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Dust flying: Illinois planters roll

LOVINGTON, Illinois ( a string of warm, sunny days this week, farmers in central Illinois have been able to make planting progress. Though Illinois started the week with 4% of its corn planted, above all states, the warming soil conditions are aiding farmers in this part of the state that want to have corn ready for harvest in late August/early September for talk of a corn shortage.

After a visit through central Illinois, it was evident not all farmers were prepared to hit the field just yet. However, the ones that have taken the planter to the field have experienced some of the best soil conditions in years.

Mark Hobrock, a grain merchandiser for Sunrise Ag, also farms with his father Butch and brothers Doug and Brad, in Beardstown, Illinois.

"My 60-year old father is telling us that he has seen the soil conditions this good, only twice in his lifetime. Dad said the other day this crop has gone in the ground as well as 2004. We remember that because 2004 was a record crop-year. I'm not sure about a record crop this year, but things are looking great," Mark says.

The Hobrocks' farm over 2,000 acres in west-central Illinois. Due to varying soil types, making it difficult to grow soybeans, the Hobrocks run a continuous corn operation. The Hobrocks irrigate their crops, with most of their land along the Sangamon River.

"I have farmer-customers that will be 50% planted this week, and some guys haven't even started. In general, we're planting this corn crop in pretty timely fashion," Hobrock says.

As of Thursday, the Hobrocks are one-third finished with corn planting.  

Wide-Ranging Planting Dates

Doug Martin farms with his father Jeff near Mt. Pulaski, Illinois. After starting planting on April 5, the Martin's are already 30% completed. Even with any unexpected delays, the central Illinois farmer feels comfortable planting into May, if need be.

"We'll stick with planting the amount of corn we want to. Soil conditions are the best that a lot of farmers have seen. All of our fall work was done, plus had a good winter some freeze and thaw. Things look good," Doug Martin says.

The Martins are planting 85% corn and the rest of the acres will go to soybeans in 2011.

Technology Driven

Brian Yoder, Lovington, Illinois, farms about 3,600 acres with his father Levi. Though they maintain a balanced crop-rotation of corn and soybeans, the Yoder's will plant more corn this year.

"Right now, we're planting this 160-acre field and it's going in real well," Yoder says. "We just filled the hopper with enough seed to plant 250 acres. We'll plant a 34,000 seed population per acre."

With his hands folded and the auto-steer system engaged, Yoder explains that the tractor's planter monitor, seed population monitor, and auto-guidance is wrapped into one system. "The system is loaded with yield and soil mapping information as well. The technology available anymore makes a big difference in efficiency," Yoder says. "My dad does most of the marketing decisions, while I gravitate towards the technological side of the operation."

Butch Hobrock, Mark's father, operating a John Deere tractor equipped with auto-steer and planter row-shutoff capability to help control point rows, says  technology and hybrid seeds have been the best improvements in farming recently.

"As a 10-year old, it took eight days to plant 160 acres, with a two-row planter. So, for me, the best thing that has happened to the farm industry in recent years is the technology," Butch says.

Butch adds, "At the same time that the planting is easier than the olden days, the stress of marketing the crop is worse. "You no longer can just look out your back door and figure these markets out. The global events that affect our prices make it much more difficult to know what to do."

Marketing On The Mind

In central Illinois, home of Archer Daniels Midland, one of the country's largest grain and soybean processors, there is talk that last year's short crop may cause end-users to run short of supply in the late summer months or early fall. As a result, area farmers are hoping this mid-April planted corn will hit the market just in time to capture premium prices.

"The crop I'm planting now should be harvested around Labor Day weekend. Right now, our local basis is wide, but we hope it tightens up in late summer/early fall."

Regarding marketing, the Martin's have 5% of their old-crop left to sell. "As the market was rallying we were selling what we had in storage. Once the corn market got over that $5 level, we were pretty happy. We're probably 50% sold on new-crop. We sold new-crop as we emptied out old-crop," Martin says.

As a grain merchandiser, Hobrock has heard from farmer-customers that saw the bullish USDA March 31 Planting Intentions Report and wanted to get out of some of their soybean contracts, Mark Hobrock says. "I think you're going to see these area farmers stay continuous corn. There's a lot of talk that even farmers that are not in a continuous corn planting operation plant more corn this year."

With a corn yield average of 180 bushels per acre, the Hobrocks have enough storage except for about 30,000 bushels. But, most of that grain that goes in the bin is sold or protected somehow, Hobrock says. "We forward-sell a lot. History shows us that the best time to sell corn is that February to June timeframe. We've stuck to that for years and we will again this year. We're sitting about 30% sold for the new-crop. We're getting our inputs covered as we plant this new crop and have some protection with forward-sales, put/call spreads. We'll buy some 'puts' up to our crop insurance level by May first. "

Currently, the Hobrocks have 10% of old-crop in storage. Recently, the Hobrocks were able to sell some corn for $7.50 per bushel, at a river location. "I wish we had more to sell at that level," Mark Hobrock says. "We're getting close to my dad's highest ever sale price of $7.90 in 2008."

Marketing-wise, the Yoders use cash contracts to forward-price their crop and sell some of it out of the field. The Yoders choose to utilize the local elevator storage vs. on-farm storage. "The markets are hard to figure out. It's nice to have a strong market. But, for everything high prices can do to input costs, and eventually your cash-flow, there are downsides," Yoder says.

Located 30 minutes outside of Decatur, Illinois, the Yoders' crop is sold to Archer Daniels Midland's processing plant to make corn and soybean oil.

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