In most Ohio and Michigan fields, planting has been on schedule, soil has had adequate rain, crops are coming in nicely, and the recent drought is history.
But don’t you go calling what’s happening normal.
“I think everybody’s been cautious to use the word normal. In agriculture, it seems like no year is normal, but it does seem to be a more normal start to the year,” Eric Richer, Fulton County Extension agent, said.
The last two years were anything but.
In 2011, an especially wet spring kept many farmers out of their muddy fields until June, well past the planting target for corn. In spite of that, farmers reported near average yields across most of Ohio.
Then last year unseasonably warm temperatures gave farmers an almost unheard of head start. Some were even planting corn in the first week of April.
The near-perfect planting season had predictions riding high. But then it stopped raining and temperatures soared. A significant drought settled across Ohio and most of the rest of the county, burning up a crop that once looked so promising. Crop insurance was a saving grace for many northwest Ohio farmers.
One needs no more proof than that to show why it’s so difficult to anticipate how any season will go.
“We’ve had a normal May, and I think it looks close to a normal June, but the corn and beans crop are made in July and August,” Mr. Richer said.
But right now — and that’s the key, right now — things are looking good. Mr. Richer said most farmers he’s talked to are optimistic about the way their crops are coming in and are expecting to return good yields come harvest time.
Mike Mock, senior risk manager and grain market global strategist for The Andersons Inc. in Maumee, said this part of Ohio especially is well-positioned for a good year.
“Not all of the grain belt is sitting as good as we are, but right here, it doesn’t get a whole lot better than this,” he said.
Late winter snows and early rains this spring helped replenish the soil moisture. Most area farmers then enjoyed a nice dry spell to sow their corn.
“We still have a ways to go, but the crop is extremely well-established,” Mr. Mock said.
As of June 16, the United States Department of Agriculture said 81 percent of Ohio’s corn crop was rated good to excellent. In Michigan, the government said 74 percent of the corn crop was good to excellent.
Other grain-belt states haven’t had such luck. In Missouri, Wisconsin, and Iowa rain stole away much of the normal planting season for corn. Farmers in those states have mostly caught up on planting, but many of their fields still aren’t in great condition. Iowa, the nation’s No. 1 corn-producing state, had an especially rough start to the growing season. May began with a major snowstorm. Mother Nature followed that up with rains. An end-of-May report by a state climatologist there said the year has been the wettest on record. It’s also been the fifth-coolest spring on record.
Those difficulties show in crop conditions. Only half of Iowa’s corn crop is in good or excellent condition, according to the USDA.
Locally, rain has been an ally.
“We’ve had two beautiful  inch rains. You couldn’t ask for anything better. Everything looks good,” farmer Dan Liskai of Woodville, Ohio, said.
He paused, then continued: “Too good. We need some heat.”
Mr. Liskai, who farms with his son Nate and grandson Seth, said the cool temperatures have his corn growing a little sluggishly. His corn should be getting some heat now.
The National Weather Service is predicting temperatures nearing 90 degrees for the next couple of days.
Last year no one had to wish for heat.
Brian Fuchs, at the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Neb., said last year’s drought was unusual in how it got so bad, so quickly.
The drought also reversed more quickly than expected in the Midwest.
Though drought persists in some states — with Colorado, Kansas, and Nebraska all still suffering considerably — the corn belt is largely free from drought.
“It’s been a few years since we’ve had a normal year, it’s catching a lot of people,” Mr. Fuchs said. “They’re kind of wondering what’s going to change and what’s going to throw the monkey wrench into the system this year.”
Looking ahead, forecasters expect normal rainfall through the summer, Mr. Fuchs said.
However, forecasters are also predicting a warming pattern in Ohio that brings with it a good likelihood of above-normal temperatures in July and August. The biggest concern, Mr. Fuchs said, is that if temperatures are high while the corn is pollinating, the excessive heat can affect the corn during that process, causing fewer kernels to develop.
Mr. Mock of The Andersons, also raised that concern, especially locally because so much of the corn was planted in a 7 to 10-day time frame. That means it all will be pollinating at roughly the same time. “There’s a risk there that we’ll have to get through that pollination time frame,” he said.
The USDA also cited that risk, along with the late planting in some corn-belt states, in its June 12 report that cut 2013 corn production estimates by about 500 million bushels to 14 billion bushels. Still, that’s well above the 10.8 billion bushels farmers grew last year in the drought.
Barry Ward, an agricultural economist at Ohio State University, said grain farmers have enjoyed high-profit potential going back to 2007. That’s driven up land values and rents significantly. Fertilizer and chemical prices are still high, but they haven’t risen much this year, he said. The slow start in some of the grain-belt states to Ohio’s west could increase corn prices somewhat from earlier expectations.
“With the way prices have rebounded a little bit due to some of these issues with planting progress, we still have an opportunity with the way prices are right now to see some profit again this year, certainly,” Mr. Ward said.
He said farmers probably will see slightly lower profits this year than in the last couple of years. (Even though drought-stricken fields had poor yields last year, crop insurance still made the year profitable for many.)
But all that depends on so much between now and the harvest, no matter how “normal” the year begins.
“That’s exactly what farming’s about,” said Mr. Liskai, the Woodville farmer. “You don’t anticipate, you don’t anticipate getting a good yield. You hope you do, but it’s all in Mother Nature’s hand,” he said.
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