WACO – Science and technological advancements have made the Central Texas Blacklands region increase major crop yields over the past 50 years and helped feed a growing U.S. population, according to a Texas AgriLife Extension Service agronomist.
Dr. Travis Miller, Extension program leader and associate department head for soil and crop sciences at Texas A&M University, gave a historical look at production practices in the region at the recent Blackland Income Growth Conference in Waco.
“All of you being in this room today is significant,” Miller told the group of farmers. “You are here to learn and exchange ideas.”
There was renewed optimism among farmers at the meeting, many talking about the prospects for crops in 2012 amid high commodity prices and recent rainfall across the state.
“I think there’s enough moisture in the soil profile to get things going,” Miller said. “We just hope it doesn’t shut off and (inhibit) our chances for a profitable year.”
Turnout was high for the 50th year of the conference, attracting more than 400 farmers and ranchers from throughout Central Texas and abroad.
U.S. crop yields have more than doubled since the 1950s, Miller said. While planted acres have not changed much for corn over a 60-year period, per-acre yield has increased 430 percent. Soybean planted acres have seen dramatic growth, increasing from 15 million acres in the 1950s, to 74 million acres in 2011 with a 277 percent yield increase per harvested acre.
“Planted acres of wheat declined over that time period by about 24 percent, but U.S. farmers doubled the amount of wheat harvested,” Miller said. “We are currently producing two bushels of corn for every person on the face of the earth. Overall, this is a story to be proud of. The reason we have food on our table is due to the exponential growth due to increased productivity.”
The Texas Blacklands harvested more than 700,000 acres of wheat in 2007, which was cut significantly in 2011 due to the drought with just over 200,000 acres harvested.
“We’ve seen corn acres significantly increase, and wheat and sorghum acres decrease,” Miller said. “My goodness, weather has played a big role in yields for Blacklands crops through the years. One of the biggest challenges faced by Blacklands farmers is the variability in crop yield due to weather.”
Sorghum yields were 50 bushels in 1968 and 63 bushels in 2010.
Miller said major crop management advances since the 1950s include 2,4-D (first used in 1946), atrazine in the 1960s, “and dozens of herbicides introduced that made huge advances in sustainability in yields of crops,” Miller said. He said genetic advances in corn traits include erect leaf angle, allowing up to 30,000 plants per acre to be grown compared to 5,000 plants per acre grown in the 1950s.
“That means enhanced stalk strength, and a lot of work has been done in herbicide tolerance,” he said. “And in 2009 we had the corn genome decoded.”
Miller said corn plants are now more nutrient efficient. In 1964, 125 pounds of fertilizer were used to the acre and in 1982 that amount grew to 300 pounds.
“In 2007, 225 pounds were applied to the acre,” he said.
Miller said nitrogen use has become more efficient, with rates peaking at about 125 pounds per acre ” in about 1984 during a time when farmers averaged about 100 bushels per acre.”
That number has remained flat through 2011 when national yields averaged close to 150 bushels per acre, he said.
“While yields are going up, the pounds of nutrients used are going down,” Miller said. “We have become more efficient in nutrient use.”
Miller said Blacklands grain production has been enhanced thanks to precision planting equipment, which has “made a huge difference in achieving uniform stands.”
Larger, faster, more efficient tractors and harvesting equipment also assist with higher yields and harvesting abilities, Miller said.