Gordon Wenig applies liquid nitrogen to his corn crop in fields off Euler Road near Weston, Ohio. "With any luck I'll be done in about four days, and that's a job I usually like to have done by the 10th of June," Mr. Wenig said.
By September, 2012 could become the best year ever for corn and soybeans.
Blessed by excellent weather that hasn't been too dry, too wet, or too cold, Ohio and Michigan farmers have enjoyed near-perfect planting conditions this spring, putting an unusually high percentage of corn and soybeans in the ground weeks ahead of schedule.
"I finished with corn on May 5," said Gordon Wenig, a Wood County farmer who grows corn and soybeans near Haskins. "I think the only year we've been finished earlier was the drought year of '88. And that year it never rained," he added.
Of course, extreme weather over the next few months could change the outlook, but so far, so good.
According to the U.S. Deptartment of Agriculture's May 13 crop progress report, Ohio's corn crop is 84 percent planted, which compares to just 6 percent planted by this time last year, and 51 percent for the five-year average. In Michigan, corn is 60 percent planted, compared to just 32 percent at this time last year, and 54 percent for the five-year average.
And the 16 percent that is unplanted in Ohio is confined to a few areas of the state that got hit with sporadic heavy spring rains.
Below Mansfield and extending south to Cincinnati the soil is "a little wet," and in Michigan north of I-94 the ground also remains moist in some areas, but otherwise planting conditions in the heart of Ohio's corn belt have been perfect, said Mike Mock, a senior risk manager and grain market global strategist for The Andersons Inc. in Maumee.
Kennen Haas loads soybeans into a grain drill before planting in a field at Needles and Potter roads near North Baltimore in Wood County. Mr. Haas' father, Brad, who owns the farm, called this year's planting season "one to remember."
"So not only is Ohio advanced, it's advanced in the most productive counties," he said, noting that Ohio is about two to three weeks ahead of its normal planting schedule.
"In the 31 years I've been at this, this is as good as it gets," Mr. Mock said. "This is an awfully, awfully good start, particularly in our backyard."
Nearly every corn field in northwest Ohio already has been planted.
That has given many farmers something they rarely have -- time to contemplate what to do next, or in some cases, just do nothing.
"I am putting nitrogen on the corn now, that's what I'm doing," Mr. Wenig said. "With any luck I'll be done in about four days and that's a job I usually like to have done by the 10th of June," he said.
And after he finishes with the nitrogen?
"I don't know yet. I guess we're just going to watch the crops grow," Mr. Wenig said while laughing. "But I'm sure there's going to be things to repair before we put them away.
"And there's still my wheat. But if the next 30 days are like what's happened by the last 60, we'll be done with wheat by the 4th of July," he said. "I could be wrong, but we could be done with everything by the 4th of July."
Don Kunkle, who farms nearly 2,500 acres near Alvordton in Williams County, finished his corn planting last week. He is in the last stages of soybean planting, and isn't sure what will come after that.
"We're a hundred percent done [on corn]. Last year we started planting on Mothers's Day and this year we finished up the day after Mother's Day," Mr. Kunkle said.
"I started on April 12. It's the earliest I've ever planted," he said. "We just planted some, waited a few days and planted some more, then we just kept on planting. This is the driest spring I've ever seen."
Soybean planting, which usually is done mostly in the warmer months of June and July, also is way ahead of schedule thanks to the dry spring.
Ohio's soybean crop is 46 percent planted, according to the USDA, compared to just 2 percent at this time last year, and 29 percent for the five-year average. Michigan soybeans are 32 percent planted, compared to 12 percent a year ago, and 23 percent for the five-year average.
Already, more than half of the corn planted this spring in Ohio and 17 percent of the soybean crop has emerged from the ground, according to the agriculture department. That means that if weather conditions remain stable over the next three months, farmers could be harvesting bumper yields of each crop by mid-September.
"You won't find a guy out there without a smile on his face about how things went," said Mark Koenig, Ohio State University extension service agent for Sandusky County, where corn is nearly all planted and soybean planting is in its final stages.
"Mother Nature is still ruling this thing, but it's just nice to be done and not have to worry about getting things planted," Mr. Koenig said.
The USDA has already gone out on a limb and predicted that corn production will total a record 14.8 billion bushels, or 11 percent more than the previous record crop in 2009, and a record yield of 166 bushels an acre. By comparison, corn production totaled 12.4 billion bushels a year ago.
Matt Roberts, an agriculture economist at Ohio State University, said it is premature to be predicting a record crop, but the early signs are good.
"A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. All we are really talking now are probabilities and potentials," he said. "We could come along and if there's inadequate rainfall over the next three months or late June and early July turns out to be extremely hot and rainy those could severely hamper crop development. So there's still a long way to go before any of this is realized."
But planting a crop early and successfully is far better than the alternative -- very late and very wet planting, Mr. Roberts said.
Last year Ohio and Michigan farmers got the worst of times during the planting season.
Frequent rains in April and May left fields in both states flooded, soggy, or muddy through early June, forcing some farmers to cut back on planting corn to plant soybeans in late June and early July. The delays forced some farmers to harvest corn in mid-November and soybeans in early December, though their crops paid off when sold.
Room for error
It was that turnaround in the latter half of the summer that has some farmers, like Mr. Kunkle, curbing their enthusiasm about the ease of early planting.
"Last year everything looked bad the whole year and then we had an excellent crop," Mr. Kunkle said. "So while everything is going perfect right now I'm thinking maybe the rest of the year might be a disaster. Last year it was, 'What a disaster! What a disaster!' And then we had a perfect summer and things turned out pretty good."
Stan Wielinski of Whitehouse agrees with Mr. Kunkle that there are still plenty of things to go wrong. But, like many area farmers, Mr. Wielinski already has finished planting all of his corn and soybeans.
"We could use a little drink of rain now. It is a good year to get everything in and planted, but of course we like to have a little rain," Mr. Wielinski said. A little rainfall will help corn grow but also allow roots to go deep. "That helps you in June and July when the corn is pollinating and setting ears," he said.
Too much rain now and the roots will stay shallow, Mr. Wielinski said.
"We are not interested now in a big rain," agreed Weston area farmer Brad Haas. Already, Mr. Haas had one field near North Baltimore that was planted early with corn and then got swamped. Fortunately, the early planting season allowed him extra time to replant the field, something that couldn't be done in a normal year.
"We don't like to replant, that's for sure. But crops are money," he said. "The seed companies will reduce their seed costs if you're going to replant and that helps, of course. But you never want to replant if you don't have to."
Still, having finished planting early this month gave him the needed time to wait until he was sure the corn was developing poorly and consider his options. "I thought about it for a few hours and decided to replant. But other than that one field, our corn in general looks very good," Mr. Haas said.
"It's unusual. Occasionally you will have some springs where you'll have a lot of early crop planted in April and then finished up in May. But this year is one to remember," he said.
'A different breed'
Some farmers have complained that the mild winter and spring have provided a bumper crop of weeds in their field and a large army of hungry insects.
Mr. Mock said he had one farmer confide that after experiencing such an excellent spring, he was now worried about "an aggressive tornado season" later this year.
"Farmers, they are a different breed of cat," Mr. Mock said with a chuckle. They can be pessimistic even in optimistic situations because most have seen great situations deteriorate quickly, he added.
But it is very hard to be pessimistic this year, Mr. Mock said. "As bad as it was last year, it's as good this year. And in fairness to the planting numbers, the emergence numbers may be just as important. Fifty-eight percent of the corn has emerged compared to one percent a year ago."
Nationally the picture is even brighter. Across the nation's corn belt, 87 percent of corn has been planted and 46 percent of soybeans, Mr. Mock said. "All the corn will be planted by the time we get into next week and 75 percent of the beans will be done."
Currently, The Andersons' experts are predicting an early harvest that could be completed in September. That could have several effects on the nation's grain markets, Mr. Mock said.
Last year's smaller corn crop didn't leave much surplus to carry over through the winter. "We have very little corn left on an inventory basis. But now the market sees this massive crop coming at us," Mr. Mock said.
So there could soon be a colliding point between this winter's higher corn prices and this fall's prices, which are likely to drop.
"A farmer has to determine how long to hold onto their old crop to get the highest price before the new lower price kicks in. It's a classic game of chance," Mr. Mock said.
"But the real winner here is going to be consumers of all types," he said. Those who buy corn for feed or other uses will find large inventories at good prices.
"Eventually that should find its way to consumer in the form of lower food prices," Mr. Mock said.
"And clearly, if you're a grain handler, big corn crops are normally very good because you end up with an environment with bins that are flush full with corn," Mr. Mock said. "We can take the fall value and also corn at a higher spring level."
Lower prices in the fall would seem to put farmers in jeopardy of losing value and money on their crops, but that isn't necessarily so, Mr. Mock said.
"For farmers raising crops, it's never been a better time. Half the time prices are at or below the cost of production," Mr. Mock said. "But these last couple of years are unusual in that the [price of grain] has not only been above the cost of production, but significantly above the cost of production."
If predictions hold true for a record yield, Ohio and Michigan farmers will profit, Mr. Mock said.
Contact Jon Chavez at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6128.
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