A trip through time: Corn yields and farming 1944 vs. 2007

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SALEM, Ohio – If Mother Nature cooperates and farmers get their way, the anticipated 90.5 million acres of corn to be sown this spring will go down as the largest U.S. acreage planted to corn since 1944, according to USDA projections.
It’s a staggering point to ponder, not only because of potentially record-setting yields, but also because in the 63 years it took to come full-circle in acreage, ag technology has progressed light years.

Going back in time

Though many more Americans lived on working farms in the 1940s, there were no 20-row planters or sophisticated combines with yield monitors. Many farms were just getting comfortable farming with tractors, with some 1.3 million tractors in use nationwide, according to the John Deere Web site.
Unlike today, those early Deeres, Molines and Masseys didn’t have air-conditioned cabs, power steering and a whole slew of pull-behind implements to make farming the land any easier.
As farmers prepared their ground for planting in April 1944, the U.S. was engaged full-blown in World War II. The government was rationing farm machinery, meat, gasoline and other household and farm staples. Not all farms had electricity.
Rain, snow and a cold March delayed farmwork in every state, according to the front page of the April 28, 1944, Farm and Dairy.
Some farmers were getting nervous, fearing not getting crops planted at all or anticipating drought conditions that would pinch their already slim supplies. There was expected to be very little, if any, carryover in corn nationwide.
Across the U.S., farmers were reducing the number of pigs and chickens they kept in order to keep their dairy and beef cows to feed their families.
From the May 12, 1944, Farm and Dairy: Corn is disappearing faster than at any past time on record. Ohio farmers sold or used 16 percent more corn in the first three months of 1944 than in the same period of the year previous. Ohio farmers had nearly 10 percent more corn-consuming livestock on farms.
Hybrid research was picking up, though, and seemed a possibility to pace production with demand. An Ohio State Extension agronomist wrote the average corn yield 1935-1942 was 47 bushels per acre, and that it was possible the U.S. would harvest excellent crops this season.
Farmers beat the weather and the growing season turned out to be a good one. USDA statistics say farmers harvested just more than 85 million acres of the corn they put out, with an average of 33 bushels per acre.
Average price nationwide was $1.03 per bushel, according to USDA.

Fast forward

Now, as farmers come off a cold snap and roller-coaster weather, they’re playing the same “hurry up and wait” game farmers played 63 years ago.
For the week ending April 29, 2007, USDA said only 23 percent of the corn crop is planted nationwide, lagging well behind behind the five-year average of 42 percent.
But even with the delays, farmers making rounds through their fields are doing so in higher horsepower tractors with sophisticated tillage tools and drills that plant more rows per pass. And the tractors have headlights to accommodate night owls trying to get those last few acres groomed.
The seeds they’re sowing have high-technology coatings and treatments to keep root worms and other pests at bay, plus the benefits of vigorous hybrid research and endless choices when it comes to herbicide and pesticide treatments.
That’s not to say farming is any easier today than it was 63 years ago.
USDA says if average yields of 152 bushels per acre materialize this fall, and all 90.5 million acres are planted, corn growers will see the largest crop on record: 13.756 billion bushels.
(Reporter Andrea Zippay welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419 or by e-mail at azippay@farmanddairy.com.)

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