids with varying chemical and physical properties.

In feedlot trials, two hybrids offered dramatic improvements in feed-to-gain ratio, while four others also showed encouraging results.

The difference in feed efficiency – how effectively an animal converts feed into gain – between the lowest and highest performer in this study was more than 9 percent.

“We knew the nutritional value would vary between hybrids, but we were surprised by how much of a difference it made,” Erickson said.

“There are tremendous implications for corn and cattle producers.”

Starches. A key finding was that larger, softer kernels with a greater proportion of soft starch content resulted in the best feeding performance for cattle.

In each kernel, starch is contained in the endosperm, or nutritive tissue, that is found in the hard outer shell as well as in the softer inner core.

“We suspected that we might get better results from cattle fed with the softer kernels, which are more digestible, but we needed a long list of tests to determine if other factors, such as protein levels, made a difference,” Erickson said.

Analysis. Researchers carefully measured a number of variables by growing the seven corn hybrids in test fields, analyzing the hybrids’ physical and chemical characteristics and feeding the resulting crop to more than 200 crossbred steer calves.

Animals fed a ration of dry-rolled corn consisting of kernels with a higher proportion of softer endosperm gained more efficiently than cattle fed kernels containing a higher proportion of the harder endosperm.

Historic preferences. Erickson said feeders historically have preferred harder corn because of its higher test weight, but this research demonstrates that test weight is not a good indicator for animal performance.

Feed is a cattle producer’s biggest expense, so this is a critical discovery for the industry.

Feeders potentially could use these findings to choose the best hybrids for their cattle, and corn growers who want to specifically target the cattle feed market could select hybrids that offer the best feed traits.

Making changes. Except for corn varieties used in the trials, however, feed currently available on the market is not labeled for percentages of hard or soft endosperm content.

Erickson hopes to change that.

“It (labeling) would offer a greater choice,” he said.

“Feed corn is generic, derived from all sorts of hybrids. Now a farmer could choose whether to grow corn for feed, cereals or ethanol. It is yet another opportunity to profit from a specialized market.”

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