Along with Santa Claus, La Niña blew into town in December. How long this cool Pacific water will last is a key question in determining U.S. growing season weather. Should it stick around, there's a chance we'll see planting delays again this year.
We'll go into spring with ample moisture. As the map below shows, a major portion of corn/soybean ground is very moist. Even normal precipitation into the planting sea-son will raise worries about delays. Markets could react strongly, especially given that many producers held off fertilizer application last fall and will need extra time to plant this year. (In December, more than half were still undecided what they will plant this spring; see "Outlook".)
In mid-January, parts of the Upper Midwest had already exceeded last year's record snowfall. "I'm very concerned that in the Red River Valley and the Dakotas, across to Wisconsin and Michigan, if we don't have brief thaws that let the snow melt gradually, we could see substantial flooding of the Red River, Minnesota River, the Upper Mississippi and maybe the Illinois and Ohio Rivers," says Fred Gesser of Planalytics in Wayne, Pa.
"Current conditions point to a similar start to last year," he says. Gesser believes it could be wet enough to delay corn planting in the Upper Midwest down into northwest Illinois and possibly some parts of the Ohio River Valley.
Pacific temps. In mid-January, the Climate Prediction Center reported that neutral Pacific temperatures suddenly turned into modest La Niña conditions in late December. Oceanic and atmospheric indicators suggest weak La Niña conditions are still in place, but a return to neutral could happen rapidly. Although near-normal values are expected to appear by early spring, Pacific Ocean temperatures may remain somewhat below normal through early summer.
"This raises the concern that the growing season could start out similar to last year's, with a wet and cool spring," says Allen Motew, a meteorologist with QT Weather. "However, although spring may be wetter than normal, I don't expect anywhere near the delays in planting that we experienced last year."
In fact, "if La Niña conditions shift to neutral earlier than last year, we would not expect unusual problems with excess moisture at planting," says Elywynn Taylor, Iowa State University agronomist. "The chance of extremely high temperatures in midsummer would also be reduced," as happened last year.
Larry Acker of 3F Forecasts in Polo, Ill., believes the Corn Belt will have a cold beginning but not a particularly rainy one. "It will be colder than normal nearly all season," he says, and late frosts are even possible.
Neutral summer. Looking further ahead, Motew says, "late summer and fall promise to fall solidly in neutral conditions. This means a two-thirds likelihood the Corn Belt will have normal precipitation and one-third risk of below-normal precipitation.
"I don't see a late-season bailout by tropical storms as we had last year, however," Motew says. "This means traders and producers will likely be on pins and needles all through the growing season."
In fact, Iowa State's Taylor comments, "very wet conditions at this time could be seen as a benefit to crops from Kansas all the way to Ohio as the season progresses."
Acker forecasts that "storms will be more scattered and erratic than usual due to the major storm cycle that began in 1999 and will last until 2012." However, he expects temperatures on the cool side.
"Weather will be favorable for growing corn with heavy test weight, but [be sure to] plant shorter-season varieties or the cost of drying wet corn will be very high," he says.
Acker expects a shift out of cotton, likely into soybeans. "Corn prices will have to rise by planting, or farmers won't be able to afford to plant corn," he says. "If prices rise, we'll see more corn planted."
Based on his computer programs, he expects a corn crop of 11.8 billion bushels; soybeans, 3.2 billion bushels; and cotton, 13.3 million bales.
Bottom line: Get fertilizer lined up, buy crop insurance and use rallies caused by weather scares to capitalize on uncertainty in the market.
Fertilizer Logjam Possible
Southern growers are champing at the bit to hit the fields this year. "History tells us they are willing to risk cool soils if they have the moisture and the drought has been busted in most of the South this year," says Fred Gesser of Planalytics. "If they go gangbusters, they could use up available fertilizer supplies.
"Add possible flooding in the Upper Midwest, and we could be facing problems with barge transportation for fertilizer coming up-river right at the time Corn Belt growers need it," he says. "It could be a perfect storm for fertilizer supplies, and what I have in my forecasts sets up that scenario."
To contact Linda H. Smith, e-mail LSmith@farmjournal.com.
Top Producer, February 2009