Corn FAQs

Corn is an incredibly important crop. It’s vital to the economy of Nebraska, the United States and the world. An extremely versatile grain, it’s used in countless products we use every day all over the world, from breakfast cereals to the clean-burning biofuel ethanol.

But how is corn grown? What kind of corn do farmers grow in Nebraska? And why is it so important?

Here, we’ll answer some of your burning questions about corn in Nebraska.

A farmer pulls a wagon of cornstalks after harvest.

Nebraska Corn Production

Corn is the most widely grown crop in Nebraska, followed by soybeans. Nebraska is one of the top producers of corn in the nation, behind only Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota with 9.62 million acres of corn grown in the state in 2022. 

Nebraska corn is used primarily for animal feed, ethanol and human consumption. However, corn is found in many other products—from car parts to ice melt products and even the coating on some medicines.   

Corn is Nebraska’s biggest cash crop. Farmers in Nebraska grow more corn than any other crop. In 2022, Nebraska corn producers harvested an estimated 9.62 million acres to the tune of some $10 billion. Corn also is the building block in several of Nebraska’s other major agricultural exports, such as feed for livestock and as one of the ingredients in the renewable biofuel ethanol. Thanks to corn, Nebraska ranks among the very top cattle-producing states in the country each year. It also annually ranks as the second-largest ethanol producer in the country with an estimated 2.18 billion gallons produced per year. 

Nebraska is one of the top corn-producing states in the nation—it ranked fourth, behind only Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota. That means the state’s farmers grow a LOT of corn. In 2022, Nebraska’s farmers harvested an estimated 1.46 billion bushels of corn. 

In 2022, corn farmers in Nebraska harvested 9.62 million acres of corn. That’s equivalent to roughly 15,000 square miles. That is a large number, but in 2021 there was even more corn harvested in Nebraska—9.9 million acres, or almost 15,500 square miles.  

The average corn yield in Nebraska changes every year due to the impact the weather has on the year’s growing season. Years with plentiful rain and warm summers will produce bountiful yields. Drought, cold or flooding will have a detrimental impact on the year’s corn crop. 

In 2022, Nebraska farmers averaged 165 bushels per acre of corn. The year before, they harvested significantly more—a whopping 194 bushels per acre. 

No, most of the corn grown in Nebraska is not sweet corn, in fact only 1% is. The vast majority of the fields you see while driving through the state of Nebraska contain field corn, which can also be called dent corn, often used for animal feed or ethanol production. Unlike sweet corn, it is not eaten fresh. Instead, it’s dried and made into many food items and over 4,000 other products. 

Corn is an incredibly important crop to Nebraska’s economy and its agricultural trade. Not only is it the state’s top agricultural export, but it also provides thousands of jobs throughout the state.  

Production of corn has been a part of Nebraska since the early 1900s and continues to be at the heart of the state’s agricultural economy. Corn provides grain for livestock—which is another major sector of the state’s economy—and a variety of food products such as corn syrup, cereal and tortilla chips.  

It also fuels the production of ethanol, a renewable biofuel blended with gasoline to reduce pollution and fuel vehicles. Ethanol production itself is a major part of the state’s economy, as Nebraska is the secondlargest producer of ethanol in the United States. 

 All of these factors combine to make corn one of the most important crops to Nebraska’s economy today. 

Corn makes a huge impact on the U.S. economy, both in its use within the country’s borders as well as through international trade.  

The U.S. is the largest producer and exporter of corn in the world—exporting an estimated $19.11 billion in 2021. Given the multitude of uses for corn—food for livestock and people, as well as an ingredient in ethanol and many other products—it’s difficult to calculate the full economic impact of the grain. However, a 2016 study estimated that international corn exports and exports of corn-based products contributed a massive $74.7 billion to the U.S. economy. 

Nebraska, as one of the top corn producing states in the country, is a major supplier of domestic corn exports to other states. Corn grown in Nebraska also is used in many products that are shipped all over the world. 

Corn is one of the most important crops in the world, and its importance to the world cannot be overstated. It plays a major role in global agriculture and international economies, provides sustenance to billions of people and is used to make clean-burning biofuel. 

In addition to being an essential component of the human food supply, corn is also a major source of animal feed and is used to create bioproducts ranging from ethanol to plastics. It’s literally everywhere—in our markets, our cars and even in some of the things we wear. 

The international trade of corn helps ensure that countries have access to this important resource regardless of their local climate or geography. From small-scale subsistence farming in developing nations to the large-scale commercial production like we have in Nebraska, corn plays an integral role in the global economy.  

Growing Corn

The most common type of corn farmers plant in Nebraska is field corn, which can also be called dent corn as it’s characterized by large ears with big yellow kernels. When dried, the kernels are hard and have a characteristic dent in them.  

Field corn is primarily used to make ethanol and animal feed, to make into foods such as corn starch and also is used to make ingredients for many consumer products.   

Other types of corn planted in Nebraska include sweet corn—the kind of corn you eat fresh and enjoy on the cob—as well as white corn and popcorn. You’ll find more white corn and popcorn in Nebraska than anywhere else in the United States, as Nebraska’s farmers lead the nation in growing those two varieties.

Corn is grown by planting seeds in long rows in fields, with the rows usually spaced a few inches to a foot apart. Farmers drive tractors that place the seeds precisely using GPS navigation systems. Farmers plant corn in the spring when the soil warms enough for corn seeds to germinate—about 50 degrees. In Nebraska, most corn is planted in April or May.   

Farmers care for their corn over the course of the summer, applying fertilizer when needed and monitoring the fields for signs of any insect infestations, weeds or disease that must be addressed. Field corn, the most common type of corn grown in Nebraska, is harvested in the fall after it has dried out and the leaves are brown. That is usually in October or November. 

Corn grows in large fields. Corn is called a row crop, because it is planted in long rows a few inches to a foot apart. Although nearly every state produces at least some corn, the top corn-producing states are in the Midwest: Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, Minnesota, Indiana, Kansas, South Dakota and Missouri.  

Nebraska currently ranks fourth on the list of top-producing corn states. 

Most varieties of corn take 90-100 days to mature. Corn that receives adequate moisture and the hot, sunny summer days it so enjoys will grow the fastest. Corn grows slower if it experiences long periods of cooler weather, drought or if the fields are soaked by excessive rain. 

Corn is an amazing plant, growing several feet in the air with roots that grow several feet into the ground. But how fast does corn grow? Experts say corn can easily grow 3-4 inches per day in optimal growing conditions. 

Corn is a very tall plant! Under optimal growing conditions, corn can grow to up to 12 feet tall. However, most corn plants grow to between 6 and 10 feet tall. What’s more, its roots can reach another six feet into the ground. 

An acre is 43,560 square feet. To put that visually, an acre is a little less than the size of a football field. 

Farmers track the amount of corn they grow in bushels. Each bushel is equivalent to 56 pounds of corn. To put that in perspective, there are an estimated 75,000 to 105,000 kernels per bushel. 

In 2022, Nebraska’s farmers harvested an estimated 1.46 billion acres of corn for an average of 165 bushels per acre. 

Harvesting Corn

Generally, it takes about 90-100 days for corn to mature.  

Sweet corn, which is eaten fresh, is ready for harvest when the kernels are juicy and the corn stalk is still green. Field corn, which makes up the majority of corn grown in Nebraska and in the United States, stays in the field longer because it’s not harvested until the kernels are hard and dry. 

Popcorn and white corn, two of Nebraska’s other leading corn varieties, also are harvested dry. Like field corn they aren’t harvested until later in the year—usually in September, October or November—when the corn stalks are dry and golden brown. 

Corn is harvested with a combine harvester, which is a machine that performs several functions as it drives along the corn rows: 

  • Cuts the corn stalks and pulls the plant into the combine 
  • Removes the corn cobs from the rest of the corn stalk, which is called chaff 
  • Separates kernels of corn from the corn cobs, a process called threshing 
  • Cleans the pieces of chaff—pieces of corn cobs and corn stalks—from the kernels of corn 
  • Puts the cleaned corn kernels into a storage area and blows the chaff out the back of the combine onto the field behind it 

While a combine is a remarkable machine, it doesn’t have enough storage capacity for an entire field of corn. Therefore, cleaned corn must be emptied periodically from the combine into large wagons or grain carts used to haul the corn to market or storage.  

The transport of newly harvested corn out of the field is a critical part of keeping the harvest running smoothly, because the combine can’t continue harvesting when its storage area is full. If there isn’t a wagon or grain cart to empty the new crop into, the combine operator must stop and wait for one to arrive.  

A bushel is the unit of measurement used to determine how much corn is harvested. Not many things outside of crops are measured in bushels, so it’s not surprising that many are not familiar with bushels. 

For corn, a bushel is equal to 56 pounds. When farmers bring their corn crop to market, it is weighed to determine how many bushels of corn they are selling. 

The price of a bushel of corn changes as the markets fluctuate. As of early March 2023, the price per bushel of corn averaged $6.67 per bushel for the year. In 2022, the price averaged almost $7/bushel. However, other years a bushel of corn fetched far less. Corn prices change with the market.   

Because of these fluctuations, corn farmers have often found themselves at the mercy of the markets. That’s why it’s so important to make the most of all the uses of corn, from biofuel to food, so that farmers have more options when they market their crop. 

A bushel of corn is equal to 56 pounds.  

How many bushels of corn per acre are harvested in Nebraska each year depends on many factors, especially the weather. If growing conditions are optimal—the corn receives adequate moisture and warm weather to stimulate growth—the harvest is plentiful. Fields produce fewer bushels per acre in years when conditions aren’t as good, such as years when the corn is starved of water by drought. 

In 2022, Nebraska’s farmers harvested an estimated 1.46 billion acres of corn for an average of 165 bushels per acre. , According to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, this was down 29 bushels per acre from the 194 bushels/acre the state’s farmers averaged in 2021. 

How many ears of corn are in a bushel depends on the size of the ears. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln estimates there are 112 ears of corn per bushel if the ears are eight inches long. There are more ears of corn per bushel if the ears are shorter, and fewer if the ears of corn are longer. 

The number of kernels of corn per bushel will fluctuate depending on the growing conditions. Better growing conditions result in larger kernels, which means fewer—but bigger—kernels per bushel. 

Experts estimate there are generally 75,000 to 105,000 kernels per bushel. 

Usually, farmers leave corn husks in the fields. During the harvesting process, a machine called a combine drives down the rows and separates the husks, leaves, stalk and corn cob from the kernels of grain. The grain stays in a storage compartment in the combine, but the rest of the corn plant is chopped up and blown out the back of the combine onto the field. The chopped-up bits of corn plant, called the chaff, help improve the soil as they decompose. Soil care is also why most farmers don’t plow their fields. In Nebraska, often farmers will put cattle on their corn stalks to eat what’s left after harvesting the field because of the nutrients that remain that’s good for cattle feed. 

Most of the time the corn cobs stay in the fields. Like the corn husks, they are separated from the kernels and expelled from the back of the combine during harvest. The kernels stay inside the combine, but the pieces of corn cob, stalks, leaves and husks are blown out the back of the machine and back onto the field. 

The corn cobs and rest of the chopped-up corn plant remain on the ground during the winter, helping trap snow to improve soil moisture. These materials also help improve the soil as they break down and decompose. Some farmers allow livestock, usually cattle, to go into the fields after harvest. Cows then walk up and down the rows, munching on the leftover pieces of corn plant and looking for ears of corn that the combine missed. 

About the Corn Plant

The history of corn is believed to have originated 8,000 to 10,000 years ago in Mexico. Back then, corn was a spikey edible grass with very small cobs called teosinte. It was selectively bred for favorable qualities to become the tall, big-eared plant we know today. 

Historians believe people brought corn with them as they traveled throughout North and South America. Corn made its first appearance in Europe thanks to Christopher Columbus, who was introduced to corn in the Caribbean in 1493 and brought it back to Spain. 

There are many varieties of corn, but there are five major types of corn grown today: dent, pod, flint, sweet and flour. 

The four main varieties of corn grown in Nebraska are: 

  • Field Corn: The most common type of corn grown in Nebraska is dent corn also called field corn. It has large ears with yellow kernels. When dried, the kernels have the namesake dent in them. Field corn is mostly used for animal feed, ethanol and many products like corn syrup or corn starch.  
  • Sweet Corn: Enjoyed fresh, sweet corn is the kind of corn you buy in grocery stores. People often refer to sweet corn as “corn-on-the-cob.” It’s also delicious when frozen or canned. 
  • White Corn: Used to make food products such as potato chips, tortilla chips and tortillas, white corn is a very versatile variety of dent corn. Nebraska is the No. 1 producer of white corn. 
  • Popcorn: Nebraska also is the nation’s No. 1 producer of popcorn, which is a type of flint corn. 

Field corn has big ears with yellow kernels. A type of dent corn, field corn kernels form a distinctive dent as they dry.  

Most of the corn grown in Nebraska is field corn. As you drive through rural Nebraska, you will know when harvest is getting close because the formerly green fields will begin fading to a yellow or golden brown. That’s because field corn is allowed to dry out before it is harvested.  

If you ask a cow, pig or a goat what field corn tastes like, they will tell you it tastes delicious! However, people do not find field corn quite as tasty as the animals do. Compared to sweet corn, which is the type of corn sold by the ear in grocery stores, field corn is starchier and not as sweet. Because of that, it’s a component in many food products but is not eaten fresh. 

A corn plant is made of several parts. The roots hold it into the ground and the stalk is the main body of the plant, functioning much like the trunk on a tree. It has long, ribbon-like leaves that rustle in the wind. The kernels are found on the ears, which grow from the stalk and are encased in protective layers of husks. 

Other parts of the corn plant include the tassel, which grows from the top and contains pollen, and the distinctive golden corn silk that comes out the top of the corn ears.  

Corn silk performs an important function during pollination—pieces of pollen travel down the strands of silk under the layer of corn husks to the corn cob. Once the pollen follows the silk strand all the way to the corn cob, it makes a kernel. 

Each kernel consists of four main parts: the pericarp, endosperm, embryo and tip cap. The pericarp is the covering that protects the kernel’s interior. The endosperm is the energy source for the seedling, and the embryo contains the future seedling. The tip cap is the point where the kernel attaches to the cob. 

The average number of kernels on an ear of field corn is about 800. 

There usually is one ear of field corn per stalk. Sometimes plants at the edges of the fields will have a second smaller ear, because they have more exposure to light.  

While corn doesn’t actually have hair, it does have a hair-like feature called silk. 

Corn silk is made of strands of shiny gold threads that cascade out of the top of each ear. 

It is one of the most noticeable parts of the plant and serves a critical function during pollination. Pieces of pollen follow the threads of corn silk underneath the protective corn husk and down to the cob, where it makes a kernel. 

When farmers grow corn to keep as seeds for future years, they need to control how those plants are pollenated. The way they do this is to chop the tassels—the spikey top of the plant that contains pollen—off some of the plants. This is called detasseling. 

Usually, corn farmers detassel four rows of corn for every one row they leave with tassels intact. That way, the row with the tassel serves as the “male” plant and will pollenate the tassel-less “female” rows on either side of it. This is then called seed corn as the seed is used next year. 

Back in the day, detasselling was done by hand during the summer. People would walk down the rows, pulling tassel after tassel off the top of every stalk in the row. Now, most corn is detasselled with a machine. People are only needed to walk down the rows to find and pull tassels that the machine missed. 

How Corn is Used

Given the massive amount of corn that is grown in Nebraska every year, it’s no surprise that we can’t use all of it here in the Cornhusker state. Where does all the corn in Nebraska go? Much of it—around some 200 million bushels annually—is shipped to other states and countries.  

Here is the major destinations of the state’s corn and corn-based products: 

  • Corn and corn-based animal feed: Livestock eat corn in multiple ways. Corn kernels can be fed to animals whole and corn also is used to make commercial livestock feed. Nebraska is a major cattle supplier in the country also known as the beef state, so much of it is eaten by cows within the state, but corn and corn-based feed products are also consumed by beef and dairy operations in Texas, Colorado, California and the Pacific Northwest.  
  • Corn gluten and distillers grains: Corn gluten feed and distillers grains, which are a byproduct of the ethanol-making process, are very nutritious and often are added to livestock rations. Texas is a major consumer of these Nebraska-made products, as are several Midwestern states. 
  • International exports: Nebraska’s corn ends up in many different food products you consume every day. Some of the most widely used products are corn oil, corn starch and corn syrup. And, of course, popcorn and tortilla chips. Most of Nebraska’s internationally exported corn—a whopping 60%—goes to Mexico. Other international markets include Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and China. 
  • Ethanol: Nebraska is one of the nation’s second-largest producer of ethanol, a type of biofuel added to gasoline to reduce pollution, and the renewable fuel is one of its major exports. Much of the ethanol produced in Nebraska ships to California. 

Corn is an incredibly versatile crop, so it’s no surprise that it’s found in a wide range of products. It’s a key ingredient in many popular foods and beverages, from corn starch and corn syrup to tortillas and whiskey. It’s also delicious as popcorn or sweet corn fresh from the field. 

Beyond food, corn products include livestock feed and the biofuel ethanol, as well as industrial products such as paper, bioplastics and fibers.The ethanol-making process creates sought-after corn byproducts such as a high-protein livestock feed called distillers grains.  

Corn is even a component in some types of cat litter and products used to melt ice on the roads—it’s the uses are seemingly endless! 

Field corn has many uses. It’s an important ingredient in animal feed and corn gluten meal, providing nutrients for everything from poultry to pigs and cattle. Additionally, it is used to produce ethanol biofuel and a byproduct of the ethanol-making process, distillers grains, that is fed to livestock. It’s also found in many other products, including bioplastics. 

Last, but not least, field corn is also made into food items like corn starch and corn syrup. With so many uses, it’s easy to see why field corn is an essential part of the global agricultural system. 

Corn is an ideal livestock feed due to its high energy content and digestibility. This makes it a popular choice for farmers, as it provides their animals with the necessary nutrition to grow and thrive. Corn also has other beneficial properties such as being low in fiber, which helps animals process it more efficiently. It also contains essential vitamins and minerals that are important for the growth and health of livestock. Often, farmers in Nebraska grow the corn they feed their own livestock. It’s a way to use exactly what they produce. 

According to the Renewable Fuels Association, one bushel of corn produces 2.8 gallons of ethanol. Because a bushel of corn weighs about 56 pounds, that means it takes about 28 pounds of corn to make a gallon of ethanol. In addition, that bushel of corn also makes about 16.5 pounds of distillers grains—a high-protein byproduct of the ethanol-making process that is fed to livestock. 

Not quite, but it’s in so many things that it sure seems that way! 

Corn is a key ingredient in thousands of products. From cosmetics to livestock feed and fuel, corn is the basis of a whole range of products that you may not have realized. It’s commonly used as a thickening agent in soups and sauces, it’s an ingredient in many foods like chips and cereals and it can be found in cosmetics such as lipsticks, mascara and lotions. It’s also used to create bioplastics, starch-based adhesives and paper products.  

So, when you ask yourself if corn is in something, chances are the answer is yes! And the next time you’re wondering what an ingredient is, look for corn—you may be surprised at just how many products use this versatile grain.