FEEDING a growing global appetite for proteins and serving a maturing domestic ethanol industry have led to a significant shift in acres planted to major crops in the U.S.
The "Prospective Plantings" report, issued last month by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, confirms the continuation of a long-term trend of additional corn plantings in many regions, coupled with fewer acres of cotton, rice and wheat.
USDA reported that farmers plan to seed 97.3 million acres of corn this year, up slightly from 2012, while planting slightly fewer acres of wheat and soybeans. Although the combined area planted to corn and soybeans is projected to be the largest on record, total acreage planted to crops in 2013 is expected to fall slightly.
On a national basis, corn acreage has seen the largest change in the past six years, growing from 78 million acres in 2006 to a whopping 97 million last year. That 24% increase is notable compared to a mere 1% growth in soybean acres, a 4% decline in wheat acres and a 20% drop in cotton acres.
An analysis conducted by University of Illinois farm management specialist Gary Schnitkey found that corn acres increased in most counties across the greater Corn Belt, with several counties in Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska seeing an increase of 30,000-60,000 acres. A large contiguous set of counties in the Dakotas and along the Red River Valley saw increases of more than 60,000 acres, the most pronounced change in corn acres in the country since 2006 (Maps).
Not surprisingly, most counties in the Corn Belt lost soybean acres as farmers in the region concentrated on producing more and more corn. Many counties in the so-called "I-states" -- Illinois, Indiana and Iowa -- lost more than 5,000 acres of soybeans between 2006 and 2012.
Unlike the case with some other crops, however, soybean acres simply moved south or west rather than disappearing altogether. Several counties in Minnesota and the Dakotas picked up more than 60,000 acres, while several counties in Kansas and within the Mississippi Delta planted additional soybeans.
Schnitkey's analysis revealed from where all of those additional acres of corn soybeans in the North came: Most areas in the Red River Valley and the eastern half of the Dakotas lost significant wheat acreage during the past six years as farmers opted to grow corn and soybeans instead of their typical staple crop.
The largest overall drop in planted acres since 2006 came in upland cotton, which fell 20% through 2011. While Texas and southern Georgia saw large increases in plantings, most areas on the Mississippi Delta moved their cotton acres to soybean production.
Although not studied in Schnitkey's analysis, rice acres are projected to decrease 3% this year to a mere 2.61 million acres. If realized, rice plantings will have fallen 28% since 2010, marking the smallest seeded area since 1987.
For cotton and rice producers in some regions, planting corn and soybeans simply makes more sense. The relative cost of producing corn and soybeans in the Corn Belt is much lower, and near-record prices mean profit margins are increasingly attractive. Since 2008, corn prices have grown more than 50%, but rice prices have remained stagnant.
Digging into the 2013 planting intentions data, the intensification of corn production in traditional corn states may be taking a bit of a breather. Illinois, for example, will plant 600,000 fewer acres of corn this year than last as the yield lag associated with corn-after-corn production leads some farmers to plant soybeans instead.
Schnitkey noted that corn acreage is projected to decrease in the states where the 2012 drought was most pronounced: Illinois, Missouri, Indiana, Kansas and Kentucky. States where drought was less problematic, including Iowa, Minnesota and North Dakota, are expected to see steady or increased corn plantings in 2013.
For North Dakota, the trend of producing more corn and soybeans at the expense of wheat appears set to continue, with corn and soybean seedings expected to grow a combined 650,000 acres and wheat slated to fall by 400,000 acres.
However, as USDA chief economist Joe Glauber told reporters after unveiling the plantings report, financial and meteorological circumstances between now and the time planting is done could certainly alter farmers' planting intentions.