Past to Present: Corn farming hasn’t been left in the dust
From fertilizing to the sale of the seed, the process and techniques used to cultivate corn have steadily evolved since the first agriculturists began using the land to farm. The Corn Belt of the Midwest has dominated the farming industry and corn production since the 1850s and has seen leaps in production since then.
Agricultural technology has been improving the daily lives of farmers and ranchers since the invention of the wheel, and the industry has come a very long way since then. The U.S. dominates the corn market, producing corn with over 90 million acres. Beginning in Mexico from the wild grass called teosinte, Native Americans brought corn up the Mississippi River and began the long history of corn in the Midwest. Scientific studies and assessments led to the production of different varieties of the crop, including dent, flint, flour, sweet and popcorn.
Most early farmers were eager to use new technology in their fields. Corn was a common crop because of its high volume of food per seed and because women and children could easily harvest it. The corn seeds were originally hand-planted, covered with a hoe, and the ears were individually handpicked. The first mechanical corn harvester was a horse-drawn sled cutter, developed in the mid 1800s. It cut the stalks to the ground, and then bound into shocks for drying. The first binder and picker was developed around the same time, but took much longer to become a practically used piece of machinery for farmers.
New plows and threshers were widely accepted in order to cut the time needed for the entire production. At one point, it took two animals and three workers to plow a field. One worker would steer, one would drive the team, and one would clear the soil from the blade. The invention of the colter, a sharp wheel-shaped component added to the plow, cut into the surface of the soil to allow the blade to move easier through the ground.
The invention of combine harvesters began in the 1800s as well, and companies like Holt, Gleaner, Case, and John Deere raced to patent their own models. The Great Depression halted the progress and farmers resorted back to traditional methods, but tractor-drawn combines became popular during World War II. The auger was invented in 1947, which created an easier method for unloading grain from the combines. Rotary combines were introduced in the 1970s, and on-board electronics in the 1980s. The new designs allowed farmers better yields in less time.
Secretary and treasurer for the South Dakota Corn Growers Association Scott Stahl is a third-generation farmer that has watched his farm evolve since his grandpa started farming the land in McCook County. They plant corn, oats, and soybeans.
“At the end of the day, the farm economy has been tough the last four to five years. My dad always says the yield drives the farm, so I guess we’re trying to push for good yields and most efficient use possible,” Stahl said. He farms the land with his dad and uncle, wife Amanda, and their three boys (8, 6, and 3 years old).
Stahl explained the various techniques and practices they utilize in order to optimize the yields and care for the soil health each year. They use the latest biotechnology and hybrid seeds available to help provide disease resistance. “They have to perform in the adverse climates we have here—drought-hardy that can handle the stress and vigor of the Corn Belt. We have our own fertilizer spreader and perform annual tests on our soil to make sure we’re optimizing for our crop but not too much that it becomes wasteful spending.”
They split-apply the nitrogen because it creates less leaching and less volatilization. Putting the nitrogen on at different times of the season is better for the environment and is more cost effective. Stahl also discussed the technology in their equipment, like iPads that document exactly what they’re doing for each application and provide harvest data.
“We’re able to take that data and optimize a plan for the following year and knowing the best areas and seeds, depending on where they’re located in the field and the weather. It’s really quite fascinating to see that data and see the variability in knowing what techniques work better. We’re always hoping to be pragmatic enough to know what we can do next year that will help better our farm and not only help us provide additional cash flow, but make sure we’re making the farm better for the next generation.”
The South Dakota Corn Growers Association’s Industry Affairs and Legislative Director, Teddi Mueller had similar ideas about preserving the soil and increasing yields. “The soil has been the number one tool of the farm. Before, it was thought to be machinery, but it’s not. There’s been a huge change. The soil health initiative has grown exponentially. That’s been an exciting change. We used to see huge dust storms, and we don’t anymore.”
More changes that the SDCGA has observed over the years include the policy aspect. They would get involved when the Farm Bill came around, but now they need hands-on activity in Pierre on a daily basis. Stahl said he became involved with the organization because they had a strong reputation of standing up for corn growers, and he admired the ability they had to shape policy across the state.
Along with policy, Mueller said that the state has adapted to technology changes quickly and efficiently, and the changes have been for the positive.
“We have to sharpen our pencils faster than anybody else. We have to adapt. We were the first state to adapt to biotechnology. We make mistakes, but in the industry we hold each other accountable. We want to be known as the environmental stewards of the land, caring about the water quality and soil health. The farmers don’t want to use all the chemicals and fertilizers on their land, that’s why they’re spoon-feeding that technology instead of just over-applicating everything. They have to wear all these different hats—scientists, meteorologists, and mechanics—because they truly care about what happens to the land. If they have to keep reapplying because of runoff, they have to pay more money to do that,” Mueller said.
Corn farming has made an immense leap from when it began in the Midwest, and the technology and policy changes made have impacted these farmers with positive growth and better yields each year.
Stahl noted that every year they take more bushels of corn off the land. They’re able to do this through technology and updated practices. He didn’t want to pit agriculture against the coal and oil industries, but he brought up that taking a scoop of that out of the ground is all it is. That’s all there is for this generation.
“What we do on the farm is pretty powerful. It’s all renewable. We plant the seed, nurture the crop, we watch it grow with God’s provision. That bushel of corn feeds people and supplies the fuel and energy needs of this country. That’s pretty powerful to say. Every year it’s getting better, and our land is in better shape than it was the generation before. We’re doing something that is renewable and better each year. It’s exciting to be involved with it, and it’s an exciting time for agriculture.”