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Published March 30, 2012, 02:03 PM

All hail, King Corn

Key USDA report expects farmers to plant a lot more corn acres and less wheat acres.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

Area farmers have said for months that they expected corn to be king this spring. But even Bart Schott, a Kulm, N.D., farmer and chairman of the National Corn Growers Association, didn’t anticipate corn’s star to shine this brightly.

“It takes me by surprise,” Schott said of a key U.S. Department of Agriculture report released today that shows a big jump in anticipated corn acres, particularly in North Dakota.

Many of the additional corn acres will come at the expense of wheat, USDA says. Corn, wheat and soybeans are the region’s three major crops.

U.S. farmers are expected to plant 95.9 million acres of corn this spring, roughly 4 million acres more than a year ago and the most since the 97.2 million acres planted in 1937, according to the influential prospective plantings report.

North Dakota farmers will plant 3.4 million acres of corn, up from 2.2 million acres a year ago, USDA said.

The projected increase is much bigger than many experts, including Schott, expected. They figured shortages of corn seed would limit North Dakota corn acres this year to 3 million of even 2½ million.

“I think seed dealers must have done a good job of getting the seed here,” Schott said.

Traditionally, U.S., corn production has been concentrated in Nebraska, southern Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois and Indiana. The latter three are known in agricultural circles as the “I states.”

But attractive corn prices and faster-maturing varieties of corn are encouraging farmers on the Northern Plains to grow the crop,

“We know that corn acres have been moving north and that a lot of young farmers here want to raise more corn,” Schott said.

He credits seed companies for developing corn varieties suited for the Northern Plains.

Less wheat, soybeans?

Minnesota farmers are expected to plant 1.4 million acres of wheat, down from 1.55 million last year.

“That’s a 10 percent drop. I don’t remember the last time we’ve seen a drop that big,” said Dave Torgerson, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Wheat Growers.

Why the decline?

“It’s because of corn,” he said.

Minnesota farmers are expected to plant 8.7 million acres of corn, up from 8.1 million acres a year ago.

In South Dakota, corn acreage is pegged at 5.5 million, up from 5.2 million last year. Wheat acreage is estimated at 1.1 million, down from 1.25 million acres last year.

As always, the annual report, from the National Agricultural Statistics Service, an arm of USDA, should be treated with a dash of skepticism. It reflects what farmers, when surveyed in early March, said they expect to plant this spring.

The numbers in Friday’s report will affect grain prices, which in turn will influence what farmers end up planting. USDA will release actual planting figures June 29.

“It was just early March” when the survey was conducted, said David Iverson, an Astoria, S.D., farmer and president of the South Dakota Soybean Growers Association.

“Things could change before the seed gets in the ground,” he said.

Wheat is the first of the area’s major crops to be planted, followed by corn and finally soybeans.

Soybean prices have strengthened since farmers were surveyed, which may prompt producers to plant more of the crop, Iverson said.

U.S. soybean acreage is estimated at 73.9 million, down from 74.9 million acres last year. Projections are mixed for North Dakota, Minnesota and South Dakota.

North Dakota soybean acreage is expected to rise to 4.2 million from 4 million acres last year. South Dakota soybean acreage is pegged at 4.3 million, up from 4.1 million acres last year.

In Minnesota, soybean acreage is estimated at 6.9 million, down from 7.1 million acres a year ago. Many Minnesota farmers growth both corn and soybeans; if USDA is right, some producers in the state will switch acres from soybeans to corn.

Wheat prices impacted?

The report, watched closely by farmers and others involved in food production, also surprised Jim Peterson, marketing director of the North Dakota Wheat Commission.

North Dakota is the nation’s leading producer of spring wheat, which is used to make bread.

The state’s spring wheat acreage is pegged at 5.5 million, down from 5.65 million acres last year and 6.4 million acres two years ago.

“We really thought it (the new acreage estimate) would be above last year,” when an exceptionally wet spring cut into the state’s spring wheat acreage, Peterson said.

He said he expected more corn acres in the state, though not as many as estimated by USDA.

But he thinks North Dakota farmers could plant more than 5.5 million acres of spring wheat if wheat prices rally.

“We’ll need some price action to bring in more (wheat) acres,” he said.

Montana farmers are expected to plant 2.7 million acres of spring wheat, compared with 2.45 million acres in 2011 and 2.85 million acres in 2010.

The 2011 number reflects wet conditions that kept some farmers from planting spring wheat last spring, says Brian Eggebrecht, a Malta, Mont., farmer and president of the Montana Grain Growers Association.

Montana farmers are expected to plant less spring wheat in 2012 than in 2010, in part, because farming operations keep getting bigger and farmers want to spread out their work load. That encourages them to plant more winter wheat and less spring wheat, he says.

Montana producers are projected to plant 2.2 million acres of winter wheat this spring, compared with 2 million acres in 2010.

Farmers in the state are increasingly interested in pulse crops, which also works against spring wheat, Eggebrecht says.

People outside agriculture don’t always give farmers enough credit for their financial savvy in deciding what to plant, he says.

“Guys do their homework upfront,” he says. “These are some great operators.”

Best guess on other crops

Following is a look at USDA estimates for other crops grown in the region:

Durum: U.S. acreage is pegged at 2.2 million, up from 1.4 million last year but down from 2.5 million in 2010. The 2011 number was hurt by wet conditions in North Dakota, the nation’s leading durum producer.

North Dakota farmers this year will plant an estimated 1.5 million acres, double the 750,000 acres a year ago but less than the 1.8 million acres in 2010. In Montana, famers are expected to plant 460,000 acres, up from 400,000 acres a year ago but down from 540,000 acres in 2010.

Peterson, with the North Dakota Wheat Commission, said the North Dakota estimate is a little higher than his organization expected, while the Montana estimate is a little lower.

Canola: U.S. acreage is estimated at 1.6 million, up from 1.1 million acres last year and 1.45 million acres in 2010. The U.S. totals are heavily influenced by North Dakota, the nation’s dominant canola producer.

North Dakota canola acres this year are estimated at 1.3 million, up from 860,000 acres a year ago, when wet conditions hampered planting. This year’s estimated acreage also is higher than the 1.28 canola acres planted in 2010. Canola prices are strong this spring, and canola boosters have said for months that they’re optimistic about their crop.

Sunflowers: U.S. farmers are anticipated to plant 1.8 million acres, up from 1.5 million last year but down from 1.95 million in 2010.

Wet conditions last year in North Dakota, the nation’s leading sunflower producer, influenced the national numbers.

North Dakota farmers are expected to plant 760,000 acres, up from 580,000 acres last year but down from 885,000 acres in 2010. South Dakota farmers will plant an estimated 540,000 acres, up from 485,000 acres last year and 510,000 acres in 2010

Barley: Acreage nationwide is expected to rise to 3.3 million from 2.5 million acres last year and 2.8 million acres in 2010.

North Dakota farmers are anticipated to plant 980,000 acres, up from only 400,000 acres last year and 720,000 acres two years ago. In Montana, acreage is pegged at 810,000, up from 700,000 acres in 2011 and 760,000 acres in 2012.

Eggebrecht, with the Montana Grain Growers Association, noted that many farmers who traditionally grow the crop have been turning away from it because of low prices.

But barley prices have strengthened this spring, which could prompt more farmers to grow it, he said.

Dry beans: U.S. acres are estimated at 1.7 million, up from 1.2 million acres last year but down from 1.9 million acres in 2010.

North Dakota farmers are expected to plant 660,000 acres, up from 410,000 acres last year but down from 800,000 acres in 2010. In Minnesota, farmers will plant an estimated 170,000 acres, up from 140,000 acres last year but down from 185,000 acres in 2010.

Sugar beets: U.S. farmers are expected to plant 1.24 million acres, slightly more than the 1.23 million acres last year and 1.17 million acres in 2010.

Minnesota farmers are projected to plant 480,000 acres, up from 479,000 acres a year ago and 449,000 two years ago. In North Dakota, acreage is pegged at 230,000, compared with 231,000 acres last year and 217,000 acres two years ago. Montana farmers are expected to plant 45,500 acres, compared with 45,000 acres last year and 42,600 acres two years ago.

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