Participants in an annual tour of the U.S. corn belt are finding evidence that a recent U.S. government forecast for record production this year may be overstated and that hot weather has harmed the crop.
Dozens of people -- among them farmers, agronomists and journalists -- inspecting fields on this week’s Pro Farmer Midwest Crop Tour are reporting corn yields that trail projections made by the U.S. Department of Agriculture less than two weeks ago.
While the tour is little more than halfway through, and the findings are not entirely clear-cut, they nevertheless point to crop conditions that lend some support to corn, the price of which is heading for a fourth straight yearly decline following a series of bumper harvests.
The Pro Farmer tour is a fixture on the U.S. grain market calendar, providing on-the-ground intelligence just ahead of the harvest season. Attendees are organized into two legs that visit a total of seven states. Small groups travel hundreds of miles each day by car on designated routes, stopping off every 12 to 15 miles to count viable corn ears and the number of grain kernels, as well as measuring the number of soybean pods.
"It looks a lot better from the road than what it does" in the field, said Matt Bennett, a tour participant and owner of Windsor, Illinois-based Bennett Consulting, noting plant-health problems and the high presence in Nebraska of “green snap,” a phenomenon where corn stalks break from high winds during rapid-growth stages. “In my opinion, the Nebraska crop’s been overstated."
Field inspections on the tour in Nebraska, the third-largest U.S. corn grower, collected 258 crop samples that showed yields averaging 158.6 bushels an acre, down 4 percent from tour data compiled a year earlier. That also compares with the government forecast for the state’s yields to rise 1.1 percent to 187 bushels an acre. Tour data also showed corn ears measuring 6.8 inches (17 centimeters) on average, down from 7.16 last year, while ear counts rose slightly.
Chip Flory, editorial director of Pro Farmer, the publishing company organizing the tour, said corn ears on his Tuesday route through southeastern Nebraska were shorter than a year ago partly because of above-normal temperatures and nighttime heat.
Average yields in South Dakota also dropped from last year, tour data show. And while the numbers suggest yields gaining 21 percent in Indiana, that would still be short of the 25 percent jump forecast by the USDA.
High daytime temperatures and hot, humid nights caused corn ears to lose kernels, Brian Bush, an agronomist for Dupont Co.’s Pioneer seed division, said in an interview in Fishers, Indiana. “The corn plant used energy to cool off rather than make kernels. Cloudy weather also robbed corn potential.”
Elsewhere the picture was mixed. Yields measured in Ohio were little changed from a year ago, contrasting with the increase predicted by the government. Findings from western Iowa were for an average yield higher than last year, but lagging behind the USDA’s view. And in Illinois, the tour showed plants are on track to meet the USDA’s prediction they will match 2014’s record of 200 bushels an acre.
Overall, the fact that conditions in the middle of some corn fields are worse than how they appear from the roadside may account for the disparity with the USDA’s outlook, which uses a different methodology, including field inspections, farmer surveys, and satellite images.
Recent price activity indicates traders were already skeptical of the USDA outlook. Corn futures in Chicago have risen as much as 3.8 percent since the government issued its report Aug. 12. Corn for December delivery fell 0.3 percent to close at $3.3625 a bushel at 12:25 p.m. on the Chicago Board of Trade.
There’s more data to collect in Illinois and Iowa, the two largest corn- and soybean-producing states, before the tour concludes Friday. While the numbers may be bullish for corn prices, the data for soybeans so far is mixed, showing soybean-pod numbers rising in Indiana and Nebraska from last year while they are down in Ohio, Iowa, Illinois and South Dakota, Like corn, the USDA outlook is also forecasting a record crop for this year.