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Early planting, lots of acres could mean record corn crop

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Bill Couser inspects one of the first fields he planted with corn in mid-April on his farm near Nevada, Iowa. (Sarah McCammon for Harvest Public Media)
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Reporter, Iowa Public Radio

Across the Corn Belt, the planting season is off to a roaring start. And with farmers expected to put in more acres of corn than they have since the Great Depression, this fall’s harvest could be one for the record books.

Farmers like Bill Couser, who grows crops and raises cattle near Nevada in central Iowa, say it’s too early to predict whether this year’s harvest will set a record, but it’s looking pretty good right now.

“This corn crop will knock your socks off if all the stars line up and the Good Lord gives us that blessing,” Couser said recently while trudging through a field dotted inspecting the remnants of last year’s corn stalks.

Like lots of corn growers across the region, Couser’s planting has moved along quickly thanks to a mild spring. But at 57, and after decades of farming, Couser knows better than to get too excited just yet. A lot could still affect the crop, from droughts to floods to pests and diseases.

Still, starting early can give farmers an edge. The National Corn Growers Association’s Paul Bertels says the plants have more time to grow before they’re up against Midwestern mid-summer scorchers.

“The sooner you get the crop in, provided you don’t have a cold snap, and you’ll get that plant through pollination before the real heat of the summer,” Bertels said.

Corn growers nationwide are planting at about twice the rate of a typical year; more than half the crop is already in the ground.

And there’s more to come. The US Department of Agriculture says farmers intend to plant more than 95 million acres of corn this year. That’s 4 million more than last year and close to 10 million more than the year that yielded the biggest harvest yet.

If farmers follow through on those plans, it would be the most acres of corn since 1937. Better seeds and improved farming methods mean yields are a lot higher now, so we’re likely looking at what could be a bumper crop.

Despite Couser’s optimism, though, he worries about the downside. A big crop could suppress prices – while the cost of farming holds steady.

“Farmers are our worst enemies because we always do what we do best and overproduce,” Couser said. “So if we have more corn than we can use in ethanol, what will we do with it? The cattle numbers (for feed) are down.”

Never fear, says Chad Hart, it will go somewhere. Hart is an economist with Iowa State University Extension. Hart says corn prices would probably drop a bit, maybe a dollar or so below today’s price of more than $6 a bushel. That’s still a lot better than the $2 or $3 corn was fetching as recently as the mid-2000s.

And Hart doesn’t expect any shortage of buyers.

“We’ve seen ethanol demand take off over past five years,” Hart said. “Export demand is building, especially to the Pacific Rim. So as long as demand builds as quickly as yield increases and grows, that can help maintain prices at a fairly healthy level.”

Healthy prices, plus a healthy crop, could mean the stars align perfectly for corn farmers this year. But if there’s anything a farmer will tell you, it’s never count your bushels before they’re harvested.