CHICAGO (Reuters) - Traders and analysts do not typically start considering U.S. corn planting “delayed” unless progress is still slow by the time May begins.
But given the recent wintry weather and unusually idle machinery across the heart of the U.S. Corn Belt, the 2018 planting efforts are starting to feel even slower than what the data shows.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that as of Sunday, only 3 percent of the U.S. corn crop had been planted, below the five-year average of 5 percent. Last year, progress had reached about 6 percent by the same date.
The sparse progress is not shocking given that as of Monday, more than a foot (30 cm) of snow covered parts of the Upper Midwest and Plains after a late-season snow storm swept the area over the weekend.
And the weekend’s shot of winter is not a one-off event. Average temperatures so far in April have been more than 10 degrees F below normal in the top U.S. corn-growing districts. (tmsnrt.rs/2ERm20e)
In lead producer Iowa, the soil is colder than it has been in at least 20 years, averaging a couple degrees above freezing in the heaviest corn counties. Soils must be closer to 50 degrees F (10 degrees C) for field work to begin. (tmsnrt.rs/2ERvhxn)
Unfortunately for Midwestern farmers, colder-than-normal temperatures will likely stick around for at least another week, though forecasts are beginning to show promising signs of a warm-up at the end of this month.
These days, farmers can complete field work more efficiently than ever if conditions are right given technological advances in the equipment and data they use. It may be hard to envision right now, but it is possible that in a month, April’s planting woes will be nothing more than a memory.
As soon as the snow melts and the soil temperatures rise, farmers can begin preparing and planting their fields. The potential progress can be surprisingly rapid given cooperative weather.
Cold and wet conditions caused the 2013 corn planting campaign to move at one of the slowest rates in history, reaching just 7 percent complete by the end of April when closer to one-third is more typical.
But farmers got to work in a big way as soon as the chance came. They planted 43 percent – an estimated 42 million acres – of the crop in the week ended May 19, 2013, which perhaps remains the biggest corn-planting week in history. (tmsnrt.rs/2JMeTlz)
The most active planting week in 2017 was the one ended May 14, when progress surged by 24 percentage points. By that date, corn planting was 71 percent complete, close to the usual levels.
Farmers in Iowa, which grew 18 percent of last year’s harvest, set a record in the week ended May 8, 2011, by planting 8.5 million acres of corn, some 61 percent of the intentions. USDA has pegged 2018 Iowa corn acres at 13.3 million. (tmsnrt.rs/2vjirIV)
When corn planting lags too much, it means either that soybean planting will also occur later than farmers prefer or that corn plans could be scrapped completely in favor of planting soybeans.
In more extreme cases, farmers can collect prevented planting payments from the government if they are entirely unable to plant, but this is a last resort and is not at all the most profitable option.
But it looks like Midwestern farmers can put away doomsday thoughts this year because the weather might finally lend a helping hand at the end of the month, and this pattern could last into early May.
The U.S. Climate Prediction Center on Monday placed the chances of above-average temperatures in the Upper Midwest and Northern Plains during the last seven days of April at about 33 percent – the best odds for those areas in a long time. (tmsnrt.rs/2JNyEcq)
Precipitation across the Corn Belt is also likely to be near normal or below average during the last several days of the month, which is favorable for field work.
The latest monthly forecasts from the U.S. government CFSv2 model show that May is likely to be warmer than normal across the Corn Belt and could feature wetter conditions in the Northern Plains. This opposes Canadian and European models that show cold continuing for the Corn Belt in May, but these results may be a couple of weeks old.
(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a market analyst for Reuters)
Editing by Matthew Lewis