With considerable talk taking place about the possibility of boosting average yields to 300 bushels of corn and 100 bushels of soybeans per acre by 2030, there are plenty of agronomic questions on how we can make this happen. An innovative Illinois farmer recently told me he'll have to average 450 bushels of corn and nearly 100 bushels per acre of soybeans in order to help the country make these dramatic national yield averages.
With the U.S. Census Bureau anticipating that the world's population will rise to over 9 million by the year 2050, this means we're going to have to produce much more grain to feed the world. While the world's population stands at nearly 7 billion today, some 60 percent of the earth's people will live in China, India and Southeast Asia just 40 years from now.
At the same time as this tremendous surge in the world's population, the standard of living across the globe is also expected to continue its rise. The growing demand for improved diets and the increasing populations will require three times more food than the world presently produces. And since there are few acres of new land that can be used for farming, the emphasis has to be on boosting yields to feed the world.
Projections for a dozen major crops indicate that demand will grow by about 85 percent from the world's current levels. In order to meet the growing global demand for food without adding farmland, crop yields must increase by nearly 25 percent faster than current trend levels.
Besides meeting America's corn and soybean yield challenges, many other concerns need to be solved, including the transport of grain from the farm to its final destination.
While the need for more efficient transportation is the major part of our eight-part "Shipping Out" video series, we must set the stage by discussing how we're going to find ways to meet the grain yield challenge over the next two decades.
The continued use of stacked trait corn hybrids will likely double or even triple the yearly yield increase for corn. Rather than the 2-bushel per acre annual increase that has been achieved over each of the past 55 years, we can expect to see yield increases of 4 to 6 bushels per acre per year over the next two decades. Plus, the coming development of drought-tolerant hybrids will add an 8 to 10 percent yield boost with corn.
Much of the increased corn yield has been due to genetic improvement in weed, disease and insect control along with the development of more aggressive root systems that can efficiently seek out available water and nutrients. By moving to higher plant populations, growers are already learning how to take full advantage of the improved genetic potential.
Over the past 50 years, soybean productivity has improved by only a half bushel per acre per year. Yet new developments in biotechnology and new soybean varieties should boost yields by up to 12 percent per acre over the next few years. In fact, it's likely over the next 20 years that the margin of improvement between record and average yields in soybeans will be much greater than in corn.
Harold Reetz, a recently retired agronomist with the Potash and Phosphate Institute, says the key to boosting yields is to fine tune management systems while focusing more on the unique requirements of each crop. This means finding new ways to eliminate numerous yield-limiting factors. Look for an increased emphasis on management strategies that makes nutrients available in the right form, in the right amount and in the right place throughout the growing season.
Reducing the stress from diseases, insects and weeds will become more critical. The amount and timing of water availability, along with proper drainage, will play a key role in boosting yields. And look for increased emphasis on site-specific precision farming technology to overcome within-field variabilities and more efficient machinery management.
When it comes to producing 300-bushel corn yields, University of Illinois crop physiologist Fred Below refers to seven critical items that have the most impact on corn yields. These include weather, nitrogen, hybrid selection, crop rotations, plant populations, tillage and chemical usage.
Two of the key management changes in striving to meet the 300-bushel corn challenge will be a shift toward narrower rows and twin rows. These changes offer corn plants more room to grow to capture nutrients ands water while making better use of available sunlight.
Monsanto agronomists maintain that growers tend to run out of growing space in 30-inch rows once you expand plant populations beyond 39,000 plants per acre.
Just moving the seed in a single row some 4 inches in either direction and planting in twin rows doubles the spacing between plants. The result is more unrestricted root growth and better utilization of sunlight, moisture and nutrients in a field with twin rows.
As an example, dairyman Greg Selbrede of Leon, Wis., made the switch to twin rows spaced 8 inches apart on 30-inch centers nearly a decade ago. This helped him push up plant populations to overcome yield concerns and standability issues due to thicker stands when raising corn silage and grain for his dairy herd. The result has been a tremendous boost in corn silage tonnage and feed quality along with grain yields ranging as high as 257 bushels per acre, thanks to the twin rows that have boosted yields by 8 to 12 percent.
He credits twin rows with allowing him to push up the ceiling on plant populations. He's convinced that the key to higher yields is producing more plants per acre rather than producing bigger ears.
Tom Evans, vice president for Great Plains, says twin rows will be an exciting change in agriculture and the wheels of that are already starting to move. He is convinced that twin rows will take yields to the next level.
Evans says twin row farming doesn't require a lot of equipment changes — one of the big pluses of twin rows. Basically, you change your planter and everything else stays exactly the way it was with a 30-inch corn head on your combine.
While boosting grain yields over the next 20 years is critical to feeding the world and increasing our supplies of home-grown ethanol to reduce our needs on foreign oil, improved transportation of grain on our rivers, roads and railroad tracks and across the oceans to other countries is going to be critical.
In the next segment of "Shipping Out" (Part 2) we'll take you on board the tow boat "Show-Me-State" in Minnesota. We'll give you a first-hand look at what it's like to push $5.4 million dollars of corn, soybeans and wheat down the mighty Mississippi.