January 16, 2013 / 8:51 PM / in 5 years

Rain needed by month's end for Argentina to hit corn target

* Sparse showers forecast for near term in grain belt
    * Cordoba, Buenos Aires, Santa Fe provinces getting dry
    * Corn in some areas entering key flowering stage

    By Hugh Bronstein
    BUENOS AIRES, Jan 16 (Reuters) - Argentina needs rain by the
end of the month to maximize corn yields and to realize
forecasts that the global supplier will have a record harvest of
28 million tonnes, farmers and agronomists say.
    Skies have been rain-free over the sprawling Pampas farm
belt and meteorologists see only sparse showers on the horizon,
raising concern that some fields will not be wet enough for corn
plants to take full advantage of their key flowering stages.
    Consumer nations, stung by high grain prices, are counting
on Argentina, the No. 3 world corn exporter, to help compensate
for last year's poor crop in No. 1 supplier, the United States.
    Estimates put Argentina's upcoming crop well above the
country's biggest ever harvest of 23.8 million tonnes in the
2010/11 season. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) upped
its estimate for Argentina to 28 million tonnes last week from
27.5 million tonnes. 
    "The harvest could be anywhere between 26 million and 30
million tonnes," said Melinda Sallyards, agricultural counselor
at the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires. "To hit the 28 million
mark, it would ideally start to rain over the next nine days."
    Weather maps show dryness throughout Cordoba province as
well as in northwestern Buenos Aires and southern Santa Fe.
    The Argentine government forecasts a total 2012/13 corn crop
of 28 million to 30 million tonnes. 
    But if showers do not develop before the end of the month,
farmers agree early-planted corn flowering may be stunted. This
would hurt yields and fuel worries voiced by the United Nations
that food prices will stay high in 2013 due to low stocks.
    Corn is widely used in food production and livestock feed. 
So higher corn prices could drive up prices for a variety of
foods, including meat.
    "We will start to worry about dryness if we do not get some
good rainfall by Jan. 25," said Santiago del Solar, who manages
thousands of hectares of corn and soy fields in Argentina's main
agricultural province Buenos Aires.
    The season started with the opposite problem, when strong
August-November storms flooded wide swaths of the Pampas.
    The soggy conditions delayed corn seeding and forced some
farmers to write off certain fields. But the wetness is also
expected to increase yields in the areas that were planted,
compensating for the flood-related losses.
    "The early-planted corn is outstanding and should give
record yields," del Solar said. "The downside is that some areas
were flooded and could not be planted, while other areas were
seeded much later than usual."
    After the record 2010/11 crop, the 2011/12 season was
hobbled by a six-week drought that hurt corn plants just as they
entered the delicate flowering stage, reducing last year's
harvest to 21 million tonnes.
    "This season we've got good soil moisture and we're getting
lots of sun with low temperatures at night, which is ideal,"
said Martin Fraguio, executive director of Argentine corn
industry chamber Maizar. "Per-hectare yields will be the highest
in our history."
    The previous record is 7.8 tonnes per hectare. Fraguio says
they should push closer to 8 tonnes per hectare this year. 
    About three weeks ago, the rains stopped and clouds cleared
in most parts of the grains belt.
    "So far this has been positive because it reduced excess
water and raised harvest expectations by allowing more areas to
be planted," said Eduardo Sierra, climate advisor to the Buenos
Aires Grains Exchange.
    "At this point, it needs to rain immediately in order to
avoid thermo-hydric stress on corn plants and hit the 28 million
tonne production target," Sierra added. "And the fact is the
forecasts show little rain through the end of January and
perhaps into the first days of February."

 (Editing by Bob Burgdorfer and Marguerita Choy)
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