USDA: Growers making up for lost time in planting corn, thanks to drier conditions

ST. LOUIS – U.S. farmers who could only watch helplessly this spring as storm after storm left their fields a muddy mess took to their tractors en masse last week and planted a record amount of corn acreage, even in areas where conditions are still far from perfect.

Until last week, Corn Belt farmers were enduring their slowest planting season in decades because of the wet weather. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture said in its weekly crop progress update that 71 per cent of the corn crop in key grain states had been sown as of Sunday. That’s up from just 28 per cent a week earlier, and it brought the figure closer in line to the 79 per cent average that farmers had planted by this point in the season over the previous five years.

Huge strides are being made in Iowa, the nation’s leading corn-producing state, where 71 per cent of the state’s corn crop is in the ground. That’s more than quadruple what had been planted just a week earlier. Three-quarters of Illinois corn crop is sown, as is 70 per cent of the crop in Missouri, Kansas and Minnesota.

That one-week rally — 43 per cent of the nation’s corn crop planted over seven days — was only outdone by a week in 1992, when farmers had significantly fewer acres to plant, according to Tuesday’s Daily Livestock Report. But “when accounting for the increase in corn acres that are expected to be planted this year, (last week) is by far the biggest number of acres ever planted in a one-week window,” the report said.

At this time last year, nearly all of the corn crop — 95 per cent — had been planted. A warm early spring allowed farmers to get their tractors into the fields weeks ahead schedule.

Such favourable conditions have been anything but the case this season for central Illinois’ John Olsson, among so many Midwest growers who until the past week had been bogged down by an especially soggy spring.

A year since he already had his 700 acres of corn and 600 acres of soybeans both in the ground by this time, persistent rains since last month have kept him largely idled until last week, when he finally — perhaps impatiently — was able to fire up the tractors to start planting and play catch-up, even if the soil remained wetter than he’d like. As of Tuesday, he figures, he’s got all but 200 of his 700 acres of corn seeded.

“I don’t think we’ve ever been this late with the corn,” the 51-year-old farmer of nearly three decades said Tuesday, a day after rain soaked his land near New Berlin yet again. “Every day, you just try to find a field you can go work in. You wait for it to dry out for days, then it turns around to rain like this.”

Still, he trumpeted, “we got more done in the past five days than in the previous five weeks. It eventually will get planted, just not as early as we should to take advantage of the yield potential.”

When it comes to planting corn, time can be of the essence in determining how the crop fares. While May often is considered the ideal month for sowing corn, each day the planting is delayed makes it likelier the yields will suffer, all the while slowing efforts to get the soybeans planted.

“We haven’t planted in dry conditions (this month) yet,” Olsson said. “Everything we’ve done is in fields that were marginal at best. With some you just grit your teeth and go through.”

Not surprisingly, the amount of the fledgling corn to emerge has languished. Some 19 per cent of the corn plants in most mid-America states have sprouted, less than half the pace — 46 per cent — over the previous half decade. At this time last year, the USDA said, 73 per cent of the nation’s soybean crop had broken through the soil.

Roughly a quarter of the nation’s soybean crop is in the ground, down from 71 per cent this time last year and the five-year average of 42 per cent.