There is an argument being made that by 2050, we will need to raise nearly 550 bushel per acre corn in order to meet the world’s food needs. Not coincidentally, 550 bushel corn is the yield we find possible in highly managed fields. So at least there’s that: the possibility. But there’s also this, the current reality: the national average for yield is around 180 bushel per acre.
I’m not sure if we’ll actually need 550 bushel corn by 2050—I can imagine scenarios in which this is true and scenarios in which this turns out to be an overestimate. And I’m not going to wade into any discussion of population projections today. What I am sure about is that as the world’s population grows, so must our average yield. I’m also sure that chasing that high yield number is, for 99.9% of us, a high risk, low reward pursuit.
So where does that leave us?
For now, it leaves us in need of a roadmap as the pursuit of higher yields pushes us right into the Law of Diminishing Returns where even incremental yield increases get increasingly expensive. And it leaves us in need of realistic goals that make for yield increases without breaking us.
The roadmap first:
The big differences between your fields and the fields that yield 500+ bushel corn is infrastructure, meaning soil type and nutrient levels among other things. The high management/high yield fields, simply put, have soil that can support such yield. Getting your fields to this point is a noble goal, but a tough one, and an expensive one. And I probably don’t need to tell you that our current economic climate isn’t ripe for making investments that won’t pay off in the foreseeable future.
But we do need to build that infrastructure in our own fields.
Which is where the realistic goals come into play:
The goal isn’t 550 bushel yield. The goal is to get you above the mean with a higher level of efficiency. This will take leveraging opportunities in your operation to increase efficiencies and build infrastructure. Whether it’s nitrogen management, water use, labor or equipment costs, the use of prescriptions, hybrids, or their placement—somewhere in there is something we can use to help you reach the realistic goal of modest yield increases to keep you above the mean and in business.
This isn’t throwing out the idea that in less than 35 years, we’ll need to average 550 bushel corn. If we can achieve modest but consistent gains in yield of 5-7% per year, we’ll meet that number well before 2050.
Of course, even these modest gains will require innovations and much care. As is, we see about a 1.5% increase in yield year to year, most of which is due to advances in genetics. The average trend line shows about a 2.5% increase year to year—this is the mean I’d like to see our growers stay ahead of, which is achievable by leveraging opportunities in your current ways of doing things. To attain that 5-7% increase however, we’ll need to build new solutions and answers, much like when the Transcontinental Railroad hit the Rockies: they didn’t know what they were going to do once they hit a mountain, but trusted that the problem might suggest the answer. And lo and behold, we ended up going through instead of around, inventing new technologies, techniques, and processes as the situation demanded.
Compared to highly managed fields that yield 550 bushels right now, we’re still in the initial phases of developing the necessary infrastructure in our fields. That’s okay. We have the time to build, and we need to do it smartly, to ensure that we’re building as is actually needed and to ensure that we don’t go broke going for it before anyone even sees 2050.