Farming has been the backbone of the American way of life for years. Today’s technology is working to keep that a reality.
Mike Wojahn and his father Mel farm 800 acres in the gently rolling prairie of southwestern Minnesota near Windom, a small town of 4,400 people located 30 miles north of Iowa and 60 miles east of South Dakota. This summer, they will tackle a big project: putting up a 12,000-bushel grain bin.
At 27 feet in diameter and 24 feet tall, the steel tower will dwarf the 3,000-bushel bins nearby, which were more than sufficient for the family farm back when Mike was a child. “Because we’re growing more corn, we had to have a place to put it,” says Mike. “Today, I wouldn’t conceive of putting up a 3,000- bushel bin. It’s not worth the hassle.”
The Wojahns have added bin after bin to the family farm as their corn yields have increased over time. Mel started with two small corn cribs made of wood and chicken wire. Today, the new bin will join several neat rows of steel bins ranging from 3,000 to 8,000 bushels. “I never expected it,” says Mel. “It just became a necessity: What do I do with this extra corn?”
Advances in technology have brought increased opportunity to the Wojahns and other farmers. Corn yields stand at record national averages of 151 bushels per acre, as do ethanol yields at 450 gallons per acre. And experts believe yields will double to 300 bushels and 1,000 gallons per acre in the decades to come.
Last year, the Wojahns produced 68,000 bushels of corn from 466 acres—a harvest of 146 bushels per acre. “We’re able to produce so many more bushels per acre compared to what our parents and grandparents got,” says Mike, a 55-year-old fourthgeneration farmer. “It’s really incredible.” His grandfather’s farm produced 30 bushels of corn per acre, while his father Mel got 60 bushels per acre in a good year.
Mel, 78, still uses the 1952 Allis Chalmers tractor he purchased when he first started farming, but little else about the Wojahn family farm remains the same. “Everything is different than when I started out, there’s no doubt about that,” says Mel, a thirdgeneration farmer. “Technology has changed so much. Global-positioning satellites [GPS], soil testing—all this, along with good management and hard work, has helped me to stay a farmer.”
Each generation of the Wojahn family has incorporated new technologies—from hybrid seeds to new planting and harvesting practices—into the way they farm, allowing each generation to increase the yields they reap.
Mel’s father Juluis came to Minnesota from Germany as a child in the late 1890s when his parents emigrated to join relatives who were already farming in the area. Juluis took over the nearly 160-acre family farm at age 16 when his father died and farmed it through the Great Depression.
The 30-bushels-per-acre corn yields for Juluis’ generation, says Mel, came not from technology but from the hard labor of planting and harvesting by hand. The seed Juluis planted came from the best of the previous year’s harvest, not with the help of a laboratory. In fact, Mel remembers his father collecting the biggest ears of corn each harvest to save as future seed. Instead of the commercial fertilizers now available, Juluis would simply apply livestock manure, rich in potassium and phosphorous, or plant sweet clover, a nitrogen-fixing legume, in the small grain to serve as fertilizer for next year’s crop. Instead of manmade herbicides, he used a hoe.
During harvest, Mel says his father would pick the corn by hand in the morning and shovel it into the grainery in the afternoon for later threshing, back-breaking labor far different from operating the air-conditioned tractors of today. “We’re talking some hot, dirty work,” says Mike. “Most farmers had big families because they needed the [bodies for] labor.” Mel is the oldest of seven children.
Then came machines that picked one row of corn at a time, followed by two-row pickers. Mel says a big day’s harvest was 20 wagonloads of ear corn, or about 140 bushels. Today, Mel and Mike can harvest more than 7,000 bushels in one day.
Mel took over the duties of the family farm from his father when he graduated high school, as was common practice in those days among eldest sons. Mel remembers first driving the tractor at age 10 while Juluis rode behind him on the grain binder. “I could steer but couldn’t push in the clutch, so Dad had a rope attached to the clutch to stop the tractor if needed,” he says.
When Mel bought a secondary farm from his father in 1955, 60 bushels per acre was considered to be an excellent crop. Yields improved to 100 bushels per acre as seed selection shifted from the field to the laboratory and hybrid crosses came to market. Like his father, Mel didn’t have any purchased fertilizer or weed killer available to him. Instead, he applied livestock manure and rotated fields between soybeans, alfalfa, oats and corn, because soybeans and alfalfa infused the soil with the nitrogen needed by his corn plants.
Mel planted his 1940s corn rows straight using a wire planter, a machine pulled behind the tractor that followed a guide wire with knots every 40 inches. The planter would drop three kernels in a hill whenever its feeder arm hit a knot. In the 1950s, he upgraded to a John Deere finger row planter, and harvested with a concave combine and 200-bushel wagon, removing the need for the ear corn pickers and shellers used by his father.
Harvests were quite different in the days before insect-resistant corn, back when root systems were poor. “At harvest time, you couldn’t find the row because the corn was leaning so bad,” says Mel. “You’d just get dizzy because it was falling everywhere.”
Mike was born in 1953 and started farming with Mel as soon as he was old enough to drive the tractor. He discovered he loved farm work. “When I was in high school, there was nothing else I ever wanted to do,” says Mike. “I loved farming. And you get to play with these big toys, all this big machinery.”
Mike graduated high school in 1971 and entered college to study animal science and learn how to better manage the farm. When the family couldn’t earn enough income from their existing land as inflation increased and corn prices remained flat, he began cash-renting a neighbor’s 200-acre farm across the road—a fortunate move coming right before the 1972 Soviet grain embargo doubled corn prices.
That year, thanks to an unusually warm spring, Mike’s corn tasseled very early—by July 4, a feat not repeated until 2007. He harvested 130 bushels per acre. Last year, under similar conditions, some of his acres were pushing 200 bushels.
Yields for Mike’s generation have been driven by knowledge and technology instead of manual labor as in previous generations. “My dad grew up in a generation where if you worked hard, you made it,” says Mike. “Today, farming is more about being an information manager: how and when to sell crops or livestock and buy inputs.”
His machines for planting and harvesting are bigger and more powerful, but Mike says his increased yield comes from the proper use of bioengineered seeds, chemicals, fertilizers and insecticides. “It’s made us become more like scientists,” he says.
Most of Mike’s corn seed has been bioengineered to be resistant to insects and drought. He uses a vacuum planter with satellite-guided steering to till and plant his fields in strips to better manage moisture and nutrients. And he has the ability to apply chemicals precisely using GPS and computerized sprayers.
Today, Mike and Mel can harvest thousands of bushels in a single day with their rotary combine and 600-bushel wagons. “It’s a joy to sit up there on the combine today and look down the rows,” says Mel. “No weeds on the field, a good crop standing straight and grain coming out of combine—it’s a wonderful feeling.”
‘EXCITING TIMES TO BE A FARMER’
Better corn yields have kept the Wojahn farm viable. Corn prices have passed $6 per bushel, yet corn’s purchasing power has still declined. “A bushel of corn will buy less today than when I started farming,” says Mike. “I have to raise more bushels per acre to make ends meet.”
The alternative would be for the Wojahns to expand the farm. “The problem with going for more acres is you need more machinery and more inputs, which takes more of your time and effort and money,” says Mike. “If you can get more out of each acre, you can live better that way.”
Mel expects yields to keep increasing as seed companies pour millions of dollars into research. “These are exciting times to be a farmer,” he says. “People are talking about 300 bushels per acre in years to come. I think it’s attainable. I really do.”
Times may be better, but the family farm will likely end with Mike’s generation. His only son Paul left farming behind when he graduated high school in 1998. “I couldn’t recommend farming as a job for my son at that time. We were not making money,” says Mike. “Now, things are looking good again. Today, my son might have stayed on the farm.”
Paul, now 28, currently works as a reinsurance broker in the Minneapolis suburbs, but still returns to the family farm to help with planting and harvest. “Farming is still in his blood,” says Mike.
Mike says he will continue to operate the family farm as long as he is able. “They say if you like what you are doing, it is never work,” says Mike. “We farm because we want to be out here. We love what we are doing.”
Equipped With The Latest
Today’s advanced equipment is a major factor in the increased yields now being experienced by farmers. From the horse-drawn plows of the 1900s to today’s planters and combines guided by satellites, advances in technology continue to make farming easier and more efficient.
“The speed we can get things done now is amazing,” says Kyle Samp, a third-generation farmer and Commodities Manager for POET Biorefining – Laddonia, Mo., 100 miles northwest of St. Louis. “All the equipment is bigger, faster, stronger, which allows us to spend less time in the field and more time managing the business.”
Wider planters with variable seeding and central commodity systems let farmers plant corn faster and more precisely. Two decades ago, Samp and his father Dale could plant 50 acres in a good day’s work with their eight-row planter. Today, their 16-row planter allows them to plant 120 acres in a single day.
Harvest is also faster today thanks to bigger combines. In the 1980s, the Samps used a four-row combine with a 100-bushel hopper that could shell 25 acres of corn in a day. Their current eight-row combine with a 350-bushel hopper shells 100 acres in the same time.
New precision-guidance systems use GPS to steer the tractor or combine through the field, allowing farmers to plant and harvest more accurately while reducing operator fatigue. “Satellite technology is what’s really driving the extra efficiency in planting and harvesting,” says Barry Nelson, Public Relations Manager for John Deere in Lenexa, Kan. “You gain immediate productivity when you put these on a machine.”
Such efficiencies keep family farms in business. “We’ve had to improve the efficiency of the way we farm to keep the farm viable for two people,” says Samp. “We keep finding more things to fine-tune—things we never even dreamed of.”
Meeting The Demands
There’s no doubt that new technology is increasing corn yields. National average corn yields doubled in the past 30 years from 75 to 150 bushels per acre thanks to improved breeding and agronomic practices. “We believe we’ll see another doubling of corn yield in 20 years,” says Mike Edgerton, Technology Lead on Ethanol and Quality Traits for Monsanto in St. Louis, Mo. “It’s a remarkable pace.”
But perhaps more importantly, technology is also improving the quality of yields. “We can grow not only more grain, but better grain,” says Russ Sanders, Marketing Director of Biofuels for Pioneer in Johnston, Iowa. “This is how we’ll meet the demands for food and fuel.”
Better corn can be bred faster and more efficiently through molecular markers that let breeders identify the best plants to cross without conducting years of field tests. And the recent mapping of the corn genome by research scientists will allow breeders to identify genes that confer advantages such as drought tolerance, nitrogen efficiency, and resistance to insects, mold or fungus, says Gary Wietgrefe, Bulk Equipment Specialist for Syngenta Seeds in Sioux Falls, S.D.
Research has also shifted to make corn plants more efficient sources of fuel and food. Seed companies are improving the starch and oil content of corn kernels to make them more fermentable for ethanol.
Ethanol yields currently average 450 gallons per acre of corn. Biotechnology and engineering advances promise to significantly increase yield.
“A lot of knowledge has reached critical mass,” says Mark Stowers, Vice President of Research and Development for Sioux Falls, S.D.-based POET. Process improvements in how corn starch is fermented, and the enzymes and micro-organisms used, have doubled ethanol productivity in the past two decades, he says. Today’s fermentation process produces 20 percent ethanol, pushing three gallons per bushel.
POET is also developing technologies to produce ethanol from the non-digestible fiber of the corn kernel, as well as the corncobs left in the field. “We are taking two corn waste products and using them for the feed stock to make ethanol,” says Stowers.
Cellulosic ethanol can produce another 60 gallons per acre. As technology continues to improve, Stowers says projections for 2022 are 900 gallons per acre from starch and another 150 gallons from cellulose—thus the potential for more than 1,000 gallons per acre.
“This essentially allows us to double the amount of ethanol produced on the same land that we process today,” he says. “A two-fold increase in productivity—that’s pretty exciting.”
Edgerton says specialty seed traits like “ethanol-friendliness” are helpful, yet today’s farmers can better focus on increasing the productivity of each acre. “Yield is still the best thing we can do to meet the growing twin demands of food and fuel,” he says. “Yield is a big deal.”