Despite last year's drought, corn production is popping
March 20th, 2013
07:00 PM ET
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Editor's Note: Brian Scott farms with his father and grandfather on 2,300 acres of land in northwest Indiana. They grow corn, soybeans, popcorn and wheat. He blogs about it at The Farmer's Life.

The Dekalb seed company recently shared a poster on Facebook depicting the top corn yields of 1940 and it got the gears turning in my head. For many decades, corn growers at the local, state and national level have competed in yield contests to see who can grow the most corn per acre. Bragging rights are at stake (and sometimes cash and prizes), and the 1940 yield contest winner for my home state of Indiana harvested 94.81 bushels per acre.

What about that clicks in my ag-nerd brain? The fact that in 2012, hopefully the worst drought of my farming career, saw our farm garner an average corn yield of 94.7 bushels per acre. For all intents and purposes, that's equal to the best of the best in my great grandfather’s day.

The poster shows a 102.38 bushel average for contestants over 12 states. The U.S. averaged about 123 bushels per acre following the horrendous drought of 2012. By those numbers, today’s worst is better than yesteryear’s top dogs.

More corn, less acreage
National Corn Growers Association recently published some great data on corn production dating back to 1932. 2012 saw a whopping 97 million acres of corn planted in the United States, due in part to high commodity prices. This was lot more corn than we’ve seen in recent years.

But back in 1932 this country planted 113 million acres. The average yield that year was 26.5 according to NCGA. That's nearly 100 bushels less than last year’s crop which again was the worst drought since 1988, and maybe since the Dust Bowl era. Total 2012 corn production quintupled all 1932 could muster. So what has changed?

Plants on the rise
It should go without saying that technology and knowledge have improved greatly in the last 80 years. Farmers who were tending their fields with horses now have those same fields cared for by their descendants operating self-driving tractors. On our farm, just for fun, we have a 1950s John Deere combine that was designed to harvest maybe half the populations we are growing today. Planting equipment is also very sophisticated compared to what was being used a generation ago or even 10 to 15 years ago.

But plant breeding has a great deal of impact on the yields we can produce today. Two or three generations ago corn literally couldn’t compete with itself and it was planted at populations under 10,000 plants per acre.

As we've continued to breed corn plants over time, we continue to select for plants that can better handle environmental stresses. If you have more plants in the same space, they tap into the same water and sunlight.

Look at "old" corn plants, and you'll see that the leaves are droopy. Modern plants have leaves that are upright and can capture more sunlight. Sunlight is a big deal, and closing your canopy as soon as possible is important. Weeds can steal sun just like water and nutrients.

As the ability to handle stresses such as lack of water or sunlight improves it stand to reason that higher populations can be planted. The silver lining of 2012 is that the stress of the drought will show strong data for varieties that performed relatively well. You can be sure seed companies and breeders will be hanging on to those genetics.

Today on my farm, we average about 32,000 plants on an acre. The size of the ear may change, but the sheer volume of plants we can get planted, compared to days past, translates to many more ears at harvest. Anyone with farm experience will tell you about the endless variables that go into harvesting a good crop, but the ability to plant large numbers of corn plants is certainly important.

drought corn
Corn ears from Brian Scott's farm during the 2012 harvest

Top of the crop
This year we may enter an NCGA yield contest, and not necessarily with an eye on winning. The underlying premise of yield contests is for farmers to try alternate methods of production on relatively small plots in order to see what works well and what doesn’t. Yield contests are a learning process for each individual farm. All the practices employed to get top yields may not show profit, but pushing the boundaries of what is possible now paves the way for more production tomorrow.

So where are corn yield contest participants sitting today? NCGA has posted results of their 2012 winners across the nation in several classes. Winning yields in my state pushed 300 bushels per acre. National winners in irrigated classes were knocking on the door of 400 bushels in one of the toughest plant stress years in history! Yields were nearly four times greater than 1940’s best. Of course this is not only a trend we see in corn, but in all facets of American agriculture.

Want to know more about where your corn, beef and other foods are coming from? Here's your chance. Brian Scott and plenty of other farmers are listening, so post your question in the comments below and we'll do our best to get you an answer.

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soundoff (17 Responses)
  1. Adam

    To all the farmers,

    Thank you for your hard work!

    April 12, 2013 at 3:57 pm |
  2. Michael

    Can anyone say GMO??

    April 12, 2013 at 3:07 pm |
    • Jen

      Exactly my thought. Poison, not corn.

      April 12, 2013 at 3:28 pm |
    • Allen

      I am a large critic of Monsanto and GMOs, but yield increases are only marginally affected by GMO traits. Yield is over 90% breeding (hybrids). GMO traits only affects the amount of tillage/spraying that has to be done to control weeds and insects.

      April 12, 2013 at 3:45 pm |
      • Brian

        Farmers sometimes say that once you open a bag of seed your yield starts dropping. That's because a seed never has great potential to perform than when it's in the bag which is a time when no variables are yet in play. Namely the weather. I think of GM traits as protecting that top yield potential. There are not currently traits on the market that directly increase the yield of a crop, but they will guard that harvest against stresses. This does bring up the average yield, which I see as just a bit different that increasing yield. Yes yields may go up if you have a Bt corn to protect against pests, but that doesn't mean if you put that same hybrid side by side with its non-Bt counterpart that you automatically have a yield increase.

        April 13, 2013 at 12:05 pm |
  3. madhuthangavelu

    Great Interview. I saw clouds in the sky in the background.
    Perhaps the good farmers will consider getting the government to consider some cloud seeding to help allieviate drought ?
    We'll be praying for you to have the drought break....

    April 12, 2013 at 3:06 pm |
    • Brian

      The funny thing about that video from last July is it had not rained more than 0.1" for several weeks along with record temps over an extended period. A small cell dumped 1/3" in 20 minutes on the CNN crew around noon, and that night we got 2" of rain. CNN was there to cover a USDA undersecretary viewing drought stricken farms in person. The running joke we have around here now is when people tell us the gov't brought rain I just say they were about six weeks late as usual.

      April 12, 2013 at 3:12 pm |
  4. Fupped Duck

    And that concludes another installment of "Children of the Corn".

    April 12, 2013 at 2:59 pm |
  5. Good Lord

    Oh goodie - folks starving all over the world. However, it can't be too bad tho, because I saw that they are still paying some corn farmers to not grow corn, and they're advertising that they use corn in kitty litter now.

    April 12, 2013 at 2:38 pm |
    • Brian

      Can you elaborate on what programs are in place to pay farmers not to raise crops? There are conservation programs that offer an incentive to take some land out of production to to reduce erosion and runoff. We have a few filter strips 40' wide along open ditches which amount to minimal acres mostly on marginal ground.

      April 12, 2013 at 2:52 pm |
    • EThompson

      Let me elaborate on this a bit for you.
      During the agricultural boom and overplanting of the 1920's, crop prices plummeted. Because a farmer's only income was selling his crops, the only way to make more money was to grow more crops. This led to farmers growing more and causing the prices to drop even more, which led to farmers to grow even more... and so on.
      In order to prevent this, the government would set a target price for a crop, and when the market price was lower than the target price, a farmer could take a loan from the government for the target value of his crop in exchange for not putting his crop on the market at the time. Eventually, when the price went back up, the farmer could sell his crop at a higher price and then pay back his loan. It put a stop to the cycle of overproduction and falling prices. This is where the concept of the government paying a farmer to not grow (actually it was not sell instead of not grow) came into play.
      In the 1960's, however, the farm subsidy was quietly changed such that the government, instead of providing a loan to the farmer, it would simply pay the difference between the target price and market price directly to the farmer if the market price was lower. This allowed farmers to significantly increase production without any fear of the future, since the government would foot the rest of the bill if prices were too low. Unfortunately, this caused the market price to continue to fall while production to increase, with the government footing more and more of the bill every year.

      So now the prices of corn are incredibly low, the farmer makes just enough to get by sometimes, but my box of cereal which takes about $0.04 worth of corn to make, just went up to $4.00 per box.

      April 12, 2013 at 3:39 pm |
      • RWILSON

        EThompson- your nut's, corn prices are the highest ever in history. I farm 2,000 acres in Iowa and sold my corn for over $8 a bushel. I made over a $1.6 Million dollar net profit in 2012.

        April 12, 2013 at 4:04 pm |
  6. saejongno

    very interesting and encouraging, thank you for taking the time to share this information

    April 12, 2013 at 2:29 pm |
    • Brian

      Thank you for reading it!

      April 12, 2013 at 2:50 pm |
  7. Andy Raxis

    One very important fact was left out here. Starting in 1930 the midwest and plains experienced a prolonged and severe drought known as the dust bowl (you might have heard of this), crop yeilds during this period cratered. It would be interesting to me to compare to something when the yields were more normal, say the 1920's or the 1950's.

    April 12, 2013 at 2:22 pm |
    • Brian

      I had submitted some graphs from with this post, but they weren't used here. If you go to the site you can find historical yield trends for the entire period. Thanks for reading!

      April 12, 2013 at 2:50 pm |
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