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300-bushel corn trend yields? Don't hold your breath

Agriculture.com Staff 02/21/2008 @ 10:00am

Annual corn yield contests produce some eye-catching numbers, though in most cases, the sky-high yields aren't farm- or even field-wide. Still, with contest entries well into the 300s, bushel-wise, it may seem yields are spiking at rates beyond the longer-term trend.

Don't let these monster yield numbers fool you. New research from University of Illinois (U of I) ag economists challenges the common notion that trend yields are increasing on a quicker clip than a decade or so ago. It's an issue with implications that stretch beyond the combine's auger, according to U of I ag economist Scott Irwin.

"This question is important not only to individual producers, but also to current policy debates about the amount of additional acreage that will be needed for corn production in the future to meet ethanol-driven demand growth," Irwin says.

Ultimately, Irwin and co-authors Mike Tannura (a former U of I economics graduate student) and fellow U of I ag economist Darrel Good say despite the recent widespread discussion of a steepening of the yield curve has a realistic basis but falls short of showing the overall industry trend.

"There has been a fairly widespread acceptance that a new and higher trend began in the mid-1990s, and it should be used as a starting point for estimating future yields," Irwin says. "We did not find evidence of a noticeable increase in the trend rate of yield growth for corn in Illinois, Iowa and Indiana was not yet evident in the data through 2007. Much of the increase in observed yields since 1996 has been the result of generally more favorable weather than experienced in the prior two decades.

"At the same time, there is some experimental evidence from university trials and anecdotal evidence from producers that stacked trait corn hybrids may be increasing corn yields."

Irwin uses the benchmark of 300 bushels per acre in fleshing out his team's theory that the yield curve hasn't steepened. In order to reach the 300-bushel mark for trend yield by 2030, for example, production would have to rise by the "unprecedented" amount of six bushels per acre per year.

Why, then, does the trend seem sharper today versus 20 years ago? Much has to do with Mother Nature, Irwin says, and this will continue to be the case in the future.

"More unfavorable weather for the development of corn followed in 1980, 1983, and 1988," he says. "Without taking a position on the existence of long-term weather cycles or the potential impacts of global warming, history certainly suggests a good deal of caution in projecting recent and favorable weather patterns into the future."

Annual corn yield contests produce some eye-catching numbers, though in most cases, the sky-high yields aren't farm- or even field-wide. Still, with contest entries well into the 300s, bushel-wise, it may seem yields are spiking at rates beyond the longer-term trend.

Looking further into the future, could 300 bushels per acre become the norm for corn yields? It's possible, says Iowa State University agronomist Roger Elmore. But, it won't happen anytime soon.

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