Sunny days could save delayed corn crop

May 25, 2009

Jeff Gormong was still waiting on May 20 to plant the first row of corn on his 2,000-acre spread near Farmersburg. And every day he waited for his field to dry, the potential yield was falling.

Heavy spring rains have delayed the planting of corn in Indiana, particularly in the central and southern parts of the state. Only 24 percent of the state's corn crop was in the ground by mid-May, well below the five-year average of 83 percent. The ideal planting period begins in April.

"At this point, you don't wait for ideal conditions," said Gormong, 42. "You just wait for possible conditions."

A few weeks ago, the risk to the state's corn crop looked even more severe. As of May 11, only 11 percent of the crop had been planted.

But a series of sunny and warm days may have given farmers a reprieve. Yields for corn planted in mid-May likely will be down about 10 percent at the most, said Bruce Erickson, the director of cropping systems management at Purdue University.

"Significant delays mean bigger decreases in yield," he said. "Actually, there comes a point in time, in June, when it's too late to plant corn."

There still are risks to the crop. Besides a smaller yield, the corn could mature later, leaving it vulnerable to an early frost.

The big decision for most farmers now is whether to switch from full-season corn to shorter-season varieties that mature quicker but yield less, said Kathleen Dutro, a spokeswoman for the Indiana Farm Bureau.

Most farmers are sticking with full-season corn as long as they can plant it before June, she said. They also aren't yet looking at switching from corn to soybeans, which are more forgiving of later planting dates.

If the corn yield is low because of a late start, farmers in the state could get more from federal subsidies, Dutro said.

Corn prices so far are lower than last year's, but commodity traders are closely watching planting conditions for any signs the supply could be down.

Meanwhile, soybean prices are up, which could prompt some farmers to switch from corn. About 6 percent of the state's soybean crop has been planted, below the five-year average of 49 percent.

Steve Maple hasn't planted corn this late on his acreage near Kokomo since 1974.

Maple, 58, had planted only about 20 percent of his corn as of May 20. The whole farm was planted by this time last year.

Maple said his land yields about a bushel less per acre for every day corn is planted past May 10.

If the yield comes up short, it will affect the cost of livestock production, ethanol profit margins and the volume of U.S. exports. Farmers have subsidies and crop insurance to fall back on, Maple said, but "there's nothing like having a good crop."

"If we have a really good summer and a late frost, yields may not be affected too much," he said. "We just want to get the seeds in the ground and give them an opportunity to grow. They never grow in the bag."

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