High-yield irrigated maize in the Western U.S. Corn Belt: I. On-farm yield, yield potential, and impact of agronomic practices

Patricio Grassini, John Thorburn, Charles Burr, Kenneth G. Cassman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Quantifying the exploitable gap between average farmer yields and yield potential (YP) is essential to prioritize research and formulate policies for food security at national and international levels. While irrigated maize accounts for 58% of total annual maize production in the Western U.S. Corn Belt, current yield gap in these systems has not been quantified. Our objectives were to quantify YP, yield gaps, and the impact of agronomic practices on both parameters in irrigated maize systems of central Nebraska. The analysis was based on a 3-y database with field-specific values for yield, applied irrigation, and N fertilizer rate (n=777). YP was estimated using a maize simulation model in combination with actual and interpolated weather records and detailed data on crop management collected from a subset of fields (n=123). Yield gaps were estimated as the difference between actual yields and simulated YP for each field-year observation. Long-term simulation analysis was performed to evaluate the sensitivity of YP to changes in selected management practices. Results showed that current irrigated maize systems are operating near the YP ceiling. Average actual yield ranged from 12.5 to 13.6Mgha-1 across years. Mean N fertilizer efficiency (kg grain per kg applied N) was 23% greater than average efficiency in the USA. Rotation, tillage system, sowing date, and plant population density were the most sensitive factors affecting actual yields. Average yield gap was 11% of simulated YP (14.9Mgha-1). Time trends in average farm yields from 1970 to 2008 show that yields have not increased during the past 8 years. Average yield during this period represented ∼80% of YP ceiling estimated for this region based on current crop management practices. Simulation analysis showed that YP can be increased by higher plant population densities and by hybrids with longer maturity. Adoption of these practices, however, may be constrained by other factors such as difficulty in planting and harvest operations due to wet weather and snow, additional seed and grain drying costs, and greater risk of frost and lodging. Two key points can be made: (i) irrigated maize producers in this region are operating close to the YP ceiling and achieve high levels of N use efficiency and (ii) small increases in yield (<13%) can be achieved through fine tuning current management practices that require increased production costs and higher risk.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)142-150
Number of pages9
JournalField Crops Research
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 14 2011


  • Exploitable yield gap
  • Maize
  • On-farm yield
  • Simulation model
  • Yield potential
  • Zea mays L.

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Agronomy and Crop Science
  • Soil Science


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