Moving Iowa's bumper corn crop from the field to storage, or to be fed to livestock, or to go to the processing plant, or sending it out of Iowa--all takes many miles of road, rail, and river transport.
"We've taken our infrastructure for granted too long," says Warren Kemper, a grower from Wapello in southeast Iowa and a director for the Iowa Corn Growers Association. "With 2.5 billion bushels of corn to move, we can no longer limp by on out-of-date rural roads, a restricted rail system and locks that were built in the Great Depression. This outdated system hurts farmers, but it also affects every American in the upper Midwest."
Kemper points out that infrastructure needs increase as farmers move larger corn and soybean crops. "Iowa farmers look to harvest 182 bushels of corn per acre this year. When our locks were built in the 1930s, our average corn yield was less than 38 bushels per acre," he says.
Infrastructure improvements are big issue
"How big an issue is infrastructure? Our foreign customers sometimes pay more to move our corn than the corn itself costs. In my book, that makes transportation very, very important," says Kemper. "When we put off infrastructure improvements, we all pay the price."
The numbers are in: from field to storage Iowa's 2007 corn crop is expected yield 182 bushels per acre and top 2.5 billion bushels of total production according to USDA's September Crop Report – and every bushel must be transported from field to storage to final use.
That means an Iowa farmer with 350 acres of corn and average yields must plan to move 63,700 bushels this fall – or 70 semi loads – on Iowa's rural roads and bridges. In all, moving the entire crop from the field will require the equivalent of 2.79 million semi round-trips of varying distance on local roads.
From field or storage to Iowa processors
In the coming year, 991 million bushels, or almost 2 out of every 5 bushels in the Iowa crop, will be delivered to corn processing plants in Iowa. Assuming an average one-way trip of 40 miles--that will mean almost 1.1 million semi loads and more than 87 million road miles.
From elevator to processing/feeding/export--Corn that moves from an elevator to a livestock feeder, processor, or inland terminal (for export) may move by semi or by rail, depending on volumes. Train loads on this scale may deliver to an inland terminal for trans-shipment by barge, to a large-scale domestic processor or livestock feeder, or move directly into export channels.
An estimated 780 million bushels or 30% of Iowa's crop is projected to leave the state this marketing year, most of it traveling by barge down the Mississippi River. Moving that volume by rail would require 2,228, 100-car unit trains or 990 15-barge tows, he notes.
You'll see grain piled on ground this fall
What about storage? This year's big crop also means new demands for grain storage. At one time, elevators and government storage played the dominant role, but in recent decades, more and more storage has been on farms. By 2002, Iowa's farmers had built on-farm storage for more than 1.5 billion bushels of grain and oilseeds, according to the latest Census of Agriculture figures.
Since then many Iowa growers have added production and bin capacity, so this year new bins have been going up across the state in anticipation of the record crop. Still, Dr. Charles Hurburgh, who runs the lab at ISU, estimates that the state may be short 500,000 to 700,000 bushels of storage space this year, especially since fewer railroad grain cars will be available for temporary storage.
A 2007 harvest that produces more than 2.5 billion bushels of corn and nearly 450,000 bushels of soybeans is likely to result in the sight of grain piles across the state this fall.