Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Corn Produced for Grain in the United States, 1997

State Harvested acres thousand acres Total production thousand bushels
Nebraska 8,725 1,151,700
South Dakota 3,400 333,200
Kansas 2,700 386,1000
Colorado 1,030 150,380
Texas 907 167,814
North Dakota 605 59,895
Oklahoma 129 20,606
New Mexico 85 14,875
Wyoming 57 7,695
Montana 14 1,890
Great Plains total 17,651 2,294,155
U.S. total production 73,720 9,365,574

Corn is the only major cereal crop whose origin can be claimed by the Western Hemisphere. Centuries before Europeans "discovered" the Americas, corn played a major role in the Mayan, Aztec, and Incan civilizations in Central and South America. The earliest archaeological evidence of corn was found in Mexico's Valley of Tehuacan and was dated at about 5000 B.C.

Those who appreciate the importance of this grassy species to American agriculture sometimes refer to corn as the King of American Crops. Native Americans more commonly used the term maize, "that which sustains life." The Swedish botanist Karl Linnaeus gave corn its botanical name, Zea mays L. The Greek word zeo also means "to live." After seeing maize for the first time, European settlers called it "Indian corn" in an attempt to compare the crop to the small grains grown in Europe that they called corn. Following corn's "discovery," the crop quickly spread to Europe, Africa, and Asia. Today, most of the world still refers to the crop as maize, but the United States simply calls it corn.

Corn has been grown in various areas of the Great Plains for many centuries. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, for example, Pawnee Indian women had ten pure varieties of corn. In today's modern agriculture, corn continues to play an important role throughout the ten states that comprise the American Great Plains. Approximately 24 percent of the total U.S. corn acreage and production occurs in the Great Plains, with more than 80 percent of that accounted for by Kansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota. Nebraska, itself, has nearly nine million acres under corn each year and an annual total production of more than one billion bushels of the golden grain. Corn production in the Canadian Great Plains is more limited because corn is not well adapted to the cooler and shorter growing seasons there. In 1997 Manitoba produced about 60,000 acres of corn for grain, with a total production of about six million bushels. Corn production in Alberta and Saskatchewan is even less extensive. Corn production is also limited in the dry western Plains states of New Mexico, Wyoming, and Montana.

Corn produced in the Great Plains, like that of the rest of the U.S. Corn Belt, is used in many ways. The majority of the crop is used as a feed grain for livestock and poultry production. About 20 percent of the grain is exported to other countries around the world. The remainder of the corn produced in the Great Plains is processed into various food and industrial products such as ethanol fuel, high fructose syrup, food grade and industrial starches, and human foodstuffs.

Many of the factors that influence the production of corn vary dramatically throughout the Great Plains. Because of the extensive north-south orientation of the Great Plains, one of the most variable factors is the length and warmth of the available growing season. Corn planting can begin in March in the warmer areas of the Southern Great Plains, while significant corn planting efforts do not typically begin in the Northern Great Plains until early May because of cooler temperatures. Harvesting of corn for grain typically begins as early as late August in Texas and as late as October in North Dakota. At first glance, the early harvest times in Texas seem odd in that much of the available growing season is not used. However, planting date and hybrid selection are managed by corn producers to avoid the occurrence of the critical corn pollination stage during the hottest, most stressful times of midsummer. Consequently, corn pollination in Texas occurs in mid- to late June rather than the relatively hotter late July to early August period.

The second major effect of differing growing season lengths is on the adaptability of corn hybrid maturities. Producers in the Southern Great Plains can grow corn hybrids with a much longer maturity cycle than those in the Northern Great Plains. Compared to hybrids that require less time to mature, the long season hybrids typically have greater yield potential, are taller and leafier plants, and have greater tolerance to disease and insect stress.

Seasonal rainfall varies more from east to west than from north to south across the Great Plains, with the majority of the Great Plains area rainfall patterns generally unable to supply the twenty to twenty-five inches of water required to produce a corn crop. Consequently, irrigation is a very important crop management technology and tool for corn production throughout the Great Plains. More than 50 percent of the harvested acreage and 65 percent of the total grain production in the Great Plains is produced under irrigation. In fact, only the Dakotas do not produce a major share of their corn under irrigation. The impact of irrigation on corn grain yields is dramatic for the whole region (157 versus 75 bushels per acre, irrigated versus dryland), but especially so for Colorado, Texas, and New Mexico, where dryland corn grain yields average less than 30 percent that of irrigated corn.

R. L. Nielsen

Purdue University

Hardeman, Nicholas P. Shucks, Shocks, and Hominy Blocks. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981.

Sprague, G. F., and J. W. Dudley, eds. Corn and Corn Improvement. Madison, WI: American Society of Agronomy, Monograph 18: 1988.

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