HOW late is too late to plant corn? While farmers last year had significant portions of their acreage planted and emerged by the end of April, they are likely chomping at the bit this year. Still, experts noted that the situation isn't dire -- yet.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's April 22 "Crop Progress" report shows that farmers had planted only 4% of this year's expected corn acreage, precisely one-quarter of the five-year-average planting pace for the week. By the final April report in 2012, on the other hand, farmers had 53% of the crop planted, and 15% was already emerged.
Keep in mind, of course, that under the right weather conditions, farmers can plant the nation's corn crop in an almost mind-bogglingly short expanse of time. That's why most crop production specialists last week urged calm as May approached.
For example, Purdue University Extension corn specialist Bob Nielsen said data suggest that the planting date itself accounts for only 23% of the variability in yields from year to year.
"The good news is that planting date is only one of many yield-influencing factors for corn," he explained, pointing to last year's crop, when 94% of Indiana's corn was planted by May 15 but yielded 38% below trend because of drought.
On the other hand, in 2009, Indiana farmers had planted only 20% of their corn crop by mid-May, and that crop's yield was 9% above trend levels.
Generally speaking, there is no "yield penalty" for not planting corn early, although farmers throughout the Corn Belt generally like to get the crop in the ground as early as possible. While the proverb was once "knee high by the Fourth of July," agronomic reality has inched ever closer to "knee high by Memorial Day."
According to research conducted by University of Illinois crop production specialist Emerson Nafziger, if all other conditions are equal, optimal yield potential can be obtained over a pretty broad window of planting dates. The "yield penalty" starts to accrue for planting dates beyond that window, which, in central Illinois, is roughly mid-May (Figure 1).
"It's not too late to get the planting and crop back on track," Nafziger wrote in a bulletin last week. "While yield potential will start to drop as we get further into May, chances of a good corn crop remain high, as long as weather permits planting soon and then returns to a more normal pattern of rainfall without summer drought periods like we've had the past three years in parts of Illinois."
Looking back at historical planting progress, he noted that while Illinois farmers very much want to plant corn in April, roughly 40% of the state's corn crop is planted by April 30 on average, and it generally takes most of May to get to 90% planted.
"Despite our anxiousness to finish planting by the end of April, Illinois data over the past 20 years do not show that early planting alone boosts yields," he explained. "In fact, there is no correlation between time to 50% planted and yield, as measured by departure from trend-line yield (Figure 2). Even if we eliminate 2012, percent planted by April 30 still only explains about 5% of the yield departure from trend."
In essence, the biggest advantage of planting early is not a yield boost, per se; it simply avoids the yield penalty of potentially planting after the optimal window, which is roughly defined as beyond May 20. As Nafziger concluded, what happens after planting and throughout the rest of the growing season is much more important than when the crop itself is planted.
So, when does it look like the stars will align for planting to commence? The possibility of more rain during the first week of May is a concern in the eastern Corn Belt, according to Indiana associate state climatologist Ken Scheeringa at Purdue.
"The rain over the next couple of weeks shouldn't be as heavy as it has been, but the frequency of rewetting of top soils is the problem," he explained. "We're in a wet pattern that isn't going to change in the immediate future."
Weather has started to become more of a driving factor in the markets -- and with good reason. While experts such as Nielsen and Nafziger cautioned that planting progress isn't dire yet, two other economists suggested last week that the market may not have adequately priced current planting concerns yet.
"To date, the corn market has not reflected substantial concern about the impact of late planting on 2013 average yield potential," University of Illinois agricultural economists Darrel Good and Scott Irwin wrote April 25. "December corn futures have declined by 40 cents/bu. over the past month and are at the lowest level since June 2012."
Good and Irwin speculated that the market may not be sweating planting dates yet because corn prices are already at relatively high levels or, perhaps, because planted acreage is expected to be record large. It may also be the case that traders correctly remember 2009, when a late-planted crop set a record average yield of 164.7 bu. per acre.
The reality of their analysis, however, is that a significant percentage of the 2013 crop may be planted after the optimal planting window. Based on the average rate of corn planting progress from 1970 to 2012 and the average number of days suitable for fieldwork from April 25 to May 20, they projected a scenario in which 26% of the crop will be planted past May 20 — a portion roughly equal to the late planting of 2009.
Another major weather-related issue emerged last week as concerns over low water levels on the inland waterway system turned to concerns over flooding on the Illinois River. A northern section of that river is expected to be closed for several weeks as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers works to repair the flood-damaged Marseilles Lock & Dam.
According to published reports, five of the lock's eight gates were damaged earlier this month when seven barges broke loose from a tow on the flooded river and cannot close fully without repair. The U.S. Coast Guard closed the Illinois River to all traffic from Florence to Lacon, Ill., due to the flooding.
The Illinois River situation led CME Group to declare force majeure April 25 due to the flooding as a majority of the shipping stations on the river are unable to load barges of corn and soybeans. CME uses several terminals on the northern stretch of the river as delivery points for its grain and oilseed contracts.
Rice Dairy senior feed grains analyst Jerry Gidel said he expects the CME declaration to mostly affect the May-July corn and soybean spreads entering this week's first notice day on the May contracts. He explained that the current delivery system largely serves the export market since bushels delivered to Illinois River terminals ultimately are shipped abroad through the Gulf of Mexico.
However, "that isn't where this year's nearby demand is located," Gidel said. "This year's demand is really at ethanol plants and the soybean crushers, not with the exporters on the coasts. Because of this, the spot month spreads probably won't have the leadership for the nearby tightness that previous planting periods have experienced."
Ethanol production ramped up considerably through late April, according to the weekly petroleum report from the Energy Information Administration. With production averaging 853,000 barrels per day for the week ending April 19, the second-largest weekly average of the year, ethanol plants were producing 84,869 metric tons of distillers grains per day.
POET Biorefining announced April 23 that it had resumed ethanol and distillers grain production at its Macon, Mo., refinery. The plant, which has a capacity for 45 million gal. of ethanol per year, had suspended operations Feb. 1 due to a lack of available corn.
Statistics Canada last week confirmed market suspicions that farmers in the prairie provinces plan to plant more wheat and less canola this season, weather permitting. Wheat planting intentions came in at 26.719 million acres versus 23.798 million last season, and canola acreage is expected to fall to 19.133 million acres from last year's 21.531 million.