The 2015 growing season in most Corn Belt locations has come to an end. For those of us in the Western Corn Belt it was -- from a yield standpoint -- a very good year. While we received plenty of moisture this season, we were able to avoid the massive amounts of rain in the middle of the growing season that hit some areas in the Eastern Corn Belt.
We were also fortunate this year to avoid other weather issues. Last summer a massive hailstorm in early June destroyed part of our corn and soybean crops, which had to be replanted.
In the last few years corn yields have been on a steady incline on our farm, as probably is the case for many other farmers. A few years ago we had a field yield 175 bushel per acre (bpa), which was our all-time high. We thought this was pretty fantastic.
With plenty of moisture this growing season, our field's highest yield was right about 190 bpa, which is pretty good for the dryland, clay side-hills we farm. I can remember 30 years ago or so my dad and uncle were excited when they reached just triple-digit yields.
For a number of years while corn yields were climbing rapidly, soybean yields appeared to be stagnating. It didn't seem like we could get much over 50 bpa for a bean yield for a number of years.
I mentioned this one time several years ago to DTN Contributing Agronomist Dan Davidson. The Illinois Soybean Association had just published a booklet on how farmers could improve bean yields, and he sent me a copy.
The tips were little things like planting beans earlier, planting beans in narrower rows and planting beans at a lower plant population. While we didn't do everything in the booklet, we did adopt a few of these practices.
And since then our soybeans yields have improved. Last year the one farm with good soils (that was a farm not hit by hail obviously) we had 60 bpa for the first time ever. This year our best bean yield was 57 bpa, still pretty good.
I think tinkering with practices like plant populations, planting times, etc. are good ways farmers can see slight changes in their yields. It is just one piece of the overall puzzle, but if you make enough of these smaller changes sometimes you can see noticeable changes in yields.
We have also fertilized our crops at higher levels in recent years thanks to both good yielding crops and higher commodity prices. While commodity prices are not as high as in past years, the good yields have remained and in our case it is probably because of better fertilization.
I would guess most farmers have always used enough nitrogen for crop production, but maybe some fields' phosphorus (P) and potash (K) levels were not always where they should have been. This was the case with us as we let P and K level slide for a few more years than we probably should have.
We have applied both P and K every year now for probably five years. It is certainly not inexpensive. But I do think this is why we have seen yields rise, especially on the soybean side.
I recently attended a meeting in which a speaker said farmers do a good job fertilizing for corn crops but not so good for the soybean crop the following year. That was pretty interesting research to see how few nutrients would be leftover in the soil for beans after a corn crop.
As for the future of yields on our farm, I would hope they would continue to rise. Maybe in the next few years with good fertilization and continued good rains we could see corn yields over 200 bpa and soybean yields regularly in the 60s.
I think back to my late grandfather, who farmed here his whole life as his dad did before him. He passed away in 1980.
He farmed in a period of time when farm work went from being done by horses to farming with tractors. I'm sure he saw crop yields rise with the dawn of hybrid corn and the use of commercial fertilizer after World War II, but I would like to be able to see his reaction to 200 bpa corn and 60 bpa soybeans.
It would probably be a reaction of unbelief. Agriculture has come a long way over the last 35 years.
© Copyright 2015 DTN/The Progressive Farmer. All rights reserved.