When Purdue University was founded in 1869, the average field corn yield in Indiana was 26 bushels per acre. Just over 150 years later, Indiana set the state record yield average at 195 bushels per acre in 2021 – more than the national average!
“Corn is a predominant crop in Indiana due to the climate, landscape and productive soils. Corn can yield a much higher amount of grain per acre of land compared to most other US crops and can be used for a large number of different products, ”explained Dan Quinnassistant professor of agronomy and Purdue Extension corn specialist.
Corn, often referred to as maize, was a staple of the Native American diet and a ceremonial item. It was one of the “three sisters”: corn, beans and squash. Corn stalks provided the trellis for intertwined beans, which added nitrogen to the soil. Squash spread along the ground, acting as living mulch.
From the mid-1800s until the late 1930s, farmers usually saved seed after harvest each fall, planted open-pollinated varieties, and pollinated their corn with the same variety to produce a crop of the same type – or let insects, birds or wind pollinate their plants. High-quality seed was difficult to produce since both of these processes are difficult to control. The introduction and adoption of hybrids deliberately crossed for desirable traits improved stress tolerance and yield potential.
During the mid-1950s, continued improvements in corn hybrids, combined with rapid adoption of mechanization, synthetic fertilizer, and greater attention to farm and soil management practices resulted in higher yields. Today, farmers continue to increase corn yields every year using transgenic hybrids, where genetic material is introduced into corn plants using molecular technologies. They plant seed with traits such as resistance to insect pests and weed-killing herbicides, while adopting environmentally sustainable practices such as reduced or no tillage.