Feed Grains Sector at a Glance

Sector at a Glance

The major feed grains are corn, sorghum, barley, and oats. Corn is the primary U.S. feed grain, accounting for more than 95 percent of total feed grain production and use.   

  • The United States is the largest producer, consumer, and exporter of corn in the world.
  • On average, U.S. farmers plant about 90 million acres of corn each year, with the majority of the crop grown in the Heartland region.
  • Most of the crop is used domestically as the main energy ingredient in livestock feed and for fuel ethanol production.  
  • Corn is also processed into a multitude of food and industrial products including starch, sweeteners, corn oil, and beverage and industrial alcohols.
  • U.S. corn exports are on the rise and account for an average of 15 percent of the country’s total use.

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Corn is grown in most U.S. States, but production is concentrated in the Heartland region (from the Great Plains through Ohio). Iowa and Illinois, the top corn-producing States, typically account for about one-third of the U.S. crop.  

Because of provisions in the Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform Act of 1996 that permits farmers to make their own crop planting decisions based on the most profitable crop for a given year, corn acreage in the United States has increased from a Government-mandated low of 60.2 million planted acres in 1983 to close to or exceeding 90 million since 2018.  Much of this growth in area and production is a result of expanding ethanol production, which now accounts for nearly 45 percent of total corn use.  While the number of feed grain farms (those that produce corn, sorghum, barley, and/or oats) in the United States has declined in recent years, the acreage per corn farm has risen. Moreover, the number of large corn farms (with more than 500 acres) has increased over time, while the number of small corn farms (with less than 500 acres) has fallen.   

Corn production has risen over time on increased area and higher yields. Improvements in technology (seed varieties, fertilizers, pesticides, and machinery) and in production practices (reduced tillage, irrigation, crop rotations, and pest management systems) have significantly boosted harvest volumes over the past two decades.

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Strong domestic demand for livestock feed and fuel ethanol coupled with growing exports has led to higher prices, providing incentives for farmers to increase corn acreage. In many cases, farmers have increased corn planted area by shifting acres away from less-profitable crops. Corn production has also expanded to nontraditional growing areas, especially in the north, as short-season hybrids have been developed. 

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Corn is a major component of livestock feed. Feed use, a derived demand, is closely related to the number of animals (cattle, hogs, and poultry) that are fed corn and typically accounts for about 40 percent of total domestic corn use. The amount of corn used for feed also depends on the crop's supply and price, the amount of supplemental ingredients used in feed rations, and the supplies and prices of competing ingredients.   

Corn also has food, seed, and industrial (FSI) uses, the most significant of which is fuel ethanol. Total FSI makes up close 60 percent of total domestic corn use.

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Aside from fuel ethanol, corn is also processed for human consumption and other industrial uses. During processing, corn is either wet or dry milled depending on the desired end products:   

  • Wet millers process corn into high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), glucose and dextrose, starch, corn oil, beverage alcohol, industrial alcohol, and fuel ethanol.
  • Dry millers process corn into flakes for cereal, corn flour, corn grits, corn meal, and brewers grits for beer production.   

Corn is the largest component of the global trade of feed grains (corn, sorghum, barley, and oats), generally accounting for about 80 percent of the total volume over the past decade. The United States is the world's largest corn exporter and exports between 10 and 20 percent of its total production volume. The largest international markets for U.S. corn are Mexico, China, Japan, and Colombia. Corn export competition from Brazil, Argentina, and Ukraine has grown over time in response to increased worldwide demand and total shipments from these countries comprise more than 50 percent of the global annual corn trade.