The calendar has turned to fall, and the weather is slowly following suit. Harvest is underway with combines rolling through fields and semitrailers hauling grain to elevators and on-farm bins. There’s more of those bins and semitrailers now than ever before because there’s more grain.
Over time, small changes can make an extraordinary impact. Of all the crops being cut this season, corn is perhaps the best example of how slow, steady progress has created grain harvests our ancestors could have never fathomed.
From the 1860s to the late 1930s, corn yields were essentially flat at 26 bushels per acre. The USDA’s latest estimate for the 2021 crop is projecting a nationwide average of about 175 bushels per acre. Over the span of about 80 years, farmers have increased their production nearly seven-fold. Yields for other grains have shot up too, but corn takes the crown in overall productivity.
This proliferation didn’t happen overnight, rather it began quite slowly, with yields inching up about 0.8 bushels per acre per year from the late ’30s to 1955 with the use of double-cross pollinated varieties. Continued improvements in genetic selection, the use of nitrogen fertilizer, mechanization, better management and more effective pesticides have pushed yields up by about 2 bushels per acre per year over the last 65-plus years.
While farmers have incorporated all of these advances into their operations, it’s the result of a truly collective effort. Public and private research across a range of industries has contributed to the incremental but reliable yield increase.
While the actual yields still vary depending on weather, recent years have seen the national average stay within 10 bushels of the 176.6 bushel-per-acre record set in 2017. We’re just one good growing season away from setting a new national record.
Harvest can top 300 bushels per acre in some areas across the country, but it requires some help from Mother Nature. In my home state of Kansas, the average is usually somewhere in the mid-130 bushel range because dryland acres dominate the landscape. Irrigated fields and those dryland parcels blessed with timely, adequate moisture often top 200 bushels per acre.
That’s nearly six tons of grain per acre, an enormous increase from the inch-long cobs grown about 10,000 years ago in central Mexico where corn was first domesticated. The Columbian exchange delivered corn to the rest of the world.
Now it grows across the globe, and its uses are just as versatile. Cattle convert corn to steak. Manufacturers transform the starch into plastics, fabrics, adhesives and more. It’s also a feedstock for the ethanol in your gas tank. Of course, it’s pounded into flour for things like cornbread and tortillas. Corn sugars sweeten drinks. My favorite though is corn that’s been fermented, distilled and poured over ice.
Farmers have gotten so good at growing corn, wheat, soybeans, sorghum and many other staples we no longer see gradual improvements as something that’s especially newsworthy. This is partly because farmers make a very difficult job appear easy.
While the rest of us enjoy all the bounty fall offers, from cool nights and tailgates to changing colors and bonfires, I hope the bounties in farmers’ fields are just as rich this autumn.
Greg Doering is a writer and photographer at Kansas Farm Bureau. This column was originally published as part of the Kansas Farm Bureau Insight series.