Livestock Focused, Customer Driven
Published on Thu, 08/25/2016 - 5:19pm
Sponsored by Masters Choice
As you read this article, we are entering into an unprecedented new era of American agriculture. This is a new age in which some of the largest corporations in the world are selling or merging in order to maintain a competitive advantage. In such a strange and turbulent agricultural landscape, it is easy to overlook the independently-owned companies in the marketplace. In such unsure times there is an argument that these independents offer stability that might not be found elsewhere.
One independent, family-owned seed corn provider makes just such a claim, reasoning that during this time of transition “independents” may offer customers the best purchasing experience available. Masters Choice, a rapidly growing operation headquartered in Illinois, claims to be one such provider. Their President, Lyn Crabtree, says “In today’s marketplace, mergers and acquisitions seem to dominate the headlines. One benefit of doing business with an independently owned provider is that we are able to completely focus on the end consumer. Without answering to boardrooms or investors, companies like ours can shift product lineups and strategies to meet the needs of growers across the country. “This freedom to operate independently, and stay customer focused, also allows us to provide the highest level of customer service in the industry. We care deeply about our customers, and the success of their operations.”
One way that Masters Choice has set a course to “meet the needs of growers” has been to focus almost entirely on the livestock feed industry, becoming one of very few seed corn providers to do so. According to Crabtree, nearly 40% of all corn grown in the United States is ultimately made into livestock feed, the single highest use of corn in the country.
“With so much of our corn going to feed livestock, we felt like the needs of producers were being ignored. The same hard endosperm genetics, that have been so successful for export, were being forced on livestock producers, at the expense of efficiency on their operations.”
Focusing on the end use seems like a reasonable, common sense approach to product development, yet most hybrid seed corn offers hard, flinty grain that was developed years ago for the export process. At the time, these hard grains made sense, they hold up well to the rigors of the shipping process. Since those hybrids were developed though, the use of corn for livestock feed has steeply risen, while the export market has shrunk to 13% of all corn grown in the United States. Exports peaked, as a percentage of U.S. corn usage, in 1983 at around 45% of the market, and while that was over thirty years ago, the seed corn industry has not shifted away from those products with hard, indigestible grain. Masters Choice has made a conscious decision to buck that trend and develop products specifically for livestock producers.
While this corporate focus has largely been met with enthusiasm, one challenge, according to Masters Choice CEO Kevin Koone, has been “Overcoming the perception growers have about nutritionally enhanced products, and for good reason. In the past, guys have been burned by the poor agronomics and yield of some products offering this advantage. The thing we, at Masters Choice, are most proud of though, is that we have developed a product lineup that stands for yield and agronomics, just as much as our measurable nutritional advantage.”
Koone goes on to explain that for the Masters Choice plant breeding philosophy to be successful, it must start with selecting hybrids for their agronomic strengths, as well as proven yields. It just doesn’t end there. “No matter how nutritionally advanced a hybrid is, if it doesn’t stand in the field, and yield with the best of our competitors, it is worthless to the grower. The thing that makes us special is maintaining those things while bringing the elite nutrition that has set us apart for decades.”
After a hybrid has shown its agronomic strength, it is evaluated for nutritional characteristics by the Masters Choice nutrition research team, lead by Mark Kirk. Only products that pass all three phases of analysis, agronomics, yield, and nutrition, make it into their hybrid lineup. According to Kirk, “we take the hybrid selection process much farther than anyone else in the industry. At Masters Choice our goal is to develop hybrids that feed better than anything else on the market, and we have established dozens of criteria to determine that difference. It’s safe to say we are digging deeper, and looking at more aspects, than anyone else in the industry.”
One physical characteristic that Kirk looks for when evaluating a hybrid is its grain texture. “It is far from the only thing we look at, but there is a definite correlation between kernel texture and digestibility. “Hybrids with a softer endosperm, as a general rule, feed better than hybrids with a hard endosperm. This difference can be seen in many animal species, but is most clearly demonstrated on the dairy farm. We have a number of studies that show a distinct advantage on dairies.”
Agreeing with Kirk, Lyn Crabtree says, “For years we’ve seen a difference feeding Masters Choice corn on dairy farms. We care very much about the dairy industry and think producers deserve maximum efficiency. Together we can drastically change America’s agricultural economy. It’s the reason my family bought this business, the chance to make a real difference.”Another widely recognized benefit of feeding softer grain for silage is its ability to be fed quickly after harvest, without the need for extended fermentation.
A recent study showed that floury corn hybrids reach 75% starch digestibility in 28 days from harvest, while it took all other samples collected an average of 105 days to reach the same 75% digestibility. This allows producers to “beat the fall slump” by feeding new silage earlier in the season, resulting in increased efficiency for their operation. Unlike many providers, Masters Choice maintains its own hybrid development program, and a base of proprietary parent material, that allows them to bring such unique products to the marketplace. It is this program that allows Masters Choice to develop the hybrids that give livestock producers an advantage. Koone says that each year hundreds of new hybrid combinations are created. All of the hybrids that appear to have potential will be immediately rolled into testing in summer plots in the U.S. “Having unique parent materials available to us allows us to look at crosses no one else is seeing. It’s a real advantage.” To ensure that their internal analysis and research holds up, Masters Choice then works with dozens of third party plots and researchers across North America, including the top university plots in the country. By putting each experimental hybrid in plots over many geographies, before it is selected for their commercial lineup, Masters Choice is able to ensure that each product will be successful regionally. In most cases a hybrid is evaluated before it is considered for commercial launch.
“We don’t want any surprises when we launch a new hybrid,” Koone said. “We can only put our best foot forward when we are familiar enough with a hybrid that we can place it with absolute certainty. We have too much respect for our customers to offer them products we don’t believe in.”
Another area where Masters Choice has focused, due to the needs of its customers, is the organic marketplace, where they will be greatly expanding their certified organic production acres. “This fall Masters Choice is proud to offer several of our ‘cornerstone’ hybrids available for the certified organic marketplace for the first time,” Koone says. “These are hybrids that have already been proven leaders in the conventional market, in yield, agronomics, and digestibility. We feel like their addition gives us one of the strongest organic lineups available.” These newly available hybrids include MC3220, MC4050, MC4210, MC4630, MC4880, MC5250, and MC6150. These new offerings cover a relative maturity range spanning from 82 days to 111 days, resulting in a much more complete organic lineup.
According to Koone, Masters Choice is committed to offering their best genetics in many different availability options. This means that their best genetics will almost always be available as conventional, and organic when possible, not just as trait stacked. To learn more about these new organic offerings, or their conventional or traited counterparts, visit the Masters Choice website at seedcorn.com. New developments in the Masters Choice product lineup haven’t changed the company’s focus, according to its President, Lyn Crabtree. In fact it’s quite the opposite.
“When we bring new products to market, be it an expanded organic lineup, new trait offerings, or new hybrids with increased digestibility, we do it with the goal of meeting customer needs. That is the focus of our incredible staff and it’s why we put so much time and energy into research and development. From the top down everyone at Masters Choice genuinely cares about the bottom line of each and every one of our customers.” All of the mergers and acquisitions surely mean the agricultural landscape in America is changing, but with customer focused independents like Masters Choice on the rise, it feels like the future is in good hands.