USDA expects a record corn year, despite drought and floods

Source: Tiffany Stecker, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, August 14, 2013

A 13.8-billion-bushel projection for corn this year signals a record high of acres planted, according to the Agriculture Department’s latest crop production outlook.

If realized, this would indicate a 28 percent increase over last’s year crop, which was devastated by drought over the Corn Belt. While acres have expanded, however, the yield — or number of bushels of corn per acre — has decreased from 163.6 bushels per acre in February to 154.4 bushels per acre, a nearly 6 percent drop. Nonetheless, the yields are up 31 bushels per acre from last year’s outcome.

Flooding in the Midwest led to a slow start to the planting season in the spring, and some acres were lost in the floods. In addition, a dry spell since the middle of June in the western Corn Belt has reduced the crop prospects, said Bryce Anderson, an agricultural meteorologist at DTN, an agricultural information service.

“The rain certainly delayed planting in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin, and there’s still a question on what final acreage is going to be in these states,” Anderson said.

Darin Newsom, a senior analyst with DTN, expects that this glut of corn will stimulate new demand within the country, and that 2013 could begin a series of record years for corn production.

“I anticipate seeing corn acres in the United States continue to climb up,” he said. “If [growers] can lock in a good price for 2013-2014 and 2014-2015, they are going to do anything they can to produce as much corn as possible.”

Soybean growers less fortunate

In May of last year, USDA predicted an even higher corn crop of 14.79 billion bushels. The final harvest was close to 10.8 billion bushels, still one of the largest crops on record. The harvest results are expected in October. Last year, the final tally on the damage from the Midwestern drought was not final until January (ClimateWire, Jan. 14).

The high corn output was lauded by ethanol trade groups the Renewable Fuel Association and Growth Energy.

“After the disappointment of last year’s drought-stricken crop, farmers have responded by producing what is likely to be the largest crop of all time,” said Renewable Fuels Association President and CEO Bob Dinneen. “By rapidly adopting new seed and equipment technologies over the past decade, this country’s corn growers have distinguished themselves as the most productive in the world.”

The “cool drought” in the western and northwestern Corn Belt dimmed the soybean outlook. At 3.26 billion bushels, the projection is about 170 million under last month’s reported production. This reduction will be exacerbated by a growing demand for soybean oil and meal for animal feed, especially as export to China, said Anderson.

This spring’s weather was not favorable to soybeans. With plantings delayed, soybeans went through their typical growth stage only after the weather turned drier. As of a month ago, soybean crops had not grown large enough to provide a “canopy” of leaves, said Anderson, based on his observations traveling in the Midwest.

Overall winter wheat crop a ‘pleasant surprise’

The crop production report also indicated an expected 1.54 billion bushels to be harvested for winter wheat, a 6 percent drop from last year in winter wheat after a long, extended drought from fall to spring in the Plains states and Rockies.

The nominal 6 percent decrease was “a pleasant surprise,” Anderson said, but the divide between western and eastern winter wheat areas was stark. A series of storms from late February to May showered the southern Plains with beneficial rains.

Wheat in Oklahoma, northern Texas and eastern Kansas — where soft red winter wheat is primarily grown — did relatively well given the drought conditions. Meanwhile, the hard red winter wheat regions of western Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska, and the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles experienced the worst harvest in nearly 45 years.

The lack of rain affected crops “pretty much the whole way through the growing season,”said Dalton Henry, director of governmental affairs for the Kansas Wheat Commission and Kansas Association of Wheat Growers. The state expects a 12 percent rise this year in acres of sorghum, a crop known for its tolerance to drought.

The report makes no mention of climate change, but Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has come out strongly in support of climate change adaptation for farmers. In a speech in June, he announced department efforts to help growers gain the tools to continue to boost production in a changing climate (ClimateWire, June 6).

“The threat of a changing climate is new and much different from anything we’ve ever tackled,” said Vilsack.