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Weather Ramping Up to Slow, Cool Start to Spring Planting

A slow start . . . but not too slow.

Right now, that's the outlook for corn and soybean planting the next few weeks in the U.S., as winter slowly loosens its grip over the central portion of the country. After a record-cold February (at least in some spots), spring thaw may take a little more time than usual, meaning corn and soybean planting could be held up by Mother Nature . . . just not too long.

Keep your eye on the forecast for the middle third of this month, forecasters say. In the 11- to 15-day forecast, temperatures are expected to remain higher than normal with less-than-normal precipitation, two trends that could help the Midwestern soils wake up from winter and lay the groundwork for this spring's planting window. Don't look for that window to get thrown wide open just yet, though, especially considering the conditions that will have preceded that warm-up.

"As is well known by this point, January and February featured very cold weather across the eastern U.S., including most of the major corn and soybean production areas in the Midwest. This cold weather has also led to very low soil temperatures relative to normal," says MDA Weather Services senior ag meteorologist Kyle Tapley. "Given this very cold starting point for soil temperatures, it will likely take longer than normal for soil temperatures to reach a point where planting of corn is possible, leading to a delayed start to planting. While snow cover is above normal across the central and southern Midwest, the snow pack is actually thinner than normal across the northern Plains and far northwestern Midwest."

A good example of this lower-than-normal starting point for temperature accumulation is the state of Nebraska. As of early March, all of that state's soil is below the normal temperature, some spots by as much as 8 degrees F., a deficiency that can be tough to make up on the normal time frame for a spring thaw, forecasters say.

After the mid-March warm-up, what does the "normal" corn-planting window look like for the Corn Belt? Temperatures will likely remain on the cooler side, emphasizing the importance of just how much things thaw out later this month. If temperatures snap higher earlier on, the cooler -- and possibly wetter -- conditions later on won't be as big of an issue. If the opposite is true for mid-March, it could become a slog, Tapley says. A lot depends on how much rain falls, too.

"During April, seasonal to slightly-below-normal temperatures are expected, with the coolest temperatures relative to normal expected across the southwestern Midwest and Delta. These cool temperatures, combined with the colder-than-normal soil temperatures currently seen across the central U.S., will likely act to delay the start of planting," he says. "However, precipitation is expected to be below normal across much of the Corn Belt, which should lower the probability of major delays in planting due to excessive wetness or flooding."

If the first half of planting season keeps progress at a snail's pace on your farm, don't throw in the towel just yet. May looks better, Tapley says, with warmer temperatures helping kick things back on schedule in general.

"By May, temperatures are expected to be normal or even above normal across the Corn Belt, which should favor planting of corn and soybeans. Normal rainfall is expected across most of the Midwest, although some wetter-than-normal conditions will be possible across Minnesota," he says. "Bottom line: A delayed start to spring planting is likely across the U.S. Corn Belt due to cold winter weather, but our current spring forecast would argue against major delays in planting."

Beyond May, though, forecasts don't show much direction yet; farmers expect conditions to turn hot and dry as summer unfolds. And even now, just as the winter homestrech rolls around, farmers say they may start making grain marketing decisions based on the fact that prices could go higher if a drought hits this year.

"A hot, dry 2015 summer would be a game-changer, and there are a lot of bears on one side of the boat," says Marketing Talk senior adviser BA Deere. "I honestly don't know, but if a guy can gamble or buy a 'call' to leave your topside open, it would be a contrarian move."


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