Corn keeps Wisconsin grinning from ear to ear

Kaitlyn Riley

Back to school commercials and in-store specials on the latest backpack designs are just some of the many signs summer is quickly coming to a close. Another telltale signal is the tall, tasseled corn standing in many Wisconsin farm fields.

Being the shortest member of our family, Kaitlyn Riley's dad always thinks it is funny to have her stand in the field with a tape measure to see where the family's stalks stand.

I have always been amazed by how quickly corn can grow. Every year, there is a sense of excitement among farmers when the crop first emerges in early summer. Then, the classic “knee-high by the Fourth of July” photos plaster social media, and we comment on how the phrase is becoming outdated as agriculture advances. Being the shortest member of our family, my dad always thinks it is funny to have me stand in the field with a tape measure to see where our stalks stand. Our corn measured eight feet tall on the Fourth and reached 11 feet by late July!

As we speculate what yields the 2018 harvest will bring, I am fascinated by what our farmers accomplished in the year prior. The USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service estimated corn for grain production in Wisconsin was 510 million bushels in 2017 with an estimated 174 bushels per acre.

Driving across Wisconsin’s diverse landscape with Maizey, my flex-fuel Ford Explorer sponsored by the Wisconsin Corn Program, I have a new appreciation for the crop. I used to only think of animal feed when I saw a field of corn. It can be a common assumption considering about half of Wisconsin corn is used for livestock feed, according to the Wisconsin Corn Growers Association. On the contrary, corn can be used in more than 4,000 products from tennis shoes to fuel.  

About 37 percent of Wisconsin corn is used for ethanol production, which fuels my adventures as Alice. Wisconsin’s nine ethanol plants produce more than 500 million gallons a year consuming more than 180 million bushels of corn. That adds about $4.2 billion in economic activity and 19,000 jobs for Wisconsin residents. The by-products from the process, known as distillers grains, can be fed back to livestock, adding even more efficiency to the process.

Clearly, grain corn is important for feed and ethanol, but it has its uses for making corn oil, corn starch and other non-food items as well. Just one bushel, or 56 pounds, of corn can produce 18 pounds of livestock feed, 2.8 gallons of ethanol, 14 pounds of corn gluten pellets, 1.8 pounds of corn oil and 17 pounds of carbon dioxide that can be used in ice, the beverage industry and water treatment facilities.

Corn silage and sweet corn are also important kernels of our industry. Corn for silage production was estimated at 16.7 million tons in 2017. Wisconsin was the top producer in the nation for the crop. Corn silage is made by harvesting the still green stalk, leaves and ears of corn which is then chopped, fermented and fed to ruminants, like cows, as a high-energy feed source.

Sweet corn is my own high-energy feed source. Wisconsin ranked third in the nation for sweet corn in 2017 harvesting 54,500 acres. The fresh market was valued at $12.4 million while processing production was worth $32.1 million. It is a treat enjoyed across all borders as Wisconsin leads the nation in the export of prepared/preserved sweet corn. Wisconsin exported $3.5 billion of agricultural products to nearly 150 countries around the world in 2017.

As back to school preparations continue closer to home, I challenge you to think of how Wisconsin corn can play a role in your everyday life. From fueling up for the carpool to trying on new sneakers and enjoying a side dish of corn in the cafeteria, our state’s corn industry can keep us grinning from ear to ear.