Warmer than typical February and March temperatures has many farmers across Illinois, Iowa and Indiana itching to get into their fields. With uncertain weather, markets and moisture, though, experts urge farmers to remain patient until the time is right for planting.
“We’ve had a couple late frosts in late April and early May,” warns Mark Licht, Iowa State University Extension agronomist. He says corn, particularly, is more resilient than soybeans when it frosts. V4 corn’s growing point is below ground, he explains, and even if everything above ground dies, the plant can still put on new leaves.
Corn is expected to be the dominant choice again in the I states of Illinois, Iowa and Indiana. In 2015, farmers planted 30.85 million acres of corn compared to 24.2 million acres of soybeans in the region, and this year looks like it will follow the same trend.
“Until crops are planted, there will be some uncertainty about acres,” says Emerson Nafziger, University of Illinois Extension agronomist. “From what I’ve seen, I wouldn’t expect big changes from 2015, given the price concerns with both crops.”
What change does exist will be small in these major row-crop states, but right now, that tiny shift could favor soybeans in 2016. “I would estimate 2% higher soybean planting and 1% to 2% lower corn planting,” says Christopher Hurt, Purdue University professor of agricultural economics. “We have substantially better returns on soybeans over corn.”
Corn returns above variable costs are estimated at $186 per acre while soybeans are at $230 per acre, creating a $44 per acre advantage in soybeans, according to Hurt.
Some farmers are considering additional alternatives to earn premiums or to lower their costs per bushel. “There is more interest in non-GMO this year than there was last year,” says Licht, who works with Iowa farmers. “There is an approximate 40% savings in seed costs.”
Illinois farmers also see benefits to choosing non-GMO seed this year. “With insect resistance on the rise, the cost advantage of the rootworm Bt trait is diminished,” Nafziger says. “Some farmers use soil applied insecticide even with the trait, though it’s not clear that this is always needed.” Using a soil applied insecticide and an effective trait means a grower is essentially paying for the same thing twice and that’s not a smart financial move in a slumping farm economy.
Another option farmers are considering this spring to mitigate risk and potentially increase revenue is adding a third crop into rotation or double cropping.
“One rotation that does well is wheat double-cropped with soybeans,” Hurt says. He adds that this option isn’t available in all areas, although it’s not uncommon in southern Indiana. Depending the farm, it might be worthwhile for growers to add a cereal or another cash crop for additional cash flow.
It’s important to remember, however, third crops are not the best option for all geographies. “We have a study in western Illinois comparing corn-soybean and corn-soy-wheat rotations,” Nafziger says. “Neither site is good for double-cropping. It only works in the southern third of Illinois, and none of Iowa.”
While cost and return on investment is critical to any operation, weather concerns such as rain, drought, frosts, and more, might force a farmer’s hand at planting. “Our biggest issue coming into spring is weather,” Licht says. “We have full soil moisture levels now, and even normal rainfall in April and May could present delays because we have no additional water-holding capacity.”
Each expert recommends farmers understand what weather might indicate and be able to adjust planting, stand and yield expectations throughout the season based on weather events.
“I don’t think farmers with experience will let weather dictate what they grow,” Nafziger says. He explained one exception could be delays that push planting back into late May and June. At that point, it might be necessary to switch to soybeans to have enough season left to grow a good crop, even though weather risks increase with late planting.
Planting season, much like the rest of the growing season, is unpredictable. Farmers across the I-states should do their research, understand their breakeven points and find ways to maximize their potential returns before seeds go in the ground.
Spring Planting 2015: I-States
States: Illinois, Iowa, Indiana
Top contender: Corn
Sleepers: Non-GMO corn and soybeans, cereal third crops
Factors to watch: A wet spring or other delays could force farmers to change crops last minute based on growing-degree units.
AgWeb will be publishing additional planting preview stories in advance of USDA's Prospective Plantings report, which will be released March 31.
What is the most important factor you consider before planting? How does weather throw a wrench into your plans? Let us know in the comments.