Expect the hand-wringing and sorrowful predictions to pick up momentum as more USDA Crop Progress reports are released. That’s not to say that the concern is unwarranted. But consume any dire predictions for a harvest disaster with caution.
According to the May 6 Crop Progress report, farmers are running behind schedule. Focusing on corn, which is the main feedgrain for cattle, 23% of corn was planted as of May 5, which was 13% less than last year and 23% less than the 5-year average. 6% emerged, which is 1% less than last year and 7% less than average.
While that’s concerning, don’t panic just yet. As we’ve seen in years past, farmers can drill a lot of seed in a very short time once they get in the fields. And early-maturing varieties are available as well.
Question is, when will they be able to plant? Rain and flooding in the Midwest have kept the planters in the machine shed so far and the forecast is for more, according to Chad McNutt with Livestock Wx.
“Over the past 30 days, parts of the eastern Corn Belt have seen a precipitation surplus of 200% or more,” he tells me. “That translates into 10 inches or more of moisture in parts of Illinois, Indiana and Ohio between the first of April to May 7. The western Corn Belt has been more moderate and has even seen below normal precipitation in Iowa and eastern Nebraska over the last 30 days.”
Remember, however, that this area has been and still is hit hard with flooding.
“Over the next two weeks, precipitation should ease up somewhat for the eastern Corn Belt with totals of 1 inch to 1.5 inches of moisture,” he says. “Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas, however, will see fairly significant rainfall of 3 inches or more during this time.
“Temperatures over the next two weeks will be moderate to below normal across the Corn Belt, which will not be of great help drying things out. All in all, soggy conditions will likely persist for most of the region through May.”
According to Bob Nielsen, Purdue corn specialist, conventional wisdom says the prime planting window to maximize corn yields closes about a week either side of May 10 in Indiana. “But hold on,” he writes. “How absolute are the negative consequences of late-planted corn?”
The answers are not clear cut. “If one reviews USDA-NASS Crop Progress reports for the past 25 years, there is not a strong relationship between planting dates and absolute yields or departure from trend yield on a statewide basis for Indiana.” He says there are a number of factors that influence yield in addition to planting date.
For instance, Eric Larson, Extension grain crops specialist at Mississippi State University, tells of a farmer who reminded him that his most productive corn last year turned out to be that which he almost didn’t plant. “This was likely because his early-planted corn struggled to develop a uniform, vigorous stand due to cool, wet conditions last spring.”
Indeed, the outlook isn’t rosy for this year’s corn crop. Many of you will remember the short corn crops of the early 90s, particularly if you’re a cattle feeder. Prices skyrocketed and it quickly became very expensive to put feed in front of cattle.
The flip side, however, is very good pasture and range conditions. The May 6 Crop Progress report shows that 49% of grazing land in the lower 48 is in good condition and 11% is in excellent shape. Grassland in fair condition comes in at 32%. That compares with 37% good, 5% excellent and 38% fair last year.
Corn and feeder cattle are the two main, and most expensive, inputs for a cattle feeder. Should corn prices spike over fears of a short crop, we’ll likely see that reflected in the feeder cattle market.
Stay tuned, because the window grows ever tighter as time marches on. But now is not the time to panic.