Will Low Prices, Drought Dent Western Corn Belt Acres?

March 24, 2014 12:00 AM
Will Low Prices, Drought Dent Western Corn Belt Acres?

Editor's note: What should you expect in USDA's March 31 Prospective Plantings report? AgWeb.com editors are providing you in-depth looks at six key regions that will affect this year’s acreage mix.

This year, the West won’t be won without first addressing two ongoing issues – water (or lack thereof) and grain prices. The geography isn’t anticipating any big crop switch-ups, but weather and markets will drive more subtle changes this year, according to university agronomists.

WesternCornBeltFor example, Reagan Waskom, director of the Colorado Water Institute at Colorado State University, says tighter margins won’t drive farmers away from corn.

"Planted acres could actually be slightly up from last year, as snowpack conditions and reservoir storage is looking good for irrigated producers," he says. "Dryland corn producers are also likely feeling more optimistic about soil moisture conditions compared to the last couple of years."

Tighter margins may lead to other changes in production practices, however – most notably an increased adoption in strip tillage as producers attempt to reduce fuel and input costs.

In Kansas, corn acres could be either about the same or slightly down, says Ignacio Ciampitti, cropping systems Extension agronomist with Kansas State University. That’s because continued drought conditions in the state could have farmers switching over a small percentage of their acres to sorghum. Five of nine crop-reporting districts in the state have reported that more than 50% of their acreage is rated "short" or "very short" on topsoil and subsoil moisture conditions. Summer crops heavily rely on the water already stored in the soil at planting time, he says.

"Based on conversations I’ve had with farmers in January and February, corn acres might go down," he says. "It won’t be dramatic – they’ll continue to plant corn. But in the western part of the state, we’ll see some acres switch to sorghum, and the central and eastern part, we’ll see a switch to soybeans. We’re not expecting any big change, but likely more subtle shifts."

Winter canola is another crop enjoying an increased level of interest, Ciampitti adds. Kansas farmers planted 30,000 acres of this crop last year, and the acreage is expected to double for this season. More continuous wheat farmers are looking at its potential to break up that rotation and capture a yield gain of 5 to 10 bu. per acre when they plant wheat in rotation with canola.

Colder-than-normal temperatures dominated the winter weather in much of the Western Corn Belt, but warming tends to occur quickly throughout March, leaving little worry for planting delays.

"The weather still may affect how some operations approach management this spring," says Greg Kruger, weed ecologist and crops specialist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln . Most notably, farmers might struggle to get their pre-herbicide out this year, he says.

Kruger says drought conditions over the past two seasons won’t create big acreage shifts, although it has sparked interest in some new production practices and technologies, most notably variable-rate irrigation drought-tolerant hybrids.

But these researchers are quick to add that drought-tolerant hybrids are only a partial solution. Mother Nature still needs to play fair and deliver rain to the region this spring and summer. Randall Miles, association professor of soil science at the University of Missouri, says a lot of Midwest soils are still reeling from the devastating 2012 drought.

"The soil in Missouri is still dry about four to five feet down, where crop roots live," he says. "This is an improvement from a year ago, when two years of drought left many prime growing areas bone-dry down to almost six feet. However, without enough moisture and nutrients, crops will produce poor yields."

The recipe for a respite is a "long-term drizzly type of rain or snow to replenish the soil" – something few areas have seen so far this winter.

"People think that the problem is solved if we get a few good rains or some significant snowfall," Miles says. "We’ll need extraordinarily persistent rains for the moisture to get down 5’ where the roots of mature plants live. It could take weeks or months of water entering the soil surface to move into the 3-to-5-feet depth of the soil."

Miles says it might take another year of solid rain and soil to push soil back into normal moisture levels.


AgWeb’s Ongoing Prospective Plantings Preview Reports

Stay tuned for more regional reports and pre-report analysis of USDA's March 31 Prospective Plantings report. Here's a lineup of upcoming articles: 
  • March 25: The Dakotas (North Dakota, South Dakota)
  • March 26: The I States (Iowa, Indiana, Illinois)
  • March 27: The North (Minnesota, Wisconsin, New York, Pennsylvania)
  • March 28: The Delta (Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee)

What will you plant this year? Submit your crop plans to AgWeb Crop Comments by emailing cropcomments@agweb.com.



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