Corn yields remained relatively flat at approximately 30 bushels an acre between 1860 and 1940, Lemme says.  The advent of hybrid corn, developed by land-grant university researchers, changed that.

“With the advent of this new corn, which was introduced to farmers through Extension programs and 4-H clubs, yields have increased by almost 2 bushels an acre each year,” he says.

Like Runge, though, Lemme stresses that the greatly enhanced fortunes of row-crop agriculture reflect advances over a broad front.

“Advances in soil nutrition, pest management, soil tillage, seed genetics and precise variable application rate equipment not only have changed how crops are grown, but have also reduced the input costs associated with crop production even as yields have increased.”

Cotton-insect control is an especially conspicuous example how technological advances undertaken more than a generation ago work together to improve yields.

“If you look back to those 6 or 7 years before boll weevil eradication got under way in Alabama, producers were spending about the same amount of money per acre to control insects as they are today,” says Tim Reed, an Alabama Extension entomologist.

“But the big difference today is that yield losses associated with pest damage are significantly less — only about 2 percent an acre.”

Reed attributes much of this gain to the adoption of transgenic varieties, which were first introduced into Alabama in 1996.

Cultural practices and a few chemical control methods developed over the last few decades also have reduced damage to wheat caused from the Hessian fly.

“Across the crops spectrum, yield losses are the least they’ve ever been because we’re able to manage our insect problems through a combination of cultural practices, transgenic cropping systems and crop protection chemicals,” Reed says, adding that this holds especially true for cotton.

Similar progress has been made with disease control in another principal crop: peanuts, says Austin Hagan, an Alabama Extension plant pathologist and Auburn University professor of plant pathology.

“Much of it stems from the superior varieties we’ve developed within the last generation,” Hagan says. 

“Tomato-spotted wilt has disappeared as a factor in peanut production, even though it was considered a real issue 10 years ago.  Also, the varieties we have in the market now are more resistant to some diseases — tomato-spotted wilt and white mold — and, in the case of another major peanut disease, leaf spot disease, at least less susceptible to yield loss.”

As with any other facet of farming, challenges remain. Hagan points to the persistent cotton yield losses associated with root-knot and reniform nematodes as a case in point.

“We haven’t solved all the problems yet,” he says. “We can’t deal with that problem effectively with the technologies we currently have in hand.”

Three of Alabama’s principal row crops — peanuts, soybeans and corn — posted significant increases in value in 2012.  Peanuts underwent the biggest increase from almost $144 million in 2011 to about $295 million in 2012.

Cotton incurred the biggest loss, dropping from $303 million in 2011 to about $242 million in 2012. The value of wheat also declined from $98 million in 2011 to about $75 million in 2012.

Global economic factors also have contributed to this uptick in production, Lemme says.

“The spike in global demand for grain crops both for food and industrial production certainly played a role, as did the drought, which sparked worldwide shortages [of grain commodities] last year,” he says.

He says Alabama farmers deserve credit too for seizing on these opportunities and planting significantly larger acreages of wheat, soybeans and corn.


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