Disappointment Sets In For Iowa Corn Growers

Tracy Busch assessed a partially harvested cornfield from his combine cab this week.

"The corn is standing well enough, but the ears are smaller and the yields are down," he said.

Busch said a field between Ames and Boone, IA, which a year ago yielded 200 bushels per acre, yielded between 140 and 170 bushels this year. The difference was too much rain in July and abnormally cool temperatures in the post-pollination period soon after.

"We lost a lot of nitrogen with all the rain in July, and it shows with the smaller ears," Busch said.

Good early planting conditions in April mean the corn crop is ready for harvest earlier than the traditional Oct. 1 start date. But the electronic yield monitors on combines so far have displayed disappointing results.

"Things aren’t very good," said Bruce Johnson, who farms just north of Ankeny, IA. "We’re seeing yields around 150 bushels per acre on a field that last year did 200."

Johnson was philosophical.

"We haven’t had a poor crop for a while, so we were due," he said. "We’ll get by."

The disappointment in this year’s corn crop is more acute because it started with such optimism. Farmers took advantage of unusually warm and dry weather around April 1 to do some of their earliest corn planting, a relief after the rain- and snow-delayed harvest of 2009.

"Boy, it was nice then," Busch recalled of the April planting days. "Then we had a frost in May, on Mother’s Day, and that was followed by all the rain. We’ve fought conditions ever since."

Doug Holliday of Adair said "people around here are pretty disappointed. They’re used to good yields. We knew it would be tougher this year."

Iowa farmers readily admit that the eruption in yields to a statewide average of 182 bushels per acre last year — vs. 166 bushels in 2006, 126 bushels in 1990 and 110 bushels in 1980 — has led them to think of a corn yield less than 180 bushels per acre as a poor year.

The question now is not whether Iowa’s crop will fail to match last year’s 182-bushel average, but the amount of the decline. The USDA’s latest forecast put Iowa’s yield this year at 179 bushels, a figure Iowa State University agronomist Roger Elmore said "may be a little on the optimistic side."

The Agriculture Department has dropped its national estimate from 165 bushels per acre to 162 bushels

A private forecasting company, Informa, put some jitters into the corn markets two weeks ago by lowering its estimate to 159 bushels per acre, which would translate to an Iowa yield of about 175 bushels. Those forecasts and the early gloomy reports from the combines have pushed corn prices to a two-year high of $5.05 per bushel.

On paper, that $5 price looks good. But it won’t help much if yields are down or if farmers contracted too much of their corn earlier this year at lower prices.

Iowa is the nation’s No. 1 corn-producing state, and sales from the 13 million acres of corn puts $10 billion or more into the state’s economy each year, the biggest chunk of Iowa’s agricultural sector.

"Everybody who sold corn forward earlier wishes they hadn’t," Holliday said. "But you can’t outguess the market."

Busch said: "I’m about 50 percent sold. I got a price around $4 per bushel, and that works for us.

"Frankly, that $5 corn causes a lot of problems," he said, reflecting problems all of agriculture had with volatile markets that reached record highs in mid-2008. "Five-dollar corn isn’t necessarily that good for us."

The early planting means a harvest earlier than usual. Farmers normally begin their harvest with soybeans. But the early maturity of the corn this year has meant corn could be harvested while farmers wait for rain-soaked soybeans to dry.

The earlier corn harvest gives farmers some protection from a usual harvest worry: early frost.

It also means that corn can dry better, reducing if not eliminating the ultra-wet conditions of fall 2009 that put heavy demands on the state’s grain-drying systems.

Kyle Chestnut unloaded corn harvested from the farm of his father, Scott, at the West Central Elevator east of Boone and said the load averaged 17 percent moisture. A year ago, farmers were struggling to dry corn with moisture levels of 25 percent or more, at least 10 points above the 15 percent required by processors and ethanol plants.

(Source: Dan Piller, DesmoinesRegister.com)

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