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Corn Belt moves north as planting practices shift

Corn Belt moves north as planting practices shift

Climatologist Elwynn Taylor

Climatologist Elwynn Taylor discusses changing climate and planting trends at the Peoria Farm Show.

PEORIA, Ill. — Corn growers who used to be the center of it all aren’t today. The Corn Belt is on the move, a climatologist told farmers attending the Greater Peoria Farm Show Nov. 27.

In 1950, the center of the Corn Belt in was Springfield, Ill. Half the corn produced in the “belt” was grown north of Springfield, half south; half west and half east of the state’s capital city, said Elwynn Taylor, Iowa State University Extension climatologist.

From 1964-69, Peoria — about 75 miles north — was the center of the Corn Belt, but as the climate and planting practices shifted, the central location for corn acres jumped northwest to

Iowa City, Iowa, in 2012 and continues to trend north.

“Forty years ago, if someone told me Minnesota would be the top corn producing state in the Corn Belt, I would have laughed,” Taylor said.

Corn acres are rapidly increasing in North and South Dakota as well as Minnesota, he said. Part of the change is due to climate shifts.

“Climate is always changing,” he said.

However, Illinois farmers are still masters in corn growing. USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service data in November showed that Illinois led in corn production in the Corn Belt, breaking its state record with a 210 bu./acre average this year.

“It’s the highest it’s ever been,” Taylor said.

Iowa compares at 198 bu./acre this year; Missouri, 145 bu./acre; and national, 178.9 bu./acre.

Washington state still sees higher corn yield averages (225 bu./acre this year), and Taylor doesn’t expect that to change. It’s the cooler nights that make the difference, he said. In the evenings, there is a 30-degree drop from daytime temperatures during silking and dent stage. In Illinois, that difference is only 20 degrees during the grain filling period.

The corn takes more time to mature and produces higher yields when growing degree days are spread over more calendar days, Taylor said.

Others are noticing the same detail, including Randy Dowdy, a world-record holder for corn yields in who has harvested 503 bu./acre crops at his farm in Georgia. At the Peoria Farm Show, Dowdy said that keeping the corn cooler at nights during its development stages increases yields.

“He sprinkles cold well water to bring the temperature down,” Taylor said.

While Taylor recognizes that choosing the right hybrid is important, the success of new hybrids “is not independent of weather,” he said, showing yield charts to prove his point.

Weather is cyclical, he said, with about 25 years of good weather, in general, and 25 years of volatile weather followed by 25 years of consistent weather. Illinois is currently in the volatile weather period, he said.

About every 89 years, for the past 600, there is a drought period that is the worst of the century. A devastating drought struck U.S. farmers in 1936, after the worst one in a century 89 years earlier in 1847, he said. That trend going forward would indicate that the drought of the century would be in 2025. It might be a year or two either way, Taylor said.

“Mother Nature doesn’t read Elwynn’s book,” he joked.

He encouraged farmers to record their yields and look at the weather correlations. That information is helpful in making marketing decisions. He encourages charting a farm’s yield history. Money can be made by interpreting charts.

When the USDA puts out its yield estimates, it always affects the market significantly. But they have only been correct four times since they started doing the estimates in 1964.

“In 1992, ’93, ’94 and ’95 they were way wrong,” he said.

Farmers who can look at weather and can better project if the USDA estimate is high or low will have an advantage in marketing, Taylor said.

“You can understand the crop better than anyone else,” Taylor said.

Those on Wall Street can take advantage of the minute ups and downs in prices, but farmers can gauge a season better with their experience.

“If you pay attention, you can tell where the markets will go,” he said.

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Phyllis Coulter is Northern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.

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