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McLean County farmers are tops in the nation for corn and soybean production

Harvested corn grain is dumped into a grain wagon
Joshua A. Bickel
AP file
Harvested corn grain is dumped into a grain wagon at a farm near Allerton in October.

McLean County farmers are the top corn and soybean producers in the nation, according to the recent release of final 2023 crop production data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). McLean County farmers also finished in the Top 10 nationally in corn and soybean yield for the 2023 growing season.

“For total production in corn, McLean County ranked first across the entire U.S. with more than 70 million bushels of corn produced last year. Additionally, Illinois had the top six counties in the U.S. for total (corn) production. Iroquois, Livingston, Champaign, Bureau and LaSalle were numbers two through number six,” said Mark Schleusener, Illinois state statistician for the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS).

Tazewell County led the state and nation in soybean yield with an incredible harvest of 74.7 bushels per acre. Piatt, Moultrie, Champaign, Sangamon, McLean, Stark, Coles, Ford and Peoria counties ranked 2-10, respectively, in 2023 national soybean yield totals.

“For total soybean production, McLean County finished first in the nation again with 21.6 million bushels. Livingston, Iroquois and Champaign counties finished second through fourth in soybean production nationally,” Schleusener said.

McLean producer credits soils, tech for enhanced yields

Bart Bittner is a fifth-generation farmer whose Bittner Farms operates primarily east of the Central Illinois Regional Airport. Bittner, 49, credits the rich, arable soils of McLean County along with advances in seed hybrid technology for McLean County’s consistent top national rankings in corn and soybean production and yield.

“We’re just blessed with our soil here around the Bloomington area,” said Bittner, who also farms near Randolph, Heyworth, LeRoy and Normal. “We’re blessed with good-draining soils and organic material. We retain water (adequately) so we don’t have to have the rain maybe quite as often, yet we drain water well enough that we don’t hold water in a lot of places.

“We’ve also done a number of new (field) tiling projects over the years to get us in a situation where we’re in real good shape. Organic material and the depth of our topsoil are certainly among the things that make it great to be where we’re at.”

Bittner was extremely pleased with his crop production in 2023, though he didn’t offer specific yield numbers during an interview with WGLT. Locked into a traditional annual corn-soybean crop rotation, he described Bittner Farms as “a pretty conventional operation” with annual spring and fall tillage. These tried-and-true production practices led to another bountiful harvest in 2023, albeit not without challenges.

Bart Bittner with his family at an Illinois State University football game
Bart Bittner
Fifth-generation McLean County farmer Bart Bittner with his family at an Illinois State University football game.

“We were very pleased, especially given the way the year started. It was tremendously dry in the month of June with hardly any rain. At the end of June and beginning of July, we got some rains that really turned things around for us. We were very concerned towards the end of July about what the rest of the year was going to bring, but we got some pretty significant rain that kind of turned everything around,” Bittner said.

Another challenge to 2023 production came as a side effect of the crop-saving rains: high winds. Bittner was among central Illinois farmers to see entire stands of corn laid down by the derecho-type wind gusts that swept across the Midwest last summer. Wind gusts of up to 101 mph and hail sized up to 3.25 inches was reported in the area, according to the National Weather Service.

“Our corn was amazingly able to stand itself up, and we were able to get it harvested and have a much better crop than we thought we would have,” Bittner recalled. “We finished with better than trend-line yields; not a record year, but certainly a very good year here.”

Bittner credits crop seed technologies for providing hybrids that can withstand a variety of weather conditions and events with a portion of his farm’s success in row crop production and yield.

“A lot of it goes to the technology of the seed and the seed coatings we are putting out there and the practices we’re putting in place. We’re learning every year what works and what doesn’t, and we’ve been really lucky,” said Bittner. 

A family and neighborly affair

McLean County is second in Illinois in terms of total farmland acreage per county; with 630,369 acres, McLean trails only Iroquois County’s 664,294 acres. But McLean County's farmers form a rather small community that includes friends and neighbors willing to share their agronomic trials and successes with their fellow colleagues, according to Bittner.

“We have great neighbors, some who are partners in business with us,” he said. “It is not a cutthroat, win-at-any-cost atmosphere here. We all respect each other and are trying to be good neighbors. I really value the input I get from our neighbors, and I have learned a lot from them. It’s a very positive environment and one I am very glad my two (college-age) sons are interested in coming back to.”

Learning to protect his farm’s fertile soils has been an ongoing project that Bittner has embraced for the sake of future generations. Though he so far hasn’t committed to no-till or strip-till on any of his crop land, Bittner said he is becoming more and more interested in technology developing around precision tillage products.

“We’re always willing to look at that, and with all that’s going on in the marketplace and the technology out there, certainly we’ll be making changes as we move forward, especially as the next generation comes on,” he said.

“We’re in a position where we’re able to walk that fine line between not having to overload on fertilizers, and our rotation has helped with that as well. We’re currently spending most of our time with the beautiful weather of the last few weeks out in the fields taking care of anything that may need done in relation to fence rows or tile issues, and getting equipment ready for our spring push. We’re not the most progressive operation in the world, but we’re having real good results here year in and year out."

Final national production estimates revealed

The USDA's final estimate for total 2023 U.S. corn for grain production was a record high 15.3 billion bushels, up 12% from drought-plagued 2022 harvest numbers. The average corn yield in the U.S. was estimated at a record 177.3 bushels per acre, 3.9 bushels above the 2022 yield of 173.4 bushels per acre. Area harvested for grain was estimated at 86.5 million acres, up 10% from the 2022 estimate.

U.S. soybean production in 2023 totaled 4.16 billion bushels, down 2% from 2022. The average yield per acre was estimated at 50.6 bushels, up 1 bushel from 2022. Harvested area, at 82.4 million acres, was down 4% from last year, according to USDA.

USDA's county estimates for 2023 corn and soybeans are available online.

Tim Alexander is a correspondent for WGLT. He joined the station in 2022.