Column: Slow U.S. corn planting threatens already-light acreage plans

Corn grows in a field outside Wyanet, Illinois, U.S., July 6, 2018. REUTERS/Daniel Acker/File Photo

NAPERVILLE, Ill., May 9 (Reuters) - The first week of May should be the busiest of the spring for U.S. corn planting, but cooler, wet weather curbed farmers’ progress yet again last week. As of Sunday, the planting pace was the second-slowest for the date since 1993.

Warm and dry weather this week should facilitate much more corn planting over the next few days, but there may still be negative implications for acreage in a year where farmers’ intentions were much thinner than market predictions.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s statistics service on Monday said that 22% of U.S. corn had been planted as of Sunday, below the trade expectation for 25% and well off the date’s average of 50%.

That is the slowest May 8 pace since 2013 and it represents an 8 percentage-point increase from the previous Sunday, tied with 2019 and 1993 for the lightest-ever gains for the week. The long-term average gain for the week ended May 8, usually the spring's most active planting week, is 21 points.

U.S. corn planting remains the slowest relative to average in the top producing states. Iowa had planted 14% of its crop versus 63% average, Illinois was 15% complete versus 58% average, and Minnesota was 9% versus a five-year average of 48%. These states grew 41% of the national crop in 2021.

WEEK AHEAD

The week ended May 15 usually features an 18 percentage-point gain in corn planting progress, which if reached would put next week’s completion at 40%, just ahead of 2019’s pace but slower than 2013. The five-year average for May 15 is 67%, which would require an unprecedented 45-point jump this week.

The most ever was 43 points in the week ended May 19, 2013, and farmers had also planted 43% of the corn crop in the week ended May 10, 1992. Thirty-six-point weeks were observed in 2015 and 1984.

Temperatures across the Corn Belt this week could approach 20 degrees Fahrenheit above average levels, and most areas will be on the drier side. However, recent rains in some states could keep farmers out of the fields until at least the middle of this week.

I posted a poll on Twitter Monday asking about this week’s planting pace and nearly 500 U.S. producers had responded by early evening. Some 35% said their progress would be faster than normal and 21% said average pace was more likely, but 44% said their activity would be slower than normal.

Voters’ locations are unclear, but a couple had identified as being in the Dakotas or Ohio, all of which observed larger rainfall amounts in the last few days. This means a 43-point week like in 2013 might not be in the cards right now, ensuring the overall pace stays slow.

LOWER ACRES?

Analysts were shocked on March 31 when USDA revealed U.S. farmers would reduce their corn plantings by 4% from last year to 89.5 million acres. Corn supplies are already tight and prices are at near-record levels, and the smaller acreage leaves no room for error with summer weather.

There are only four years in the last three decades where May 8 corn planting progress compared with 2022: 1993, 1995, 2013 and 2019. Final corn plantings in those four years were at least 2% lower than what had been reported in March.

U.S. corn planting progress May 8 versus final acres

The slowest May 8 planting pace where corn acres still rose from March to final was 44% in 2009. A possible explanation for that is that corn prices were relatively strong versus soybeans throughout the planting period.

That has been the case this year, too, but the expensive inputs have made the predictions more challenging. Insurance guarantees for corn in 2022 were near record highs back in February, but farmers still reported the lower acres to USDA in the following weeks.

The trend of U.S. corn acres from here is unknown as the current waters are truly uncharted, but there are a couple of possibilities. The normal reaction, farmers cutting corn acres, could occur this year because of the planting delays. But nothing about this year is normal.

On the one hand, sky-high corn prices and the potential for decent profits could have some farmers pushing corn plantings this year when they otherwise might not, and that could maintain some acres from March. Producers pushed hard on corn very late into the 2019 window when prices rallied on the delays.

But high fertilizer prices and availability issues may not have some farmers as eager to plant the yellow grain if they have missed their ideal planting window, because they may not want to use the expensive chemicals on a field that may already have higher yield risks due to planting date.

Karen Braun is a market analyst for Reuters. Views expressed above are her own.

Editing by Matthew Lewis

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As a columnist for Reuters, Karen focuses on all aspects of the global agriculture markets with a primary focus in grains and oilseeds. Karen comes from a strong science background and has a passion for data, statistics, and charts, and she uses them to add context to whatever hot topic is driving the markets. Karen holds degrees in meteorology and sometimes features that expertise in her columns. Follow her on Twitter @kannbwx for her market insights.