Corn's star dims, for now
It's been one of the biggest, most visible agricultural trends in northeast North Dakota and northwest Minnesota, one that people outside ag have noticed: Corn -- once considered risky to grow in the area -- has become a major player.
It’s been one of the biggest, most visible agricultural trends in northeast North Dakota and northwest Minnesota, one that people outside ag have noticed: Corn - once considered risky to grow in the area - has become a major player.
In Minnesota’s Polk County, for instance, corn acreage rose from 33,600 in 2005 to 69,200 in 2014, thanks in part to new faster-maturing varieties that require less moisture. Official statistics for 2015 aren’t available yet.
But by all accounts, corn acres slumped across the area this year. That’s led to questions about the crop’s future. Was 2015 an aberration? Or are corn’s glory days behind it?
The best answer, experts say, is that though corn remains a top crop, ever-changing prices will determine how much of it is planted from year to year.
“Corn is a viable crop up there (in northwest Minnesota),” says Jeff Coulter, a University of Minnesota Extension corn cropping systems agronomist based in St. Paul. “It will continue to be grown there. There’s no question about that. But producers there have the ability to grow other crops, as well, and profitability levels will help them determine which crops they’ll be planting.”
The same is true in northeast North Dakota, says Michael Knudson, Grand Forks County extension agent.
“There’s still a lot of interest in corn, and it will still be grown here. But prices will determine how much,” he says.
The price of corn isn’t attractive right now. Corn currently fetches an average of about $3 per bushel at area grain elevators. That’s about $1 per bushel less than two years ago and about $4 per bushel less than three years ago, when the crop’s price soared because of drought in key corn-producing states.
The price of most other crops grown in the area isn’t attractive, either. But corn is relatively expensive to grow, and the high expenses make corn much less appealing when its price is low.
Projected profits down
North Dakota State University Extension Service’s popular and influential Projected Crop Budgets, which came out in late 2014, estimated that in 2015 farmers in northeast North Dakota would earn $8.43 per acre with soybeans, lose $3.92 per acre with wheat and lose $52.19 per acre with corn. The numbers are just estimates, but they illustrate why corn was less appealing to farmers this year.
Area corn acreage this year also was held down by the relatively early spring. Wheat fares best when planted early, and farmers took advantage to plant more of that crop. For example, Paul Coppin, manager of Reynolds (N.D.) United Co-op, says his area saw more wheat this year.
Though official statistics aren’t available yet, planting wheat appears to have worked out. The crop generally yielded well this year - in part because dry August conditions boosted wheat harvest, while cutting into projected yields of corn and soybeans, which are harvested after wheat.
In any case, corn will never be as prominent in northwest Minnesota and northeast North Dakota as it is in areas such as Iowa and southeast Minnesota, where most farmers grow only corn and soybeans.
That’s a good thing, Coulter says.
“Growers in northwest Minnesota have many options - winter wheat, sugar beets and potatoes,” among others, he says. “Having the ability to spread multiple crops on your farm helps to spread risks.”
Growing a number of crops helps reduce the threat of weeds, insects and crop disease.
It also allows farmers to plant more of the crops with higher profit potential and less of the crops with lower potential, Coulter says.
Corn didn’t stack up well financially this year. But that won’t be true every year, and the crop will remain important in the area, he and others say.