Test Your Knowledge of Modern Farming

Grain Bins

If you drive more than a few miles in any direction in South Dakota, you’ll encounter a farming or ranching operation. Unless you’ve lived on a farm recently, you may not know exactly what you’re seeing. These are a few of the items you might wonder about.

  1. Grain bins
    The shiny metal structures in various shapes you see have replaced silos for grain storage. They’re lighter and less expensive—much like metal and vinyl backyard sheds. Because of fluctuating commodity prices, more farmers are opting for on-farm storage so they can sell when the time is right. Some farmers store silage in these bins. Silage is chopped corn—cobs, stalks and leaves—which is fermented for preservation and digestibility and then fed to livestock.
  2. Irrigators
    Those spindly metal structures in fields that look like giant futuristic spiders? They’re basically enormous sprinklers, similar to a sprinkler you might use in your own yard, but loaded with technology and sized appropriately for a field. In areas where moisture is insufficient, farmers use irrigators to deliver water to crops. While tremendous advances have been made in plant breeding to create drought-resistant hybrids, some areas are chronically dry and crops need irrigation annually.
  3. Incredibly even rows
    You’ll see crops planted in perfect rows, which can resemble beautiful patterns, especially where the land gently rises and falls. How do farmers do that? Precision ag technologies help farmers use consistent spacing between rows—not because it looks great, but because it makes crop management and harvest easier. Plus, as home gardeners know, even rows help with spacing and garden management.
  4. Huge equipment
    It’s not just your imagination—farm equipment IS getting bigger. In the 1970s, 12-row and 16-row planters were common. Today, many farmers use 24-row, 36-row and even 48-row planters. This increases efficiency—just as today’s larger lawnmowers help you get more done in less time. What you can’t see until you get in the cab is how much technology is at work during planting, application and harvest, helping farmers conserve resources and increase sustainability.
  5. Corn stalks left in fields
    After harvest, why are some fields completely bare while others are full of stalks and stems? What you’re seeing is conventional tillage (clearing and disking) versus no-till (leaving leftover plant material in the field—which is like mulch in your garden or on your lawn). In reality, there’s an entire spectrum of tillage practices farmers can use, depending on their soils, weather and crop rotation.
  6. What are those crops?
    Most people recognize corn plants. But U.S. farmers grow hundreds of different crops. In South Dakota, along with corn you’ll see soybeans, sorghum, wheat, sunflowers, alfalfa, oats and barley. Other less-common crops include flaxseed, millet and dry, edible beans.

Understanding what we see on farms helps us become more comfortable with modern farming methods. If you have questions about other things you’re seeing, email us at questions@sdcorn.org today.

  • Twenty years ago, U.S. farmers were feeding an average of 85 people each. Today that number has jumped to 155.
  • Over the last 20 years, U.S. corn production grew 80 percent, while:
    • Land use decreased by 37 percent.
    • Soil loss decreased by 69 percent.
    • Energy use decreased by 37 percent.
    • Emissions per bushel decreased 30 percent.
  • Growers raise 70 percent more corn per pound of fertilizer than 35 years ago.
  • Farmers today grow five times more corn than they did in the 1930s.
  • The average yield per acre has grown from 24 bushels in 1931 to 164 today. Contest winners have averaged over 600 bushels per acre.
  • Reduced tillage prevents erosion. Its adoption in South Dakota has increased from less than five percent in 1985 to 35 percent in 2010.
  • One acre of corn removes eight tons of greenhouse gases.
  • Thanks to ongoing innovations in seed, equipment and fertilizer technology, the amount of emissions per bushel generated to produce corn fell 30 percent in the last 20 years.
  • Farmers use Global Positioning System (GPS) technology to guide equipment so overlapping doesn’t occur.

Scientists have proven that corn grown in South Dakota actually adds carbon to the soil by virtue of the unique Northern Plains climate and increased use of minimum tillage practices by farmers.

  • Over the 25 years of the study, South Dakota corn average yields have increased at a rate of 2.29 bushels per acre per year.
  • Higher yields mean more crop residue left behind. The increased amount of residue has a significant impact in building soil carbon.
  • Our cooler Northern Plains climate plays a key role in the equation due to mineralization, a process by which organic matter and humus break down in the soil. When there are cooler temperatures, the mineralization rates are lower.
  • No-tillage adoption in South Dakota has increased from less than five percent in 1985 to 35 percent in 2010. Minimum and no-tillage production means there is more residue left behind in cornfields. Those practices also mean fewer trips across a field, resulting in even greater environmental benefits.

South Dakota farmers are protecting natural resources.

  • Advances in seed science, machinery and precision farming tools help farmers grow more with simplified weed control and reduced chemical applications.
  • One acre of corn removes eight tons of harmful greenhouse gas, more than what is produced by your car annually.
  • Because of innovative fertilizer application methods and frequent soil testing, American farmers grow 87 percent more corn per ounce of fertilizer.
  • Planting cover crops and/or moving to longer crop rotations allows farmers to naturally manage soil fertility, quality, water, weeds and pests – and improve farm habitat for wildlife.

Reduced tillage conserves soil.

  • Reduced or no-till planting conserves soil and water and reduces soil erosion and fuel usage.
  • No-tillage adoption in South Dakota has increased from less than five percent in 1985 to 35 percent in 2010.
  • Reduced tillage and other farm management practices have decreased soil erosion by 37 percent in 20 years.

South Dakota farmers protect water quality.

  • Farmers work hard to protect streams, ponds, rivers, lakes and wetlands. By keeping water edges in their natural state, we help control runoff and erosion and allow water insects, animals and fish to thrive.
  • Cover cropping helps reduce soil erosion.
  • Natural vegetation “filter strips” intercept and trap pollutants and soil from fields before they reach waterways.
  • Furrow alignment reduces the amount of runoff from rain or irrigation.
  • Diversion channels send runoff to safe areas and prevent excessive erosion.
  • Buffer strips and grass waterways in ditches capture sediments or nutrients and prevent erosion.

Drain tiling in a field is similar to drainage around your home — diverting water where it is not wanted. It’s a way to manage excess water and to keep nutrients in the fields. Tiling helps with:

  • Reducing storm water runoff and downstream flooding through absorption.
  • Reducing water damage to public roads.
  • Decreasing crop loss due to drowning.
  • Increasing soil surface temperatures, which helps seeds germinate.
  • Allowing plant roots to grow deeper into the soil so they can absorb more nutrients.
  • Providing enough oxygen for plant roots to mature properly.
  • Increasing the number of days available for planting and harvesting crops.
  • Improving soil structure by avoiding soil compaction and structural damage.
  • Promoting energy-conserving farming practices such as no-till and conservation tillage.
  • Reducing loss of sediment and nutrients.
  • Allowing for more efficient use of resources.