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Farm economy could hinge on corn harvest

A farmer dumps harvested corn into a semi prior to transferring it to storage. This was near the Tazewell-Woodford County lines on old Rt. 24 on Tuesday, Oct. 3.
Tim Alexander
A farmer dumps harvested corn into a semi prior to transferring it to storage. This was near the Tazewell-Woodford County lines on old Rt. 24 on Tuesday, Oct. 3.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is projecting that Illinois farmers will harvest an average of 198 bushels per acre (bpa) of corn in 2023, which is 16 bushels per acre lower than USDA’s final harvest estimate for 2022. If realized, the per-acre yield for corn in Illinois would be the lowest since 2020. The loss of yield comes at a very bad time for farmers: lower prices paid for corn, decreased export demand, higher interest rates and a large increase in the price of fertilizers for this year’s crop have many analysts concerned that farm profitability and income will take a nosedive, leaving some smaller producers in dire financial straits.

However, field canvassers with Bloomington-based agricultural cooperative GROWMARK are seeing a different outcome: Illinois farmers will harvest 213 bu./acre this fall, according to data gleaned from 282 field location samples. This would put the 2023 state corn yield on par with the 214 bpa farmers harvested in 2022.

The impact of low corn yield on the rural economy can be significant, according to the USDA. In addition to increasing the number of farm bankruptcies, consumers can feel the effects via higher food prices resulting from higher demand for corn-based products, including animal feed used by the livestock industry. Coupled with other market factors placing downward pressure on 2023 U.S. corn prices, low yields can be a recipe for disaster for many farming operations. In this scenario, the amount of bushels per acre harvested by farmers takes on even greater importance.

Agronomists: kernel population will tell the story

To find out how much of a difference an extra 15 bpa of corn can have on a producer’s bottom line, we turned to GROWMARK field sales agronomist Tracy Heuerman for answers.

“The 2023 cropping season will probably have a little tighter margin for most farms due to the high input costs that went into this crop and lower grain prices. When you look at a difference of 10 or 15 bpa at even today’s crop prices for corn ($4.43 per bushel based on current delivery prices at press time, according to Danvers Farmers Elevator at press time), you’re talking about a $60, $70 or $80 difference per acre. That could potentially be the difference between breaking even or making money for a farm this year,” said Heuerman.

Field data collected by FS for their projections, including estimated yield and number of locations sampled, was uploaded to their FS Agronomy Yield Analyzer app. The tool clusters the map points, consolidated by a specific geographic area, to calculate estimated yield. The data is constantly changing as agronomists input new information.

“The data that went into our yield projection was inputted by our FS crop specialists,” said Heuerman. “We basically look for a couple of pieces of information to go into our projection. One is the number of rows (of kernels) per ear; another would be the kernels’ length. We’re also looking at the ear population, (but) the biggest difference in our projection compared to USDA’s might be in the number of kernels per bushel.”

Heuerman feels that USDA is underestimating kernel size and weight for Illinois corn based on GROWMARK’s firsthand field observations, leading to the discrepancy in the yield projections.

She said their inspections confirm that drought conditions in June followed by dry periods in July and August brought less damage to kernels than initially feared, especially in central Illinois.

“From what I am hearing farmers are very pleased with their yields, which are potentially a little higher than what they were expecting,” Heuerman said. “In the Decatur area there is a 221 (bpa) estimation, and as you go over to Peoria it’s at 233. In the Champaign area we’re seeing 220s and 210s.”

If GROWMARK’s 2023 corn yield projections ring true, this would put area yields on par with last year’s harvests of 224.5 bpa in Peoria County, 229.9 bpa in Tazewell County, 232.3 bpa in McLean County and 235.7 bpa in Woodford County.

What others are saying

In addition to USDA and GROWMARK’s corn yield projections, Pro Farmer’s annual field tour found that Illinois farmers should harvest 190.71 bpa, based on delivery of 90,000 seeds per bushel. This compares with projections issued by the Danvers Farmers Elevator (DFE) using data gleaned from their August field tour of 125 corn plots in Woodford, Tazewell and McLean counties.

Also based on delivery of 90,000 seeds per bushel, DFE’s study determined that farmers would see a raw average yield of just 197.83 bpa. However, DFE’s estimate can be adjusted to just over 225 bpa assuming delivery of 79,000 seeds per acre, based on tour average test weight.

A tractor hauling two grain carts pulls away from the Eureka Grainland elevator scale house on Tuesday, Oct. 3.
Tim Alexander
A tractor hauling two grain carts pulls away from the Eureka Grainland elevator scale house on Tuesday, Oct. 3.

“It was a little variable from field to field, but we were a little bit ahead on kernel fill. It was really across the board,” said Joe Daniels, general manager of DFE, which has elevators located in Danvers, Mackinaw, Congerville and Deer Creek. “I think the majority of the ground that we were dealing with will yield better than the assumptions made during our crop tour. I wouldn’t be shocked to see (area yields) at 225 to 230, but we are definitely going to have to have (other area yields) better than that to carry that average.

“I think that is possible at this point, and given commodity prices right now, that’s something that farmers really need.”

Corn for grain coming into DFE’s elevators seems to be in good shape so far, according to Daniels. “Good, clean corn and we’re not seeing any fungal issues,” he said. “So far, guys are feeling good about what’s coming through.”

Kernel counts are generally higher in 2023 than they were in 2022, according to the University of Illinois Department of Crop Sciences. “Ear counts this year may be slightly lower than they were last year, but if kernels can fill to at least normal weights, some increase in statewide yield may be possible,” reported Emerson Nafziger and Giovani Preza Fontes in an article published by the U of I’s Bulletin, The 2023 corn crop as the season winds down.

“The closer to maturity the crop is, the easier it is to estimate final kernel weight, of course. Under highly favorable conditions during grain-filling, kernels may get larger than normal, and there may be 75,000 or fewer kernels per bushel. In contrast, kernels per bushel may be 90 or 95 thousand in a drought year,” the U of I researchers explained.

Monitoring corn harvest expectations

Farmers can check GROWMARK-FS’ Agronomy Yield Analyzer app, which also works on a web browser, for the cooperative’s most up-to-date yield estimates by visiting

Tim Alexander is a correspondent for WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.