Whether it’s Taco Tuesday or Fajita Friday, have you ever considered where the corn for your tortilla was grown? It may have come from my back yard.
I joke that I live in the middle of a cornfield half of the time. Half of the field that surrounds our farmstead is planted to corn and the rest is soybeans. Some of the corn we raise is food grade white corn. A local hog farmer also likes to buy it from us as feed. The rest of the corn we grow is yellow corn which is primarily used in livestock feed, ethanol, and food products.
Throughout the year, we are working with our corn crop in various stages of production – it’s not just planting and harvesting. Whether we’re raising white corn or yellow corn, the methods are basically the same, but we have some additional considerations with white corn to make sure it is not mixed with yellow corn when it’s marketed.
Here’s a year in the life of a corn farmer in eight steps:
- Soil Preparation and Fertilizing. We usually practice crop rotation, meaning that corn is planted on the prior years’ soybean field. Since no-till farming is a great preserver of soil health in our dry and windy climate, we don’t plow, chisel, disk, or otherwise disturb the ground prior to planting. The prior year’s soybean crop residue stays on the ground as mulch to minimize wind erosion, conserve moisture, and improve organic matter in the soil as it decomposes. Soybeans are legumes, fixing nitrogen to nodules on their roots. Between the nitrogen-laden roots and the decomposing residue, this system adds nitrogen to the soil and decreases our fertilizer requirement.With our precision farming plan, soil samples are taken in grid format throughout the field to determine fertilizer needs. This helps us be as environmentally and economically efficient as possible with fertilizer application.
- Weed Management. In March, prior to planting, we spray the field to kill weeds in the seed bed. Weeds reduce crop yields by stealing nutrients, sunlight, and water. When the crop is established after planting, we spray a second time to combat the next round of weeds. After this, the corn plants will create a canopy in the field with their leaves, which will inhibit the majority of new weed growth.
- Planting. Seed selection, timing, and properly working equipment is critical to having a good harvest in the fall. After the seed is in the ground, we then monitor germination and plant health until the growing season is complete. Most of our corn planting takes place from mid-April through early May.
- Irrigation and Soil Moisture Management. Soil moisture levels are checked frequently from May through August, and irrigation supplies water through a pivot when timely rains don’t arrive. Irrigation season sees constant maintenance of center pivots, irrigation engines, and well equipment. Some of these system components can be monitored via Internet, but they still need to be checked once or twice a day. We appreciate having irrigation capability, and strive to conserve this precious resource and pump only when watering is necessary. The Nebraska Natural Resource Districts help us collectively manage the quality and quantity of water in the aquifer so it can be a viable resource for future generations. While we constantly watch the forecast for rain, we also check our crops after storms for wind or hail, which can make a plant more susceptible to damage from insects and disease, along with reduction to yields.
- Disease Management. Keeping the corn plants healthy by preventing fungus is another issue we sometimes encounter. Right after pollination in July, we check for fungus, and if needed, we will have fungicide applied aerially. While many think that spray planes are applying insecticides, today’s GMO corn hybrids are resistant to the most common type of insect pressure we encounter, which means that farmers rarely ever need to spray insecticides. These days, summer spray planes seen in July and August are likely applying a product to fight fungus.
- Monitoring Maturity. Towards the end of August through mid-September, we check the corn kernels for signs of maturity. At this point, irrigation season ends, as the moisture will not benefit the corn kernels in any way. However, if the stalks are still green, sometimes we will provide enough moisture to help the stalk maintain strength, so the plant doesn’t fall down and become difficult to harvest.
- Harvest. When the corn has dried down to around 15% moisture, harvest can begin. After we harvest the corn with a combine, it’s hauled to the truck with a tractor and grain cart. The truck hauls it to the grain bin, or sometimes straight to a grain elevator. Corn harvest in our area often starts in late September and runs through November. Excessive rainfall or snow this time of year has occasionally pushed harvest past Thanksgiving, but we are typically done by the first week of November.
- Storage, Trucking, and Planning. From this point, we have to watch carefully that the corn is stored at a proper moisture level in order to maintain optimum quality. Grain bins and the accompanying drying equipment are checked once a week. We work with the manager of a grain elevator to schedule when loads will be delivered so the corn can be milled. We’ll often start trucking in December and may still be hauling out loads in March or April. The winter season is also full of meetings to discuss seed selection for next year, review equipment needs, manage marketing strategies, map the productivity of each field, and plan fertilizer, herbicide, and other input needs for the upcoming growing season.
Ultimately, white corn is made into many foods, including tortillas. The tortillas are then delivered to a distributor who makes connections with your favorite restaurant or grocery store.
From our farm to your fajita, from our tractor to your taco, we not only want your tortilla to taste good, we want you to know how much time and care went into growing the best white corn for you to enjoy on Taco Tuesday. Or any day of the week, for that matter!