This spring, the South continued its transformation into a corn and soybean producing region. With cotton markets depressed, the old king of Southern crops is toppling from its throne, turning much of the region into a Midwest look-alike.
The most stunning news came from Mississippi, where farmers geared up to plant only 300,000 acres of cotton, the same as Missouri's compact Bootheel production area, yet planned to push soybeans well beyond 2 million acres along with at least 630,000 acres of corn. Compare that with 2006, when Mississippi raised 1.2 million acres of cotton, 1.7 million acres of soybeans and 330,000 acres of corn.
"Those are pretty remarkable numbers, especially for cotton. For Mississippi, that's the big story. We're looking at a big soybean acreage, and corn is going to be a big crop for us in historic terms. If those numbers move at all, my guess is that corn might go up some,” says John Anderson, Mississippi Extension ag economist.
Other Southern states may not experience the extreme acreage shift Mississippi has, but most report soybean acres increasing, with cotton falling. Eric Prostko, Georgia Extension weed specialist serving as interim soybean team leader, expected his state to plant 500,000 acres of soybeans this year. He was surprised when USDA's Prospective Plantings Report released March 31 put that number at 400,000, a 30,000-acre drop from 2008, along with corn at 350,000 acres, down 20,000 from last year. The report projected cotton at 940,000 acres, the same as the year before.
"I think it all depends on what happens during the final week or two of the optimal planting window for corn,” Prostko says.
As much as 20" of rain fell in parts of south Georgia during early spring, disrupting the normal corn planting season. "It really messed things up and delayed planting. If farmers can't get that corn in during the optimal time, they might shift some of those acres to soybeans,” Prostko says.
A similar weather pattern existed in North Carolina, where rains kept corn planters out of the field during the end of March and first part of April.
USDA projected a 1.8 million acre soybean crop for North Carolina, which is 350,000 acres more than 2006 plantings, but spring rains and other factors could push it still higher, says Jim Dunphy, a North Carolina Extension soybean specialist. Soybean acreage increases in North Carolina will come at cotton's expense, Dunphy says, due to crop prices, labor requirements and input costs.
"If corn planting gets late enough, that encourages a switch to soybeans. It also puts another few weeks in the system for market conditions to change, and the way they have been changing is that soybeans are looking more profitable than corn. Farmers very well may switch if they haven't got a preplant herbicide down that's specific to corn,” Dunphy says.
North Carolina's farmers have slashed cotton acreage. In 2006, they planted 880,000 acres of cotton. This spring, USDA expected their cotton acreage to fall to 375,000. Many of those acres will wind up in soybeans. USDA projected an 820,000-acre North Carolina corn crop, down 80,000 acres from 2008.
Until it's all planted, however, projections rank as guesswork. "Even as they began planting, farmers hadn't decided exactly what to do. They're working day to day,” Dunphy says.
It takes no guessing to see that Southern agriculture is in the midst of a big transition. Southerners are still developing infrastructure to handle big corn and soybean crops and have taken basis hits as a result of deficient elevator space, railcars and grain trucks. They're busy improving all of those factors, however. Even much higher market prices might not entice growers back to cotton acreage.
"It's amazing to see the amount of on-farm grain storage that's been built in the Delta. That's a lot of investment. That leads me to believe that the switch to corn and soybeans is not a short-run, quick-hit change and then we'll go back to the way things were,” Anderson says.
Much of Mississippi's cotton is now planted by farmer/ginners trying to keep gins in business or by farmers appeasing older landowners with long ties to the industry who demand to have it planted on their acreage.
"Cotton has been iconic in the South, and in two years' time in terms of acreage, it's become the third- or fourth-string crop. It's amazing how quickly it happened,” Anderson says.
At least some moderate change could be afoot in the Midwest this year, as well. A cold, wet early spring kept planters parked. That could make soybeans a more attractive cropping
option than corn on some farms.
For one example, USDA projected Missouri's soybean acreage would decline 3% to 5.05 million acres. As the planting window for corn narrowed, Missouri Extension soybean specialist Bill Wiebold began to doubt that would happen.
"I would be surprised if there's much movement to corn. Soybeans are the No. 1 crop in the state, and it'll take more than a little pushing to corn to cut those acres. I think soybeans will stay at about the same level as they've been the past several years,” Wiebold says.
In Minnesota, Seth Naeve, Extension soybean specialist, expects the state's farmers to plant about half their acreage in each crop, as usual. That situation could change considerably in the Red River Valley, where early spring floods nixed cropping plans.
"The Red River Valley has the most flexibility for planting soybeans, so that could indicate a large number of acres there shifting from small grains to soybeans,” Naeve says.
Neighboring North Dakota, reeling from even heavier flood damage in the eastern part of the state, might see a greater acreage impact. As much as 1 million acres may not be planted, with farmers choosing to collect on crop insurance, says Joel Ransom, North Dakota Extension agronomist.
"That could reduce everything, all the acreage, for the state. Corn and soybeans may be more impacted because they're grown more in the eastern part of the state, where the flood occurred,” Ransom says.
Even if there had been no flood, North Dakota would have had a tough planting season. "We had a cold, long winter with big snowstorms. In the southeastern part of the state, a lot of corn got harvested late, even during winter. The residue will make the soil warm slowly. They'll have to get rid of it by tillage or burning. That pushes things toward soybeans and away from corn,” Ransom says.
A break in the wet weather pattern let farmers make good corn planting progress in the west central and western Corn Belt, says Chip Flory, Pro Farmer editor. Continued high fertilizer costs had some growers considering boosting soybean acreage, however.
He adds: "The impacts on 2009/10 carryover look like the market will encourage corn acres and discourage bean acres for 2010/11. The last time that happened, we overshot corn acres and planted too few soybean acres. That has some long-term marketers laying out a plan to market 2010 corn and soybean crops.”
You can e-mail Charles Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org.