Corn in the Uplands
When I was a skinny, clumsy, seven-year-old kid, I experienced fair-chase hunting for the first time. My father, three older brothers, and I traipsed across grandpa’s cut cornfields and through the lush, herbaceous edged habitat to kick out bunnies and the occasional rooster pheasant. These fields were not covered in the “stubble” seen today. Rather, the harvesters left the stalks, leaves, and a few intact corncobs, interlaced into a weed-covered mass, which yielded entertaining, foot-tangling treachery. In his youth, my father sweated over these fields behind a team of mules to help the family eke out a living and utilized even more primitive farming practices.
History of Corn
Archeologists believe teosinte grass was first cultivated and selectively bred for larger seeds about 7,000 years ago, in what is now central Mexico. As native peoples migrated throughout North and South America, “maize” became a staple food. Until the time of Columbus, Europe and the rest of the world had no access to the plant. For the first Thanksgiving in 1621, pioneers probably dined on venison, passenger pigeons, wild turkeys, and “Indian corn,” but it is doubtful that cranberry sauce or pumpkin pie were on the menu.
The Importance of Corn
It is estimated that in 2019, nearly 93 million acres of corn will be planted in the United States, edging out soybeans by 7 million acres. Wheat comes in at only 50 million acres, with sorghum, cotton, and rice being far behind in land use. Today, nearly every part of the corn plant is used, producing familiar goods such as sweeteners, ethanol (for gasoline additive), human and livestock nutritional products, but also for medicines, drywall, toothpaste, and diapers. The importance of corn to the overall economy depends on the price per bushel and export demand. One cannot omit a most important corn-produced ingredient for Covey Rise readers: bourbon whiskey.
Depending on soil health and annual weather conditions, production in bushels per acre can approach 300, but now averages 175. During my father’s farming days, 60 bushels per acre was a bumper crop. From a nutritional standpoint, kernels deliver carbohydrates, protein, Vitamins B and C, iron, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, and other trace elements. An ear of corn typically contains 800 kernels in 16 rows, with 100 bushels containing 7,300,000 kernels.
Land Use—Bad News, Good News
According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s 2017 Census of Agriculture, between 2012 and 2017 cropland increased by 6.7 million acres while pastureland and rangeland decreased by 14.5 million acres, indicating a probable boost in row crop production. During this period, Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres were also reduced. However, farm and ranch revenue decreased from $395 billion to $388 billion, due to declines in commodity prices. The good news is that no-till farming methods increased by 7 percent, and conventional tilling procedures decreased by 25 percent, leading to positive trends toward sustainable agriculture, precision farming, reduced soil erosion and flood risks, improved water quality, and benefits to humans and wildlife. Farmers and ranchers are on the front lines of conservation and realize that the more efficient they are at preserving their land, the better their bottom line might be.
With the addition of 5 million acres of CRP via the 2018 Farm Bill, our feathered friends are getting help. According to a survey by the Virginia Tech Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation: “Enrollment in CRP, which fields are enrolled, and whether or not CRP land management practices are continued after contracts expire are social phenomena, contingent upon choices made by landowners. Interests in soil conservation, financial stability, and improving wildlife habitat were each important factors in CRP enrollment for over 75 percent of the current CRP participants in our survey sample.”
Further, “In the survey, past CRP participants, who did not attempt to re-enroll their parcel in CRP, most often reported that their decision was motivated by the limited profitability of keeping the field in CRP. The landowners interacted within interviews and focus groups and described many CRP policies as cumbersome, inconsistently enforced, and at odds with the original intent of CRP, local ecology, and their own needs.” Reasonable recommendations from this study would have to be offers of longer-term protection via CRP, with simplified application processes and payment rates that would protect the most vulnerable land.
For the Birds
Diverse habit is key for survival of upland gamebird species. A cornfield, through most of a typical annual growing cycle, provides suitable environments for our favorites, such as pheasants and quail. In spring, the 2-foot-high, leafy stalks provide cover, cool shade, and insects aplenty for brooding pheasant hens and recently hatched chicks. As plants mature, summer bugs come out to play, and the long, straight rows provide a maze of escape routes for wary birds with foxes on their tails. In irrigated fields, moisture adds to the health of rapidly maturing fledglings. When harvest time arrives, a smorgasbord of waste grain and other nutritious material slashed out by combines becomes available, and the birds fill their gullets often, storing fat to prepare for winter. According to Roger Wells, an avian biologist: “Corn provides substantial metabolizable energy, even exceeding some native plant seeds such as goldenrod or ragweed. For food plots, dwarf corn varieties generate ears less than 3 feet above ground level.”
Obviously, a bare, frozen, extinct cornfield is a tough place for any creature to make a living during winter. As mentioned previously, farmers practicing no-till methods or planting cover crops not only support wildlife, but increase soil health, prevent erosion, and set the stage for future profitability.
Josh May, a renowned Brittany handler from Idaho, told me: “I have harvested many species in the vicinity of cornfields, including pheasants, bobwhite, and Valley quail, prairie chickens, sharpies, sage hens, and Hungarian partridge.” He added, “Chukar in certain areas might steal some kernels when desperate. Obviously, doves and turkeys are consumers of these golden nuggets.”
Lest we forget, those of us who pursue sport with farm-raised gamebirds benefit from corn. This industry produces 10 million pheasants, 40 million quail, and 4 million chukar partridge every year. These are all raised on various feed mixtures, but common additives include corn, milo, wheat, sunflower seeds, peas, and oyster shells (for calcium). Preserve enterprises account for many bushels of corn, too.
Corn has played a major role in America’s economic advancement. Genetically modified varieties of “maize” have been developed for various climatic conditions allowing fields to be planted in most states, including Alaska. Its nutritional sustenance and inviting cover characteristics have no doubt been responsible for the establishment of pheasants and Huns in the United States and plays a vital role in recruitment and survival of other gamebird species. Corn is the commercial engine powering rural communities to offer food, fuel, and lodging to host “orange-clad armies” each autumn.
Originally published in Volume 7, Number 5 (October-November 2019) of Covey Rise.
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