This is the time of year many Americans get a to visit working farms, while picking Halloween pumpkins or navigating complex corn mazes. But you have to go beyond the seasonal activities to best understand the amazing work done by our nation’s farmers and their equipment during harvest time.
The corn and soybean harvest is already about 25% complete for the year according to the USDA and the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. More than 90% of the corn crop is coming from just 18 states: Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin.
Corn, the most widely produced feed grain in the United States, accounts for more than 95% of total feed grain production and use. Sorghum, barley, and oats make up the rest. Most of the corn crop is used to for livestock feed, providing the main source of energy for the animals. Corn is also processed into a wide range of human food and industrial products such as cereal, alcohol, sweeteners, and byproduct feeds. Nearly14 billion bushels of corn are harvested annually in this country according to the US Grain Council.
Harvesting corn is no easy task. It requires powerful and sophisticated machines known as combine harvesters. They’re like moving manufacturing plants. Combine harvesters cut off the entire corn stalk, draw it into the machine where the corn cob is separated and the kernels are cut off, while the stalk and leaves are removed, and then discharged back onto the field.
Harvest time is a delicate dance between the calendar, clock, weather, land, humans, and machines. The condition of the soil and crops, along with the weather forecast often dictate when the harvest starts. Time is always of the essence. Threats of rain, remnants of hurricanes, or snowfall can wreak havoc in the fields. So, there’s a great sense of urgency to the whole process. That’s why you’ll often see multiple combine harvesters working in tandem to harvest corn on a large farm. Their bright tractor lights enable them to work continuously, well into the night.
Combines are exclusively powered by diesel engines, thanks to their power, performance and efficiency. Diesel engines are able to operate nearly 24/7, stopping only for refueling which happens right in the field. Time and efficiency are so critical during the harvest that picked corn is frequently unloaded from the combine harvester while it moves down the rows picking the field! In large units, engines exceed 500 horsepower with and have fuel tanks that hold more than 300 gallons of diesel. The front cutter head can be 40 feet wide allowing it to gobble up and process 18 rows of corn at a time, storing 450 bushels of corn: that’s over 25,000 pounds. Fast unloading is required, too. Some combine harvesters can unload almost four bushels per second. Large acreage with active harvesting must be supported by multiple tractor trailers, all fueled by diesel, to receive the harvested corn and move it to market or storage. Since 2014, new combine harvesters with advanced diesel engines do their work with near-zero emissions.
Finding our way out of a corn maze is good fall fun. When it comes to harvesting 90 million acres of corn, there’s a lot of pressure to get this essential crop out of the field and to market this time of year. And that’s what makes diesel power the driving force behind America’s harvest, getting food from the field to the table.