Drought in Plains a concern for U.S. corn and soy crops

Drought in the northern Plains, increasingly important in corn and soybean production despite the region’s prominence as a wheat-growing region, may foil expectations of near-record U.S. corn and soybean harvests. North Dakota and South Dakota are parched as the planting season begins, and if dry weather continues, it could darken the crop outlook.

“It’s pretty early in the season to be talking about drought, in April,” said Purdue economist James Mintert during a Purdue webinar on Monday. Nonetheless, arid weather in the Dakotas “has to give you some concern.”

On average, the two states grow 7.5% of the U.S. corn crop and 10% of U.S. soybeans, large enough shares for a poor crop to affect national totals. With normal weather and yields, this year’s U.S. corn and soybean crops would be the second-largest on record and barely able to keep pace with robust demand from exporters, processors, livestock feeders, and biofuel makers.

All of North Dakota and 78% of South Dakota is in drought, with conditions rated from moderate, D1 on the four-point drought scale, to extreme drought, D3. A pocket of extreme drought is located in northwestern Iowa, the top corn state. Northern Iowa and much of Minnesota, No. 4 in corn, are abnormally dry, according to the weekly Drought Monitor.

Most of the West is covered by drought, from the Northern Plains, the Rocky Mountain states and Texas, to California and Oregon; 45% of the continental United States in all.

The planting season is in its early weeks and harvest is months away, so there is plenty of time for conditions to improve. The summer months are usually the make-or-break period for corn and soybeans. The USDA said 4% of U.S. corn land was planted as of Sunday, none of it in the Dakotas. Sowing of spring wheat was ahead of average, with 8% planted in North Dakota and 30% in South Dakota. The USDA will add soybeans to its weekly Crop Progress report next Monday.

North Dakota was the largest wheat-growing state in two of the past three years and dominates production of durum wheat, used in making pasta. But it will plant more acres of soybeans, 7 million, than all types of wheat, 6.4 million, this year, according to a USDA survey of farmers in March. Corn plantings, estimated at 3.3 million acres, would be half of the wheat area.

South Dakota farmers say they will plant 5.6 million acres of corn and 5.7 million acres of soybeans, compared with 1.5 million acres of wheat this year.

High commodity prices are expected to encourage growers to expand plantings this year. Farmers told the USDA they intend to plant 252 million acres of the eight major field crops — corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, sorghum, barley, oats, and rice — this year, up 3% from 2020.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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