Ron Sterk

The March 31 Prospective Plantings report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture provided much-needed insight into farmers’ 2017 planting intentions for row crops and spring wheat. While there still will be some changes in planted area, much of the market’s focus now shifts to weather for spring planting and for the full growing season. So far, 2017 weather, and related moisture availability, is shaping up to be much different from that of a year ago and in general, mostly favorable for crops.

There is probably no greater shift than in the West. While not a major row crop region (corn and soybeans), it’s obviously the key production area for fruits, vegetables and nuts. After suffering through several years of drought, especially in California, some water management districts have shifted focus from water rationing to flood control in recent weeks.

Numerous major rain events, coupled with massive snowpack (in some places so deep measuring instruments cannot reach the bottom, according to anecdotal reports), are expected to refill reservoirs and ease water restrictions in 2017 if not beyond. Water districts were allocating from 60% to 100% of requested water supplies in California, with the lower allocations questioned by farmers and possibly subject to increase at a time of ample water reserves. The excessive rainfall has affected planting and harvesting of some vegetable crops in California, but conditions were improving and the moisture overall was welcomed.

Storm over crops
Weather and related moisture availability is shaping up to be much different from that of a year ago.

Another area of concern has been the hard red winter wheat growing region of the Southern plains, and to a lesser extent parts of the soft red winter wheat growing area, especially Missouri and southern Illinois. As of March 28, the U.S.D.A. indicated 22% of all U.S. winter wheat (hard and soft) area was affected by drought, down from 26% a week earlier, with improvement seen in several states. In hard red winter states, 35% of the crop in Colorado was growing in drought areas (83% a week earlier), 57% in Oklahoma (unchanged), 42% in top-producing Kansas (44%), 34% in Nebraska (44%), 18% in Texas (unchanged) and 9% in South Dakota (unchanged). In soft winter wheat states, 57% of the crop in Missouri was in drought areas (63% a week earlier), 35% in Illinois (unchanged) and much less in other states.

Those conditions were improving as widespread and at times heavy rain fell across much if not most of the hard red winter wheat region as well as major dry areas of the soft red winter wheat growing region. Although U.S.D.A. crop progress reports as of March 26 showed mostly unchanged to even some continued deterioration in winter wheat ratings, the improved conditions were expected to be reflected in U.S.D.A. data in the coming weeks.

The market responded more quickly. Kansas City hard red winter wheat futures and Chicago soft red winter wheat contracts fell to or near 2017 lows early last week as the forecasts delivered the promised moisture at a critical time for the crop, which will add to ample domestic wheat supplies and record global wheat stocks. Although futures trading was subdued ahead of the Grain Stocks and Prospective Plantings reports, the cloud of large global wheat stocks hung over the market.

For row crops, primarily corn and soybeans, spring planting prospects are forecast mostly favorable, although the current rainfall across the southern Corn Belt was expected to cause a bit of delay in corn planting. Farmers like to plant early, often challenging last frost dates in the case of corn, and it appears they will get their wish in most cases this spring. That may mean corn will gain more acres from wheat as soybeans still remain the most profitable crop based on new crop futures and expected returns per acre.

As the season progresses, longer-range forecasts from the National Weather Service and from private forecasters suggest a warmer-than-normal bias across the main corn and soybean growing area of the Corn Belt, which is expected to take the top off last year’s record high yields but will be far from a disaster. The July-September outlook from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration suggests a 40% chance of temperatures being warmer than normal across the Corn Belt, while the precipitation outlook for the same period indicates no clear tendency to be wetter or drier than normal. Some private forecasters also suggest there will be a slightly drier-than-normal tendency during the growing season. In general, it should be a good but not great growing season in 2017.

Meteorologists also forecast a developing El Niño weather pattern in 2017. Most forecasters expect the El Niño pattern to develop late enough in the growing season (July or later) not to be a threat to the major corn and soybean growing areas of the Midwest. Actually it may benefit the Corn Belt by shifting the hotter, drier weather to the South and East, which consequently may be detrimental to crops in the Southeast and Delta states from July forward.