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Let's Talk Corn!

Let’s talk about corn! This annual cereal grass has had arguably the biggest impact on US agriculture and shaped how we manage everything in farming today. The first recorded crop acre data was completed in 1866. There were approximately 30 million acres planted. The farmers harvested 24 bu/acre and were paid $0.66/bu at market during that year. In 2022, there were 90 million acres of corn planted and approximately 190 bu/acre were harvested at an average of $6.94/bushel. Just like our lifestyles, this crop has changed and evolved over the last 150 years, and we wanted to take a deeper dive into corn to understand why it has become so important as an agricultural commodity today!

Corn’s ancestor is believed to be an ancient grass called teosinte, and it was discovered in southwestern Mexico over 9,000 years ago. Originally corn was more grass-like with a tiny seed head/cob that had kernels and was about the size of our pinky finger. These kernels were valuable, and the use of the grass spread throughout North America. When Europeans began settling here, the native people taught them how to grow this plant. Corn was grown together with beans and squash in a mound. The beans would vine on the corn, provide nitrogen, and the squash would cover the ground to reduce weed pressure. As the years passed people selected corn to withstand different environments. This crop continued gaining popularity by the farmers; however, as the years passed corn became more susceptible to disease. It was becoming less hardy and farms couldn’t make a profit. According to USDA records corn yield stayed relatively stagnant from 1866 through the 1950s. Only gaining a slight increase in bushels per acre from 24 to 38 bu/acre. The early 20th century made a lot of progress in corn genetics.

During the early years of corn growing the varieties were purebred and open-pollinated. Open-pollinated plants mean that they will produce seeds on their own. These plants are “pollinated by other plants of the same variety, creating seed that will produce “true to type” or display the same characteristics each season.” The seeds from these plants were then used again the following year for the next crop. As farmers continued using the same purebred varieties they became inbred which led to an increase in disease and lower yields. The problems with corn productivity led to an increase in research into the plant. I'm 1908, George Harrison Shull published “A Composition of a Field of Maize”. His aim was to understand why corn was “deteriorating”. The conclusion of the study stated that the path forward for corn breeding was to proceed with hybridization. Hybridization occurs when “two open-pollinated varieties are grown side by side. Using hand pollination, corn detasseling, or another technical method, growers ensure that every seed has received pollen from one breed (the father) and is grown on a distinctly different breed (the mother).” D.F Jones continued along this research area with a four-way double-crossed hybrid corn. This included crossing two inbred lines and then crossing these two again.

This research done by Shull and Jones, along with others began the era of hybridization. The first double hybrid corn varieties were sold around 1924 and this new seed type spread rapidly. These hybrid corn varieties were developed during the time of the Dust Bowl and provided better drought resistance with more yield, so they were adopted quickly. In Iowa, the state went from farmers planting 10% hybrid corn in 1935 to over 90% in 1939. Hybrids also provided more uniformity in corn and this allowed farmers to begin the use of machinery (combines) when harvesting the crop. The change to hybrid corn increased the number of bushels harvested by 1bu/acre/year for the farmers. Single cross-hybrid varieties came in the 1960s and had a huge impact on yield (increased by 2bu/acre/year). In 1960 the average yield was 54 bu/acre and 20 years later in 1980 the farmers averaged 100 bu/acre. Today with the continued use of hybrids, corn yields average 175 bu/acre (2018). Easily, the advancement in corn genetics has allowed this commodity to dominate the agriculture industry.

With the advances in corn production, the cattle industry began to evolve and start utilizing this grain for feeding. Prior to this, all cattle would graze out on native pasture in a big group and it would take a long time to get cattle big enough to butcher for beef. Farmers began feeding grain to cattle to speed up this finishing process and they were rewarded by the market paying well for these cattle. So, feeding grains became a mainstay in the United States. By feeding grain to livestock (poultry, pigs, cattle) and using self-propelled combines emerging in the 1950s, corn production continued to skyrocket.

Today there are five different types of corn grown: dent, flint, four, sweet corn, and popcorn. Each type has a different use. Dent corn is used for animal feed, flint corn for decorations and hominy, flour corn for flour, sweet corn for eating, and popcorn for popping! Corn is also used for ethanol production and the byproducts are used to feed cattle. In 2021 the top agricultural commodities sold were cattle/calves and corn, so this crop is still hugely utilized in our industry today. We wanted to share the history of corn before we dive into how different groups of cattle are fed today (ex. Grass-finished vs. grain finished) to maximize subsections of the market. Regardless of how you feel about corn, we cannot argue the impact it has had on the agriculture industry as a whole. On our farm, we believe corn is a powerhouse and provides dense nutritious energy for our cattle to enjoy!


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