In late October this year I drove to central Iowa to visit a college friend, Bob Haskins, and his wife, Marilyn, at her family homestead farm. During the 900-mile trip, corn fields dominated the landscape through Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and of course Iowa. I was struck by the enormity of corn production in America while at the same time was curious how this was accomplished.
My friends must have read my mind because they arranged for me to meet their farming friends, of Hanson Farms, who let me ride in their modern combine harvester machine while completing the day's corn harvest after dark. This provided me a chance to learn how farming is done on a grand scale. The combine harvester performs three functions. First, reaping cuts multiple rows of corn are close to the ground. Second, the stalks and husks are removed leaving the ear of corn. Lastly, threshing separates the kernels from the cob and moves the kernels by auger to a storage bin in the combine, while the husks and stalks are dropped to the ground or baled for animal bedding.
The original combine harvesters of the 1850s were pulled by horses but today's combine is powered by diesel engines which may consume 25 gallons of fuel per hour and harvest 13 acres of corn, soybeans or other grain such wheat per hour.
In late October this year the author rode in this John Deere combine machine while harvesting corn in an Iowa field after dark.
Photo by Robert M. Ungerer
During my ride, I sat on a cushioned seat in a heated cab as the driver used a global positioning system (GPS) to steer the combine straight along a quarter mile long field. Pointed metal headers, resembling huge teeth on a comb, projecting from the front of the combine, cut the corn and wire sensors on the headers ensured the combine remained centered over the rows of corn. During my ride, since steering was done automatically via the GPS, the driver had time to explain how corn is prepared for market sale. Grain elevators store corn at 15 percent moisture content but during my ride the combine computer determined the corn being harvested was at 18.5 percent moisture content which would rot when stored. For this reason Hanson Farms employees dry their own corn in 12,000 bushel storage bins with propane heaters. Three augers in the bin move grain from the bottom to the top to ensure even, complete drying of all the grain. The augers also mix the bin contents similar to stirring a cake mix with a spatula.
Once the corn is dried it can be sold when the price is right. As an example, my friends lease 135 acres of land to Hanson Farms who raise corn or other crops like soybeans. The land is tilled, planted, fertilized, protected with herbicides and insecticides and harvested. If this corn was sold on Oct. 24 at the settled futures price of $4.42/bushel and the 135 acres produced an average of 180 bushel/acre, gross earnings of $107,406 could be realized by Hanson Farms. This year corn harvest nation wide is expected to be high so supply will be high resulting in a low selling price. In 2012 corn harvest was low due to drought so corn sold for more than $7 a bushel. Large farms may plant and harvest 1,800 acres (640 acres equals one square miles) of corn or other grain. Earnings can be high but expenses are high also. The combine I rode in cost $350,000 and the tractor to pull fertilizer tanks cost $250,000.
Additional costs for seed, fertilizer, herbicide, fuel, machine maintenance and labor all add up. Five-year banks loans to purchase equipment are available but fortunately, interest is about 3 percent. Finally, the farmer is at the mercy of the weather. A wet field in the spring delays planting, too much rain after planting may cause seed to rot, drought in the summer causes small yields and wind may lay the crop down. Fortunately for the world, farmers love what they do so they accept the risk of weather and take on debt because by nature they are optimistic.