From Field to Port: Corn. Production, Storage and Profitable Sale

What are corn price prospects in the 2021/22 season? Which are the benefits of early sowing and to what diseases is corn susceptible? Is it more profitable to sell the grain right in the field or in the elevator? What was the quality of corn in the ports?
Corn is one of the most profitable crops. Export prices have been breaking records for two years now. Will this uptrend be sustained in the new season as well? How has climate change affected the planting and growing season of corn? Why is floor storage better than in silos? Where is it more profitable to sell corn: in the field or in the elevator?

Jointly with the company UDG Trading and the director of the company's agrarian division Mykhailo Tymoshchuk, is launching a new project designed to cover the full cycle of the main crops (corn, sunflower, wheat, rapeseed and soybean) production and shipment to the ports. The focus this time is on corn.

Planting of corn

Climate change, which among other effects makes temperatures rise, has made the entire territory of Ukraine suitable for corn cultivation today. Previously, grain could not reach maturity in the western regions, but today there is no such risk, marks Tatyana Adamenko, Head of the Department of Agrometeorology of the Ukrainian Hydrometeorological Center. According to her, the best sowing period for corn is late April and the first half of May. However, the sowing terms do vary from year to year.

Tatyana Adamenko
Head of the Department of Agrometeorology of the Ukrhydrometeocenter
"Warm winters are dangerous for the recurrence of cold weather and frosts in spring which we observed in 2017, 2020 and 2021. Hence, we can say that the sowing period has shifted by 1-1.5 weeks earlier than it was some 30 years ago. However, conditions for the start of the growing season are complicated by frost, which may damage the seedlings."
She adds that in 2021, the April-May period was accompanied by frosts and rains, so the conditions for early sowing were unfavourable.

Yuriy Lysak, the chief agronomist at Agro-Region Group of Companies, is a supporter of the early planting of corn. The company produces wheat on an area of over 17 thou. ha. The planting starts when temperatures reach favourable values.

Yuriy Lysak
Chief agronomist at Agro-Region Group of Companies
"It is a fact that corn does not develop at +8°C or lower. Even at +13°C, you will have to wait a long time for the crop to emerge. At +15-17°C, the emergence will be uniform and the plants will appear 7-10 days later. Once we planted corn in early May when the temperature was above +20°C, the plants emerged on the 5th day already."
The expert warned that the soil temperature should be measured carefully. It is best to measure for a few days, between 8 and 9 a.m. at a depth of 5 cm, i.e. planting depth.
Early sowing does have advantages since it allows for more efficient use of the spring moisture reserves, so the plants can fully unlock their potential. However, he advises following the instructions of the seed producers because, for example, flint corn is more suitable for early sowing. It is better to treat seeds with insecticides (granulated ones will do). Soil conditions should also be considered. It must not stick or "smear" and must be physically ready, otherwise, there will be problems with the root system of the plants.
As for weather surprises, according to Yuriy Lysak, there have been only two occasions of frost in April over the past 6 years. What should we do if the plants are frost-hit? Don't panic and don't rush to resow the fields. Since the growing point is in the ground during this period, there is a high probability that the frost will not damage the plant. Cut it open and see if it is alive, then it will grow.

Features of the vegetation period

The vegetation period of corn lasts 90-160 days. According to Tatyana Adamenko, this period has extended over the past 30 years due to changes in the temperature regime.

Both temperatures rise above +10°C and the end of the growing season come later in recent years, whereas summer lasts until mid-September. Last year, however, was uncommon in many respects. September was the coldest in 20 years. There were frosts across the country. So the corn, where it was not yet mature and could vegetate till the end of September, stopped its growth and development. This was the case in Kyiv, Zhytomyr and Chernihiv regions. Consequently, the crops in these regions yielded lower than expected.
The expert noted that the occurrence of frosts much depended on the type of soil. For example, while the temperature was -1°C on common soil, it was -5°C on peat soil in the north of Kyiv region.

By the way, all types of soil are equally suitable for the cultivation of corn. However, experts do not recommend planting in fields where groundwater is close to the surface or in sandy soils. In shale and compacted soils, the plant forms a plane root system and will not survive in drought. The crop yields high in soil pH range from 5.6 to 7.5.

The growth and development of corn plants are primarily influenced by heat and moisture. The optimum daytime temperature for corn vegetation is +24-30°C. The minimum threshold temperature for growth and development is +10°C, so if the temperature drops, the plant stops its growth.

Corn is a water-intensive crop

During the vegetation season, corn requires 450-600 mm precipitation, especially in July-August. There is a tendency in recent years for a dry spell to occur in this period (remember the drought-burned corn in 2020 in the central regions of Ukraine).

Hence the first priority is the accumulation of moisture in the soil, its preservation, as well as a properly selected nutrition system, soil cultivation method and seeding rate. Some install irrigation systems in corn fields (especially those who grow seed corn).

Corn diseases

The most widespread disease of corn in 2021 was Fusarium ear rot, especially in areas with increased humidity. Doctor of Biology, agronomist Serhiy Khablak says that up to 50-60% of the crop is damaged in such areas. One of the reasons for the spread of Fusarium is the improper selection of hybrids maturity group (FAO).

The disease manifests itself during the milk stage (R3) and may continue to develop given increased moisture content. There are one or more infected spots on the ear at first, and then several infected spots appear that gradually spread and cover a large part of the corn ear.

Serhiy Khablak
Doctor of Biological Sciences, agronomist
"The disease progresses primarily on corn cobs damaged by the cotton bollworm, the moth, and with high moisture content. In such cases, the pathogen reaches inside the epidermis, destroys it and then penetrates the healthy grains. All these effects, compounded by high grain drying costs and expensive logistics, also depend on the choice of corn hybrids in the maturity group (FAO) atypical for the region."


Two technological indicators are taken into account when harvesting corn: the moisture content of the grain and its vulnerability to mechanical trauma. Therefore, the best way of harvesting cash corn is combine threshing of the cobs, which starts at 30-32% moisture content of the grain. This method halves the work effort and reduces fuel expenses by 20-25%. Our colleagues from explained this in the article "Harvesting corn: mistakes in threshing or how not to lose the crop" (in Ukrainian).

Seed corn is only harvested in cobs at 40% moisture content and dried immediately. and commodity markets analyst Oleksandr Tyschenko told us that in retrospect of the last 4-5 seasons, the harvesting campaign of corn usually takes off in early autumn.
"The Agrarian Ministry usually reports the first 100-400 thou. t of new crop harvested on 6-9 September. But while the start of the season is roughly the same, the pace of the harvest and its completion is variable. In 2020 and 2021, the corn harvest was more stretched in time due to weather conditions. As a result, the completion of the campaign was three weeks delayed (in the second half of January)," says the expert.
The agronomist Serhiy Khablak explains that the water yielding capacity of corn almost ceases when the average daily air temperature drops to +5-6°C and the relative humidity rises to 80-90%. Such weather conditions usually form in the first decade of November. Therefore, when such conditions occur, it is no longer advisable to postpone corn harvesting as the humidity of the grain will not decrease much to reach the norm.

Last year, many producers harvested their corn in winter for the increased energy prices. Among the advantages of this method, agrarians mention easy threshing and the absence of costs for drying (at continuous subzero temperatures the grain freezes, turns dry and is easily removed from the cob).
Despite that, Serhiy Khablak says that winter harvesting of corn is a myth. At 5°C, the crop will not yield any moisture in the kernels. This temperature comes in early November and the grain neither yields any moisture nor reduces its content. Postponing the corn harvesting for winter causes nothing but more problems.

He claims that the companies intending to harvest corn through the end of December then face problems with the quality of the grain and its high moisture content. This results in fusarium ear diseases, which may force producers to sell corn to distilleries, leave fields in autumn untilled and thus produce yields 10-15% lower next season for spring tillage.

Serhiy Khablak
Doctor of Biological Sciences, agronomist
"These factors and the chance of precipitation pose a high risk of losses and a failure of commercial benefit. Besides, delaying harvesting past 1 November is not an option because of reduced drying efficiency at temperatures below +1.5-4.5°C. It is easier to heat the air in the dryer to 100°C, for example, if the temperature outside is +10° C rather than 0 or -5°C."

Tips for drying

Last year's corn bulk yield was higher than in 2019, thus there was more grain to dry: with a basis of 14%, the grain moisture content was 20-35%. Even Kharkiv region, which is not among the regions that have high precipitation, dried corn intensively.

The experts confirm that freshly harvested maize should not be dried lower than 14% moisture content. If the moisture content is 14-15%, the grain shall be stored, but if the moisture content is 15.5-17%, it shall be dried or ventilated. If the moisture content is higher, only drying is recommended. Furthermore, corn with a moisture content of up to 26% is dried in one go, but 26-28% is dried in two cycles intercooled. Grain with a moisture content of 36% is dried in three or four cycles.

It is particularly important to mind the storage period of moist and very moist (more than 20%) grain before drying. If stored for too long in hoppers, the germ of the corn kernel darkens, grain loses its quality. The head of the SOLAGRO grain storage business Serhii Shcherban affirms this from his own experience.
It is not advisable to store moist grain for more than 24 hours prior to drying. The facility must be ventilated with cool air and the arrangement in which batches of grain are sent for drying should be monitored to prevent the grain from getting overheated.

As Serhii Shcherban reasons, the variance in corn grain moisture content should not be less than 5% of the base indicators when forming the batches.

Serhii Shcherban
Head of the SOLAGRO grain storage business
"Some experts believe that the difference should be 1-2%. But these percentages in the moisture content difference may just be an error of the measuring device. To form batches with a 1-2% difference in moisture content, you have to have a wide range of containers, something farmers can't afford. Therefore, this moisture error in corn batches is ineffective."
As for selecting a dryer, in Serhii Shcherban's experience a shaft dryer is more efficient for very moist grain. It is taller, the grain stays there longer, which is important for drying grain with a moisture content of more than 20-25%. The ideal temperature of the drying agent for corn is +90-110°C. The dryer must not be heated above 130°C, as this will destroy the corn kernels. The grain itself should not be heated above 60°C. It should be dried with direct flue gases and the observance of the fuel efficiency is required.

Grain storage

Food, feed and industrial corn grain is stored in bulk in granaries, hoppers, elevator silos or polymeric bags (sleeves). If the grain is sufficiently dried, it may be stored at all bulk heights. If the humidity is medium, the height of the bulk should not exceed 2.5 m otherwise the grain will start to self-heat. The optimum height is 2.5 metres at a temperature of +10°C.

According to Serhii Shcherban, grain storage in warehouses is more commodious, cost-effective and efficient.

Serhii Shcherban
Head of the SOLAGRO grain storage business
"In warehouses, the fall height of grain on the concrete pavement is much lower (6-7 m), unlike in metal tanks where the height is over 20 m. Thereby, less corn kernels are broken in warehouses."
He adds that broken grains sorted out to the second category of waste, and if the elevator has very high bins, there will be more damaged grain. It is likely that elevators take precautions, and this waste then becomes third parties' concern.

Corn sales: prices hitting highs

For the past two years, corn prices have only been rising. As Mykhailo Tymoshchuk, the director of the UDG Trading agrarian division, explained, this trend emerged in 2019, when trading started at USD 150-155, but already in January-February the price of corn rose to the record USD 174-176 CPT Panamax in the ports of Ukraine.

Mykhailo Tymoshchuk
Director of the UDG Trading agrarian division
"The price pressure eased after that, but not for long. The snowless winter and dry spring resulted in a severe crop loss caused by the drought. This factor, as well as the fact that the forward contracts were not executed, led to a steep rise in the price, which in October 2020 reached 200 USD/t CPT Panamax."
The price peaked in 2020 in early December, with traders paying USD 226-230 CPT. In early 2021, the price rally persisted. In February, corn was at USD 255, and in November-December it rose to USD 268-270. And the upward trend remains in place even amid the risk of escalation by Russia.

Mykhailo Tymoshchuk
Director of the UDG Trading agrarian division
"The elevated price of corn will continue into the new season. The upward trend in crude oil and all derivatives, in grains and oilseeds production, their drying and processing, and in logistics are the key drivers. Furthermore, in 2022, the price will be impacted by the general global trend towards growth in all commodities, oversaturation of the market with Covid money, and tensions with Russia."

Sell from the field, grain elevator or CPT port?

Are you offered to sell corn from the field or elevator and you can't make the choice? If you sell from an elevator, you need to calculate the costs of delivering the grain from the field, receiving, drying, cleaning. Keep that in mind that after cleaning and drying, the weight of corn will definitely be less. Svitlana Omelchenko, Agromino's chief financial officer, stressed that if the final price is higher than in the field, it is worth selling from the elevator; if less, there is no point in taking the risk and it is better to sell from the field, with VAT included.

Svitlana Omelchenko
Agromino CFO
"And if you have to choose between selling on the terms of CPT port or from an elevator, consider the costs of corn that come with selling on CPT. First of all, you will have to pay the elevator for loading the corn into rail cars, pay for the freight forwarder's services. Also bear in mind that less tons of cargo will arrive at the port. Then from the price of corn at the port, subtract the CPT costs at the port and you get the final price. If the price is high at the port, we sell there, and if it is lower, we sell grain at the elevator."

Grain logistics

So, the prices of corn are clear. How to transport the grain to the port: by rail or motor transport? Both come with pros and cons.

According to Mykhailo Tymoshchuk, the grain transportation market is extremely volatile and unpredictable. Prices are formed by the supply-demand ratio, correlate with prices of fuel and lubricants and depend on seasonality. As for rail transport, last year proved that transporting grain by rail is quite a challenge. Especially in the context of bumper harvest, port conventions, huge bonuses for railcars delivery and rising charges for their use.
Let's take a closer look at the nuances of both types of transportation. Motor transport market is to first to go into detail.

Analyst Oleksandr Tyshchenko proves that this market is pegged to seasonality in crop production. From the graph he provides, you can see the extremes — the areas where the supply/demand of free transport reaches its seasonal highs and lows.
"The demand for transport peaks in September and October when corn and sunflower are harvested, as the late crops are about a third higher in bulk than the early crops. During this period, we even register a shortage of motor transport, as it is the truck that takes the new crop out of the field and also partially covers the need to deliver grain (wheat and maize) from the regions to maritime ports," says the expert.
He adds that last year, the motor freight market finally broke out of the dive that had lasted since 2019. The average rate, calculated as an index to track freight rate trends, finally pushed back from the bottom and reached its 4-year highest value at the peak of the season, in November.
There are several reasons for this growth. Firstly, it is the record-high harvest of both cereals and oilseeds. This factor created a shortage of grain trucks at the peak of the harvesting campaign. Although, there was a surplus on the transport market in 2020. Secondly, the accelerating inflation that swept the global economy and reflected in the cost of operating grain carriers (incl. fuels and lubricants, components, etc.). Thirdly, it is a failed season for Ukrzaliznytsia, in particular in the middle of the year. Due to the instability of shipments by rail, some of them had to by made by motor transport.
In transporting corn by road, however, there can also be nuances, the expert admitted.
"Corn grain is weighty, so it's hard to comply with size and weight parameters. Trucks are usually overloaded, either gross or axle. In addition, corn may be unprepared for export shipment (moist or uncleaned grain), so it may take much longer to queue with it, as dryers at the ports are overbooked," points Oleksandr Tyshchenko.
There are cases when a truck has to be loaded and unloaded at the port several times because the lab finds all kinds of violations, dirty grain or ragweed.

As for rail freight, in August 2021, Ukrzaliznytsia announced that the service of freight transportation by grain railcars will be arranged only through the Prozorro.Sales system. The new approach increased freight volumes, but intense competition in the bidding process raised lot prices. Grain railcar services became expensive.

Corn quality

What of the corn quality in the ports? As Vadym Turyanchyk, advisor to the President of Ukrainian Grain Association (UGA) on feed and food security, informs that more than 38 mln t of grain have been exported so far in the season 2021/22. Judging by the consignments of already exported products and corn crop harvested to date, we can assess this season's grain quality and compare it with last year's indicators (based on the data provided by the surveying companies-members of the UGA: Cotecna, SGS and BSS).

The expert notes that the quality of corn in the current season is almost the same as last year, but more consignments of corn with excessive grain moisture content are detected as a consequence of higher gas prices. This leads to other risks, the occurrence of mycotoxins in corn.

Vadym Turyanchyk
Advisor to the President of Ukrainian Grain Association (UGA) on feed and food security
"The most common and most dangerous to human and animal health are Aflatoxins (produced by the Aspergillus genus), Ochratoxin A (OTA) (produced by Aspergillus and Penicillium species), Fumonisin, Zearalenone (ZEA), Deoxynivalenol (DON) (produced by certain Fusarium species)."
Fungi affecting cereals can be divided into two groups:

  • fungi infecting plants in the field (during vegetation);
  • fungi that occur during storage.
The first group includes species of plant pathogenic fungi, namely the genus Fusarium. The second group includes fungi of the genera Aspergillius and Penicillium, which can also infect crops in the field.

One should keep in mind that mycotoxin levels are checked by all countries importing Ukrainian corn, regardless of the intended use of the grain. Therefore, Vadym Turyanchyk strongly recommends to give particular attention to mycotoxins when purchasing corn and right before sending it for export.

Corn exports from Ukraine's maritime ports

Ukraine exports 75-85% of its total corn crop annually. 90% of the remaining grain is used for feed production.

China dominates Ukraine's corn exports in 2021 with a 32.15% share of the total shipment. Spain and the Netherlands account for 10% and 9.26% of corn exports, respectively. The phytosanitary requirements of the importing countries are available on the official website of the State Service of Ukraine on Food Safety and Consumer Protection (SSUFSCP).
According to Stark Shipping data, in 2021 the ports of Chornomorsk and Mykolaiv shipped 9.2 and 7 mln t of corn, respectively. The Port of Pivdenny provided for the shipment of 5.7 mln t of corn, Odesa — 3.1 mln t.
Natalia Rodak,
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