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Column: Crop Watch - U.S. growers pleased with field conditions as planting begins

FORT COLLINS, Colo. (Reuters) - U.S. corn and soybean growers did not necessarily get off to a fast start with planting this year, but good field conditions have allowed some Crop Watch growers to get an earlier start than usual, a huge relief after last year’s record delays.

Soybeans are harvested from a field on Hodgen Farm in Roachdale, Indiana, U.S. November 8, 2019. REUTERS/Bryan Woolston

With memories of last year fresh on the brain, some growers are not waiting for perfect conditions to start planting. If that approach is sufficiently widespread, it could accelerate weekly progress more than expected. However, conditions are not far from perfect in some of the most highly productive areas.

Crop Watch 2020 will follow one corn and one soybean field in eight major U.S. Corn Belt states, and these are the same eight growers who participated in the 2018 and 2019 versions of Crop Watch. Weekly updates on these fields can be expected starting around late May or early June and will last through harvest.

The first Crop Watch fields to be planted were generally ahead of the 2018 schedule, and easily ahead of a year ago. The Kansas corn was the first to be planted, on April 18, and Illinois followed on April 19 with soybeans and April 20 with corn.

The Iowa corn went in on April 21, the same date as last year’s field, which had been the first Crop Watch 2019 field planted, the only one in April. The Minnesota producer began sowing his corn field on Thursday, earlier than the May 4 and May 7 planting in 2019 and 2018, respectively.

In 2018, seven of the 16 fields were planted in April and the rest were completed in May. Last year, five of the 16 were planted in June. The average planting date for the 16 fields was May 5 in 2018 and May 19 last year.

The Nebraska grower is aiming to plant his Crop Watch corn and soybeans next week, and the Iowa and Kansas producers have the same plan for their soybeans. The Minnesota soybeans should be planted in the first week of May, and the Ohio grower could potentially plant his corn and soybeans the same week, if field conditions improve.

The North Dakota fields also depend on improving conditions, but the corn and soy there could be planted mid-May if everything goes well.

The following are the states and counties of the Crop Watch corn and soybean fields: Griggs, North Dakota; Freeborn, Minnesota; Burt, Nebraska; Rice, Kansas; Cedar, Iowa; Crawford, Illinois; Boone, Indiana; Fairfield, Ohio.

BETTER CONDITIONS

Last year was a real pain for U.S. farmers, as the extremely wet spring caused historic planting delays. The later planting and extremely wet conditions generally did not allow for great yields.

Soil moisture is still largely above average across much of the Corn Belt, but the ground has been on a drying trend over the last several weeks, and that has allowed many farmers to get started on time.

The Illinois and Iowa Crop Watch growers have both mentioned “ideal” when asked to describe the field conditions. The Iowa farmer said the difference between this year and last is “night and day.” The Illinois grower said that current planting conditions may be the best in several years and he is optimistic for a big crop.

The southern Minnesota producer noted that the area has recently had several consecutive challenging springs that were either too cold, too wet or both, but things are looking better this year.

Central Kansas was way too wet last year and was amid a horrible drought in 2018, so conditions this year seem much better by comparison. The grower says field conditions are good but not great, as they were in 2016 and 2017.

Things are a lot less favorable in central Ohio, which has been seasonably cool. The soils are still too wet to plant, but the producer has been doing field preparations and he is confident he can hit the ground running as soon as the fields are fit. He is not yet concerned about delays.

So far, producers in the areas that have started planting report mostly average progress in the last several days except for Kansas, where corn planting has been rampant. So far, most of the producers have not heard of many folks in the area changing their original planting plans, like switching from corn to soybeans, for example.

However, the Minnesota grower changed to a 50/50 corn/soybean split from 60/40 because of the lousy corn prices and the relatively higher input costs.

NORTH DAKOTA IMPROVEMENTS

The East Central North Dakota grower hit an unfortunate milestone this year as he left corn in the field through the winter for the first time. The 2019 Crop Watch corn field was finally harvested on March 12, exactly 300 days after planting.

Final yield was 9% below the recent average, but that could fall even more if the farmer ever gets to the remaining 12% of the field he could not access. That yield result likely paints a much better picture than the reality, since test weights came in around 47 to 48 pounds per bushel. In a normal year, test weights in the area run between 52 and 56 pounds per bushel.

Those lower test weights will dock the producer significantly when he sells it to an elevator. He is also concerned about the long-term storage prospects of this corn given the poor quality.

The producer estimates that in his area, about 10% to 20% of last year’s corn crop remains in the field today. His area was just about the hardest hit moisture-wise in the entire state last year, but he is hopeful for a better spring this year.

The lack of heavy spring snow has been favorable for the drying of the extremely waterlogged soils, but the moisture profile is still full. Without a switch to a wetter pattern, area farmers could have a decent planting season. The Crop Watch grower reports he would be happy if he did not see rain again until June.

If conditions hold, the North Dakota corn field could be planted a week earlier than last year’s date of May 17, and that was a week earlier than in 2018. The grower aims to plant soybeans around May 18, compared with June 2 last year and May 29 in 2018.

The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a market analyst for Reuters.

Editing by Matthew Lewis

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