4 min read.Updated: 13 May 2022, 12:50 AM ISTPatrick Thomas, The Wall Street Journal
Delays in getting crops started could cut into harvests amid already high grain prices
Farmers are in a race against the clock to get their crops in the ground this week, with planting of corn, soybeans and wheat well behind their usual pace.
Wet and cool temperatures in key parts of the Midwest have delayed farmers’ planting plans, leaving them days to get crops in the ground before they start to lose out on a bigger harvest. If they don’t, some grain traders say that already high prices for agricultural commodities could rise even more, with supplies thinning as farmers world-wide grapple with tough weather.
On Monday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said 22% of corn was planted, compared with 50% for the previous-five-year average. For soybeans, 12% was planted, compared with the previous-five-year average of 24%, and 27% of spring wheat was in the ground compared with a typical 47%, according to the USDA.
For corn the situation is particularly tenuous because corn planted after this week runs an increased risk of yielding less, agronomists say. With global grain markets already tight due to poor weather in key growing areas and Russia’s war in Ukraine, further disruptions to U.S. crops could push crop prices beyond current near-record levels, they said.
Jeff Ryan, a corn and soybean farmer in Cresco, Iowa, said under 10% of his crop is planted, and more rain Monday night further delayed his progress. In a typical year, he said, he finishes planting by May 10, but windy and overcast weather conditions this spring have left his soil too wet. With rain expected later this week, Mr. Ryan said he expects his yields to fall by between 10% and 20% if the weather doesn’t improve.
“It’s not looking real promising," Mr. Ryan said, adding that it will take him about 10 days to plant. “It all depends on the weather. If it’s just rainy enough and overcast, there’s not much you can do."
Corn crops usually produce less grain when planted in middle to late May, said Jeffrey Coulter, a University of Minnesota Extension corn agronomist, who advises regional farmers. When corn is planted after May 12, yields start to slip, but can stay high until around May 20, he said.
Some corn-producing states—such as Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota and North Dakota—have seen above-average precipitation over the past three months, according to data from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Wet soils in Corn Belt states have prevented farmers from getting their machinery into their fields.
Sean Elliot, a sixth-generation farmer in Iroquois County, Ill., planted his crop until midnight on Monday and got back out to the fields at 5:30 a.m. the next day to resume planting. Some of his land is still wet, but with more rain expected this weekend, Mr. Elliot said he is racing to get as much corn and soybean planted as he can this week. He has a drainage system installed that will help dry out his soil, but his neighbors that don’t will probably lose out on some of their yields, he said.
Farmers faced a similar situation in 2019, when record rainfall delayed planting and many either planted diminished crops or made insurance claims for unplanted acres. Corn production declined by about 5% that year, according to the USDA.
Further west, drought conditions are lingering in parts of major grain-producing states like Kansas and Nebraska, where dry soils make it difficult for farmers to successfully plant seeds.
Over 68% of the winter-wheat crop in the U.S. is in a severe drought, while spring-wheat states are stuck with excessive moisture, said Chandler Goule, chief executive of the National Association of Wheat Growers. In Minnesota, one of the largest spring-wheat growing states, 2% of the spring wheat is planted compared with 93% last year.
“The lack of moisture in the winter wheat and excessive moisture in the spring will affect yields and quality if we don’t see an immediate change in the weather," he said.
Seed and pesticide maker Corteva Inc. said the planting delays cut into some of the company’s first-quarter seed sales. While Corteva ships seeds to local sales representatives, it doesn’t recognize revenue until after the seeds make it to the farmer. Challenging weather conditions that began at the end of March pushed back purchases, the company said.
A tight crop supply globally has boosted grains prices. Year-to-date, corn futures are up 31% while soybeans have risen 19% and wheat has increased nearly 42%. The USDA on Thursday is expected to release its monthly world supply-and-demand report. If the report shows demand for grains in the coming year rising as inventories and new U.S. production shrinks, futures may rise further, according to analysts
Chuck Read, a fifth-generation farmer in Princeton, Ill., said he thinks he can get his 1,150 acres of corn and soybeans planted by the end of the week if the weather holds. “It’s important we have a good crop for food prices," he said. “We need to have a good crop especially with what’s happening in Ukraine."