Chester County Ag Notes: It’s Corn Season!

Head down any road in Chester County and it wont'be long till you hit cornfields. They're a huge part of our economy in ways you might not expect.

Corn is easy to recognize as you drive around the countryside. We don’t live in Oklahoma but we can still sing “the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye.” The mostly dried up corn fields we see at the moment in Chester County will be harvested for the dried grain. Around 27% of our corn has been harvested green for silage and is used for feeding mainly to dairy cows.

Nationally corn is a huge important crop with around 94 million acres planted in 2016.  The U.S. corn crop at $67.3 billion represents 17% of total U.S. farm sales. We are easily the largest corn producer in the world, exporting 10-20% of our production.

Corn grain provides the main energy ingredient (95%) for livestock but the huge growth in demand for the crop has come from ethanol production. In 1980 61% of the total crop went for livestock feed but by 2016 this had declined to 46%. Virtually no corn was produced for ethanol in 1980 but by 2008 23% of the crop provided the feedstock for ethanol production and as much as 43% by 2016. The remaining 11% is used to produce seed, food products (human!), starch, high fructose syrup (HFCS), corn oil, industrial alcohol and many other products.  

Soon framers will harvest and store their corn yields and then look to plant again next spring.

Meeting this huge increase in demand would not have been possible without continued increases in yield. The increases are almost unbelievable – 21 bushels in 1930, 91 in 1980, 137 in 2000 and a projected 175 this year – an eight-fold increase to enable production to increase from 1.7 billion bushels to 14.2 billion bushels this year. Plant breeding coupled with attention to plant spacing, fertilization and crop protection have all contributed to this incredible increase. Ongoing plant breeding and research are indicating that yields can increase further.

Pennsylvania doesn’t even produce enough corn to satisfy all our own corn grain needs. However since we have a large livestock segment a third of our corn acres are devoted to producing corn silage for livestock feed particularly for dairy.

Chester County is one of the top five corn producing counties in the state with 368 farmers growing corn for grain on over 28,300 acres and 276 farmers producing corn forage or “green chop” on a further 10,400 acres. At present the corn grain price averages around $3.40/bushel and farmers must watch their production costs very carefully to cover their costs.

Grain market prices don’t affect the farmers who produce corn silage for their own livestock. Penn State emphasizes the importance of the crop which “provides livestock producers with a high-yielding, relatively consistent source of forage and the animals with a highly digestible and palatable feed. Corn silage produces more energy per acre than any other crop grown in Pennsylvania.”

Like every other aspect of successful farming today producers must pay attention to every detail of production from choice of hybrid, plant population, planting date and fertility programs to the timing of harvest and storage in the silo. Clearly corn is indeed an important crop not only in the Corn Belt but to our local farmers in Chester County.


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