Remarkable growth in corn yields has boosted corn productivity in the United States over the past century. While corn production has risen, the land used to grow corn has not. United States farmers planted an estimated 94.1 million acres of corn in 2023, the highest level since 2013.
Despite status as the highest acreage of this decade, it falls short of the more than 100 million acres of corn farmers planted a century ago. In the past decade, U.S. corn production is over six times production of the 1930s with fewer corn acres.
Throughout the 1930’s the average U.S. corn yield was 24.2 bushels per acre, grown on an average of 102.2 million acres for an average production of 2 billion bushels of corn. In contrast, the 2010s brought an average U.S. corn yield of 161.5 bushels per acre, grown on an average of 91.4 million acres for an average production of 13.5 billion bushels of corn. In the decades between, yield grew steadily. On average, the annual increase in corn yield has been 1.8 bushels per acre, per year.
Factors in corn yield growth over the past century are advancements in genetics and plant breeding that led to the development of better hybrids and parent lines of corn and improved agronomic farm management and soil fertility. Later, genetic engineering led to commercial introduction of traits in corn hybrids by the mid-1990s and continued expansion in genetic technology.
Growth in corn yields is expected to continue. Over the next decade USDA long-term projections indicate a 2 bushel per acre increase each year through 2032.
United States farmers planted an estimated 94.1 million acres of corn in 2023, the highest level since 2013. Despite status as the highest acreage of this decade, it is less than the over 100 million acres U.S. farmers planted to corn several years in the 1930s.
Although acres used to grow corn today are lower than a century ago, corn planted acres dipped for a period in the decades between. From the 1960s through the 1990s, the decade average corn planted area was below 80 million acres. In this period, growing yields resulted in corn production that continued to climb over time despite lower acres. When renewable fuel targets were put into place in 2006, demand for ethanol grew spurring an initial increase in corn acres that quickly leveled and has remained constant in a relatively narrow range below the earlier historical high points since then.
Further reduction and stabilization of corn acres is expected to continue. Over the next decade USDA long-term projections indicate a settle at 81.1 million corn acres.
Utilizing Corn’s Productivity in The Future
In the 100 years from 1933 to 2022, corn production increased more than 600%. The remarkable growth in corn production is powered by rising yields on less land. Over the next decade, growth in corn production is expected to continue while land area for corn drops from today’s levels to 89 million acres as yields continue to rise.
What if we could harness the future productivity of corn on today’s acres, as opposed to the lower projected acreage? Consider an example where corn area in 2032 is the same as estimated for 2023: instead of 89 million planted acres there would be 94.1 million corn planted acres and 86.3 million corn harvested acres. With the growth in trend yield, that would result in corn production in 2032 that is more than 1 billion bushels greater than the current USDA projection for that year without increasing land for current lands. That could translate to approximately 3 billion additional bushels of ethanol under current conversion capabilities.
The continued growth potential for corn productivity in the future makes corn an ideal and environmentally friendly feedstock for biofuels and sustainable aviation fuel without using more land or taking supply away from feed needs for livestock and other valued users of corn.