Guest Editorial: Meeting Tomorrow’s Yields Today
by Darrin Ihnen, President, National Corn Growers Association
Every year, thousands of corn growers take part in the National Corn Growers Association’s National Corn Yield Contest. We don’t offer great prizes; however, we provide the opportunity for our members to brag about their success and learn from their colleagues around the country. Each year for the past 45 years this has been one of our most popular member benefits, and each year the results amaze us.
Just consider 2009’s contest. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported a national average corn yield of 165.2 bushels per acre, a new record. Our 24 national winners in the contest averaged more than 300 bushels per acre – regardless of factors like tilling practices, local climate, or irrigation.
What does this mean? Several things, really.
First, it means that some of the rosier corn yield projections we’ve been seeing may very well come true. Our strategic plan includes a conservative forecast of 205 bushels per acre by 2020. That’s high enough to produce 17 billion bushels of corn. And some experts believe we can reach 300 bushels as a national average by 2030, through a combination of seed technology and enhanced agronomic practices and technology.
Take this a step further, and it means we will be able to continue to meet all needs for corn for food, feed, fuel and fiber, even when weather challenges sometimes hinder our work and even when markets for corn expand. After all, we braved cold rain the spring and frozen fields in the fall to bring in a record yield and overall corn production.
Third, it means we can produce more without boosting acreage. Ethanol critics like to assume that growing more corn means taking over a proportionately larger amount of land, and that this so-called indirect land use change has ramifications world-wide. Hogwash. In 2007 we harvested 86.5 million acres. To reach 17 billion bushels by 2020, providing more than enough corn to max out corn ethanol’s 15 billion gallon plateau under the current Renewable Fuel Standard, we only need to harvest 83 million acres.
Finally, this means we are more efficient in our work, and by “efficient” I mean sustainable, environmentally and economically . Growing more per acre means fewer inputs and less impact per bushel of corn, and this sustainability is enhanced further when one considers new technology in the pipeline and smarter practices in the cornfield.
Last year, NCGA released a study by Informa Economics that compared the results of our corn yield contest over time. Seeding rates and plant population have been trending upward slowing, causing a faster increase in production per acre, but that’s not the whole story. We’re also seeing more environmentally friendly practices.
The three no-till/strip-till classes are popular in the contest, and even with conventional tillage classes, it’s not a plow flipping over everything; modern tillage practices are loosening and disturbing a few inches of soil. We’re doing a better job of controlling erosion by keeping the soil and the fertilizer where they need to be. Farming has changed; there’s an effort to conserve soil and nutrients, and we feel we’ve made significant contributions.
Likewise, the data clearly shows an uptrend in nutrient efficiency. Contest participants decreased nitrogen application per bushel of production by approximately one percent per year between 1996 and 2007. U.S. average nitrogen efficiency gains as reported by the USDA were similar to the contest between 1996 and 2005.
There are a lot of farming traditions we growers all love and respect. One of these traditions is common to all American entrepreneurs – improving our work from year to year. As we measure success by the bushel, improving yield is important as we work to meet growing demands for our corn. And it won’t be just farmers and ethanol producers who benefit, but everyone who puts food and table and fuel in their cars.
About the Author:
Darrin Ihnen, President of the National Corn Growers Association, is from Hurley, South Dakota. He and his family operate a farm growing irrigated and dry-land corn and soybeans. They also raise stock cows and manage a contract hog-feeding operation. Darrin has been involved in corn-grower issues at local, state and national levels participating in NCGA’s Leadership Academy, South Dakota Corn Growers Association, NCGA’s Biotechnology Working Group, and Production and Stewardship Action Team.