Thanks to the state’s thriving field corn industry, Colorado is home to lush, green fields of swaying stalks. With an average of 1.25 million acres planted each year, it’s no surprise that field corn continues to stand as one of the most abundantly produced grains in the state. According to Mark Sponsler, executive director of the Colorado Corn Growers Association (CCGA) and Colorado Corn Administrative Committee (CCAC), corn is the largest grain crop in Colorado, in terms of bushels produced.
Each year, hardworking farmers harvest around 140 to 180 million bushels of corn. The vast majority of Colorado’s corn crop is field corn, which is used as livestock feed, as a starch source to make ethanol, and as a minor component in thousands of various products. This differs from sweet corn, the type you eat straight from the cob with a pat of butter and salt.
“About 99 percent of our nation’s corn production is field corn, as opposed to sweet corn,” Sponsler says, “and that’s roughly the percentage in Colorado, as well.”
In order to maximize efficiency and yields, most Colorado corn producers use irrigation systems and a high level of technology. Due largely to its extensive systems for water storage, diversion and management, Colorado farmers are able to efficiently divert surface water from rainfall and mountain snowmelt for crop production as well as utilize high-efficiency pumping systems to access underground aquifers of various types. The state’s corn-growing areas see an average of 12 to 17 inches of rain per year, but traditionally, the crop can use up to about 22 inches of water over the course of the growing season. The majority of Colorado’s corn producers are located in regions of the state where irrigation is possible.
“Roughly, corn acres in the state are trending 70 percent irrigated and 30 percent non-irrigated,” Sponsler explains.
In eastern Colorado, Rod Hahn tends to his crop in Yuma County – the largest corn-producing county in Colorado – and overall one of the most productive in the nation.
Hahn, former school teacher and fourth-generation farmer, has been growing corn for more than three decades. He grows the crop on both irrigated and dryland, referring to land that is not irrigated. “They are very different operations,” he says. “I have 700 acres of irrigated land and 250 acres of dry land for 2016.”
In Yuma County, the majority of water used for irrigation is derived from the underground Ogallala Aquifer, which runs from South Dakota to Texas. However, most of the state’s water resources come from snowmelt runoff from the mountains.
Farmers, including Hahn, find using irrigation technology has greatly helped increase their yields through the years while actually using less water than in the past.
“When I started farming in 1980, a 180-bushel (per-acre) yield was exceptional,” Hahn says. “Now, around this area, I hear of corn growers getting 280 bushels (yields) over a whole field of corn. I think that big of an increase in that short of time is because we are on the cutting edge of technology.”
By far, Colorado’s biggest corn customer is its cattle. The state’s dry, largely temperate weather and terrain make it an efficient place to feed cattle. In fact, about 90 percent of Colorado-grown corn is used as livestock feed – higher than the national average. “Colorado is a very popular and practical state to feed livestock, particularly cattle,” Sponsler says. “There are a lot of rangeland, pasture and feedlots. Geographically, Colorado is well- suited to serve other western states.”
Close to 10 percent of Colorado field corn is used for ethanol production, with much of the dried distillers grain, a byproduct of ethanol production, used again as feed.
“Even the corn that makes its first stop at an ethanol plant ends up as a high-quality feed for livestock in the form of high- protein distillers grain, meaning it’s everything that was in the grain kernel but the starch. The starch is what is extracted to make ethanol,” Sponsler explains.
And while Colorado’s livestock keep the demand for in-state corn strong, the export market is also important – and growing.
Overall, exports of Colorado food and agricultural products doubled between 2009 and 2012 to $2 billion, with beef, dairy, wheat and dry beans as top exports. Corn is having success as well.
In the most recent production year, Colorado exported a significant amount of corn to Mexico, as well as other states including Iowa, Sponsler says.