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Demand will push corn acres to record levels in 2007, economist says

Agriculture.com Staff 11/06/2006 @ 1:45pm

The expanding biofuels industry and high export demand add up to what could be the largest United States corn acreage in several generations, says Purdue University agricultural economist Chris Hurt.

Hurt predicts corn prices will eclipse $3 a bushel for the 2007 marketing year and could threaten the 1995 record of $3.24 a bushel.

"There's no question at this point that we're going to need a massive increase in corn acreage for 2007," Hurt said. "That increase is driven primarily by ethanol, but we also have very strong export demand. That export demand is mostly driven by the fact that there's a fear that corn supplies are going to be very tight in the United States and that prices will be much higher. In terms of acreage, I've been suggesting that we may have to push acreage up to 88 million to 89 million acres of corn. That would be a 10 million acre increase from 2006 and would put us at the highest acreage planted to corn in the United States since 1946. We'd be looking at a 60-year phenomenon."

American farmers committed record acres to corn in the 1940s to help feed European allies during and after World War II. In subsequent years, the development of higher yielding corn hybrids and other agricultural advances made it possible to grow more corn on fewer acres.

This year, farmers planted about as many acres of soybeans as corn: 75.6 million acres and 78.6 million, respectively. In Indiana, the acreage totals were 5.7 million for soybeans and 5.5 million for corn. Nationally, corn production for 2006 is forecast at 10.9 billion bushels, at an average yield of 153.5 bushels per acre, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

About 2.1 billion bushels of the 2006 corn crop is going into ethanol production at the 106 ethanol plants across the country. By the end of 2007, another 1.4 billion bushels of corn could be needed to feed 53 new or expanded ethanol plants, including five new plants in Indiana, according to the Renewable Fuels Association.

The more than 150 plants could be capable of producing nearly 9 billion gallons of ethanol per year. To put that number in perspective, the United States uses about 140 billion gallons of gas a year. "Our corn utilization next year could approach 12.5 billion bushels," Hurt says. "We can feed a little bit off of our inventory, but no more than 300 million bushels. So we'll probably have to produce about 12.2 billion bushels of corn next year."

The most corn ever produced in the United States was 11.8 billion bushels in 2004. With corn demand running high and 2007 production still a question mark, Hurt believes corn prices could go through the roof.

"It is very early to be projecting prices for 2007 in that so many events, including harmful weather and international events, can affect those prices very strongly," he says. "But right now I'm using corn prices in the $3.40 per bushel range for the '07 crop. For the 2006 crop year, the USDA is using $2.60 a bushel, so I think talking about $3 or maybe higher than $3 a bushel is not out of the question for 2007.

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