Sat Jun 8, 2019, 08:10 PM

After A Biblical Spring, This Is The Week That Could Break The Corn Belt

By The Washington Post

Corn Belt farmers are used to being at the mercy of the weather.

But they are not used to the weather being quite this merciless.

Through all of April and all of May, wave after wave of rain hit the nation right in the breadbasket, with April capping the wettest 12 months on record for the continental United States. The past 60 days, in particular, have coincided with planting season in much of the country.

States across the Corn Belt led the way, nearing or breaking previous precipitation records. Midwest cities from St. Louis to Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, have reported unprecedented rainfall. Data for May will be released later this week and can be expected to set more records.

Recent measurements show most of Illinois' famous topsoils are more waterlogged than they have ever been, University of Illinois economist Scott Irwin said.

Farmers cannot plant in that muck. It fouls their equipment and strangles their seeds. It is not enough for the rain to stop. The soil has to dry for as much as a week before they can plant again. According to the latest forecasts from the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration, that does not look likely.

It should have been prime planting season. In most years, almost every corn seed would be in the ground by now.

This is not like most years. As the calendar ticks toward the point of no return, new data released Monday shows farmers have planted 67% of the acres they had planned to put in corn. In key states such as Illinois (45%) and Indiana (31%), it is even lower.

When Sherman Newlin surveys the 2,250 acres he farms near Hutsonville, Illinois, he can still see standing water. It feels like a recurring nightmare. Farmers provide drainage and struggle to prepare the soil for planting, he said, "and then it rains, and you're back to square one."

"If we get another big rain, it's over," Newlin said.

Planting season is more loosely defined than you would think. Farmers are resilient, and commodity markets are responsive. Planting in June is so absurd that Midwest universities typically do not even test dates that late when determining optimal growing seasons, Irwin said. But if fears of a bad crop spread and corn prices rise enough - they are already up about 20% since their mid-May low - some farmers will plant late crops, even if they are likely to harvest far less per acre.

Even under the most generous definitions, much of the Corn Belt has only one hail-Mary planting window left. The coming week's weather will make or break this year's crop.

As a farmer who is also a full-time commodity broker, Newlin has a unique perspective on these calculations. He has watched his clients scramble all spring amid the relentless push and pull of weather and markets. They shift contracts, skip fertilizer and swap out seeds to make it work. But according to Newlin, the weather always wins.

"It doesn't matter how much the market rallies if you can't get into the field," he said.

The unplanted acres of corn are unprecedented, but those who focus exclusively on planting may underestimate the problem, University of Wyoming agronomist Andrew Kniss said.

After weather this wet, much of what has been planted will likely need to be replanted. Seeds are struggling. If they come up at all, growth could be stunted.

With 600 of about 1,200 corn acres planted, you would think Newlin was one of the luckier ones. But he said he will need to replant at least 240 of those.

"There are plants out there, but it's so uneven." he said. "You're just as well off to just tear the whole field up and start over."

In recent years, corn plants have typically emerged on about 84% of planned corn acres by this point. This year, it is at 46%. Illinois (32%) and Indiana (18%) are even farther behind.

And, Newlin said, the acres remaining to plant were always going to be the hardest. The farmers have already planted all their driest fields - the ones that are left are the ones that become most challenging in wet conditions.

For many farmers, the clock has run out on corn for 2019. Even if they work around the clock under optimal conditions, there just are not enough hours to finish planting.


I noticed just today on my trip into Stockbridge 100's of acres normally into corn/beans left unplanted.

Rain hasn't been that big a issue here but just not profitable to plant at todays prices.

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