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Changing expectations

Agriculture.com Staff 05/15/2009 @ 3:14pm

I feel for those of you who are having a tough time getting your crops planted. In my 40 years of farming, I have experienced some bad planting years. The absolute worst was 1982. A few days of dry weather allowed us to get fertilizer applied and tillage done in April. I got my sweet-corn planted but no field-corn. Then the rains came. Wet weather lasted until the end of May.

I planted my corn the first week of June. The river bottom was planted last. Yields on the hill ground were average but the grain required a lot of drying. Yields on the bottom-land were poor and the test weight was very low. Both corn and soybeans made 45 bushels per acre. The experience from that year convinced me to try no-till in following years.

Two other notable late years were 1984 and 1995. In 1984, I was glad I had switched to no-till because I got all of my corn planted early before the monsoons set in. Neighbors who did not plant early finished in the middle of June. The yield drag on the late-planted corn was 40-50 bushels per acre. Soybeans were planted in late June. By then the rains stopped completely and beans were drilled into dry soil. The result was 20 bushel per acre yields, the worst in my farming career.

By 1995 I had gone to total no-till and had a newer generation planter. Corn was finished on time. Soybeans were planted in worst conditions I have ever seen. The newer design of the planter and better soil conditions of no-till resulted in good stands even with the terrible weather. Unfortunately in that year, as in 1984, when the rains quit the rest of the summer was hot and dry. It produced the second worst soybean yields in 40 years.

A common thread through these years was that there was a high level of frustration as farmers waited and waited for conditions that were at least tolerable to complete planting. Waiting for good planting weather was not a possibility.

Comparing market action for these three years does not give much of an indication of price direction caused by late planting. In 1982, December corn futures began at $3 in April and moved in a steady down trend to $2.15 on November 1. Even with the poor growing conditions, there was no summer rally. In 1984, there was a quick rally in June based on the late planting. However, the planting got finished and by the end of June worries of a short crop vanished. Prices went straight down from there.

In 1995, the bad planting conditions triggered the rally that ended up with corn prices at all-time highs in the summer of 1996. The lesson from these events is that delayed planting is only good for price improvement as long as the trade anticipates that there will be reduced yields. When the fear goes away, so do the good prices. The exceptions to this rule are years like 1995 and 2008 when outside factors combined with late planting.

When I think back to those early years, it is amazing to think how expectations have changed over the years. When I started farming in 1969, a neighbor made the statement that if there was one ideal day to plant corn, it would be May 20. Another tried planting some corn on April 10 and stated that he would never plant that early again. His results were not what he had hoped. I now have a neighbor who planted corn March 31. We think that if we do not finish by May 1, it is late. The University of Nebraska recommends planting soybeans as early as possible. They have even experimented with planting beans in late winter and treating them so that they do not germinate until the soil warms up.

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