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Cool, wet spring dampening corn crop hopes

In a year of rising food prices and high fuel costs that are creating pressure to produce more ethanol, the country could really use a perfect corn crop. So far, it isn't happening.
Corn Slow Start
David Ray plants soybeans in his farm field near Loami, Ill. Ray had to switch to planting soybeans in fields where he wanted to plant corn due to delays caused by wet weather. Seth Perlman / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

In a year of rising food prices and high fuel costs that are creating pressure to produce more ethanol, the country could really use a perfect corn crop.

So far, it isn't happening.

And depending on the right mix of sun, heat, rain and cool, it could drive prices up even further. That may mean consumers will be spending even more for groceries like soda, cookies, cake or anything that contains high fructose corn syrup and for any meat that relies on corn as animal feed.

A cold, wet spring put crop planting weeks behind schedule across much of the U.S. Corn Belt and drastically slowed growth where corn is already in the ground.

Now, farmers in parts of Iowa, Illinois and Indiana are replanting corn that either sat under water in flooded fields too long to germinate or can't break through sodden, compacted soils. And the cool, soggy weather continues, the last thing a heat-loving crop like corn needs.

"It's starting to look like a very difficult year," University of Illinois agronomy professor Emerson Nafziger said.

Now, farmers and crop experts say it's up to the weather to deliver an ideal growing season to make up for the slow start.

"I haven't given up hope yet," said Roger Elmore, a corn expert at Iowa State University.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture said this week 88 percent of the corn crop has been planted. Last year at this time, farmers were all but finished. This year's figure doesn't account for farmers who have to replant — that number won't be known for possibly months.

The later corn is planted, the less it will yield, Nafziger said. Corn planted in mid June in central Illinois, for instance, is likely to produce only about half what it would if planted in early May.

Late planting and USDA projections that farmers will plant less corn this year — in spite of heavy demand for corn to make ethanol, animal feed and other products — have propped up corn prices, keeping them near record highs.

Those prices, while potentially adding to already high prices for food, offer farmers like Terry Bartley the prospect of a lucrative year.

Now, though, Bartley is replanting almost half his Illinois crop — 195 acres — costing an extra $45 to $50 an acre. That will take at least $8,700 out of his pocket now and he stands to lose even more down the road because the late planting means less corn will be produced.

"I think most of the guys in this area are going to have to replant every acre of it," the 46-year-old said from Iuka, about 75 miles east of St. Louis.

Elmore says he's hearing similar reports from around Iowa, the nation's top corn state. Iowa farmers grew 13.85 million acres last year, about 16 percent of the U.S. corn crop, according to the USDA. Illinois was the No. 2 producer, with 13.05 million acres.

This year's Iowa crop, Elmore says, was planted wet, then rained on some more.

"If you plant wet and you get a hard, driving rain afterward, it pulverizes the soil," he said. "And you get a pretty hard, dry crust on the soil."

Young plants, he said, can't punch through.

Other fields, he added, sat in water for days. They'll likely have to be replanted.

National Weather Service maps show wet, soggy soil stretches across the heart of the Corn Belt, from eastern Nebraska and Iowa through Ohio, where only two-thirds of the crop is in the ground.

In southern Indiana, many fields haven't dried out long enough to allow farmers to plant — period, said Purdue University corn expert Bob Nielsen.

Even a month after farmers would like to have their corn planted, "there's probably still quite a few fields that are too wet to get into," he said.

Only 77 percent of the state's expected corn crop is planted, according to the USDA. Indiana farmers were essentially finished planting this time last year.

For farmers to make up ground lost to late planting, Iowa State's Elmore said, skies need to clear and temperatures need to rise in the next few weeks. That would encourage plant growth. Then, Elmore says, the weather needs to cool a little to slow growth and allow ears to fill with grain.

But forecasts offer potentially bad news. The weather service expects cooler, wetter weather than usual for the next month in the Corn Belt.

In states where farmers have planted most of their corn, the weather has slowed growth.

"Everybody's standing around waiting for the sun to come out here and see the corn crop catch up as much as possible," Keith Glewen of the University of Nebraska Extension Service said. "We're probably two weeks behind normal."

What all this means for food costs and the ethanol industry — already under pressure for using a quarter of last year's corn crop and contributing to food-price escalation — will depend on the next few months.

Corn futures investors already appear to have priced in the delays in spring planting, according to Elaine Kub, a grain-market analyst with Omaha, Neb.-agricultural data firm DTN.

Prices haven't moved much this week on the Chicago Board of Trade, and were steady near a historically high $6 a bushel Friday.

Where prices go now, Kub said, depends on what farmers can coax from the ground and whether they'll get the right mix of sun, rain, heat and cool.

"In a couple of weeks, when we get into mid June, that's when we look at the weather," she said.