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Todd E. Gleason, Farm Broadcaster
University of Illinois Extension
1301 W Gregory Drive, Rm69 MC710
Urbana, Illinois  61801

tgleason@illinois.edu or (217) 333-9697


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Coverage Levels on RP: Relationship to Premium Levels


Research from the University of Illinois shows farmers try to keep their annual crop insurance costs in a range below fifteen to twenty dollars an acre. Essentially, as you'll hear in this interview from Todd Gleason, they buy up the coverage until premiums reach this level. 

by Gary Schnitkey, University of Illinois  

In 2020, Revenue Protection (RP) was used on 93% of insured acres in Illinois, making it by far the most popular crop insurance product. Herein, we examine coverage levels while insuring with RP. Average coverage levels were high.  Most farmers choose coverage levels such that premiums are between $15 and $23 per acre.

Coverage Levels in Illinois

The highest RP coverage level is 85%, with lower coverage levels available in 5% increments down to 50%. In 2020, 44% of RP corn acres in Illinois were insured at an 85% coverage level, 35% at an 80% coverage level, and 16% at a 75% coverage level (see Figure 1). These three higher coverage levels accounted for 95% of the acres insured by RP.



Average coverage levels were calculated to summarize information. For example, the coverage-level information in Figure 1 was used to arrive at an average coverage level for corn in Illinois. In 2020, the average coverage level was 81%, with weights provided by acres insured. As can be seen in Figure 1, the 81% is composed of 44% of acres insured using an 85% coverage level, 35% at an 80% coverage level, and so on. Average coverage levels over 80% imply that the majority of acres were insured with 80% and 85% coverage levels.

Average coverage levels in Illinois have increased since the introduction of revenue products in 1997, reaching their current level in 2013. The average coverage level since 2013 has been stable at 81%.

While stable over time, the average coverage level varies across the state (see Figure 2). In 2020, most counties in northern and central Illinois had average coverage levels above 80%. Most counties in southern Illinois had average coverage levels below 80%.



Relationships Between Average Coverage Levels and Premiums

Counties with higher coverage levels tend to have lower premiums than counties with lower coverage levels. To illustrate, Figure 2 shows farmer-paid premium for RP policies with 80% coverage levels. As can be seen in Figure 2, lower premiums occur in northern and central Illinois where average 80% premiums are usually between $7 and $14 per acre. Northern and central Illinois tend to have high coverage levels. On the other hand, many counties in southern Illinois had average premiums for 80% RP over $20 per acre. Southern Illinois tended to have lower average coverage levels.

The regional patterns suggest that farmers may make their coverage level choice to even out, or budget, their farmer-paid premium. Figure 4 shows average farmer-paid premium over all coverage level choices. The average premium in Figure 4 tend to even out over Illinois much more than the 80% premium shown in Figure 3.



To illustrate the budgeting process, take two counties that have their premiums colored orange in Figure 4. DeKalb County is in northern Illinois and had an average premium across all coverage levels of $12 per acre. The 80% average premium was $7 per acre. In DeKalb County, a higher proportion of farmers took 85% coverage levels, thereby raising the average premium above the 80% premium. The average coverage level in DeKalb County was 84%, meaning that the vast majority of farms take RP at a 85% coverage level (see Figure 1). On the other hand, Jefferson County in southern Illinois had an average premium across all coverage levels of $17 per acre. An 80% coverage level had an average premium of $21 per acre. More farmers in Jefferson bought lower coverage levels y resulting in an average coverage level of 75% (see Figure 1).



Academic literature has evaluated this phenomenon (Bulut). Most farmers will only spend a certain amount on crop insurance. Values in the above figures suggest that many farmers will not spend over $15 to $23 per acre on crop insurance. Of course, variation in spending exists across farmers.

Average Coverage Levels Across the Midwest

Average coverage levels across the Midwest States are shown in Figure 4 for corn. Higher average coverage levels are located in the heart of the corn belt, with lower coverage levels radiating out from the middle of the Corn Belt. The correlation coefficient between average coverage levels and average premiums is -0.61.  While that correlation is high, other factors influence coverage levels choice across the Midwest.



Commentary

Many farmers have settled on using RP at high coverage levels as their crop insurance coverage. Many farmers appear to make coverage level choices so as to keep premium levels below $15 to $23 per acre. Product type and coverage levels have been stable over several years. Crop insurance choices in 2021 likely will be much the same as those made in 2020.

This year, a new endorsement is available called the Enhance Coverage Option (ECO). ECO will provide county revenue coverage above the underlying RP policy in a band from 90 or 95% down to 86%. One challenge this policy will face is premium costs. Aggregate statistics suggest that farmers place constraints on the amount they spend on crop insurance. Those constraints may prevent many farmers from buying the additional coverage. Purchases of ECO may be more likely in northern and central Illinois where premiums are lower.

farmdoc Daily article:  Schnitkey, G., N. Paulson, C. Zulauf and K. Swanson. "Coverage Levels on RP: Relationship to Premium Levels." farmdoc daily (10):206, Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, December 1, 2020.

Nafziger on Wind Storm Damage To Corn

ILLINOIS Extension Agronomist Emerson Nafziger discusses the August 10 wind storm and the potential impact on corn yield.

Fungicide Applications on Corn and Soybeans

Farmers will be urged to make fungicide applications on their crops this month. Todd Gleason discussed the issues related to both corn and soybean diseases with ILLINOIS Extension Plant Pathologist Nathan Kleczewski.

Illinois Grain Farm Incomes in 2020



by Gary Schnitkey, Ryan Batts, Krista Swanson, Nick Paulson, Jonathan Coppess - University of Illinois and Carl Zulauf, The Ohio State University

link to farmdoc Daily article

We project net incomes for a typical Illinois grain farm in 2020. Before the onset of COVID–19, 2020 net incomes were expected to be low without a turnaround in exports, likely resulting in pressures to continue Market Facilitation Program (MFP) payments. With COVID–19 at the forefront in 2020, the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) was implemented to provide relief to offset losses due to the virus and COVID–19 control measures. Even with CFAP payments and larger payments from commodity title programs, incomes are projected to be negative in 2020. More Federal aid could result in 2020 incomes being close to 2019 incomes. Looking ahead, the recent increases in Coronavirus outbreaks suggest this environment may not improve soon and could result in very low incomes in 2021.

Incomes in Historical Perspective

Figure 1 shows the average yearly net incomes on grain farms enrolled in Illinois Farm Business Farm Management (FBFM). Overall, incomes have been much lower since 2013 as compared to the period from 2006 to 2013. Incomes averaged $189,000 per farm for the years from 2006 to 2013. From 2014 to 2019, incomes have been over $100,000 less per farm, with a $78,000 yearly average. From 2006 to 2013, corn use in producing ethanol was growing, leading to higher corn prices. Soybean prices also were high, as the market signaled the need for soybean acres as soybean exports from the U.S. to China were increasing. Since 2013, corn use in ethanol has stabilized, leading to lower commodity prices. In 2018, exports of soybeans declined, further lowering commodity prices.



Average incomes were $147,000 in 2018 and $74,000 in 2019. Compared to other years since 2013, the years 2018 and 2019 were not particularly poor income years. However, much of the income in 2018 and 2019 resulted from the Market Facilitation Program (MFP), which was put in place to counter lower prices caused by trade disputes. MFP accounted for 13% of revenue in 2018 and 10% of 2019 revenue (see farmdoc daily, June 10, 2020). Without these payments, incomes would have been very low in both 2018 and 2019.

Approach Used to Estimated Historic Incomes

The incomes in Figure 1 are calculated by FBFM using a modified cost approach for a calendar year. Each year’s income statement attempts to match production with sales. In 2019, costs of 2019 grain production are given along with “revenue” from 2019 production. To match revenue with production, values are placed on a number of items for which the revenue has not been received. These items include:
  • Grain inventory. Much of the grain produced in 2019 has not been sold as of the end of the year. The unpriced inventory is placed on the end-of-year balance sheet for 2019 at an estimated value.
  • Agricultural Risk Coverage (ARC) and Price Loss Coverage (PLC) payments for 2019. The ARC/PLC payment for 2019 is based on 2019 production but will be received in October 2020. These payments are not known on December 31, 2019 because the payments are based on a Market Year Average (MYA) prices, which run from September 2019 to August 2020 for corn and soybeans.
These two values will take on a large importance in 2020 cash income. Inventory prices used to place grain in inventory on December 31, 2019 were much higher than actual sales on many farms. FBFM used inventory prices of $3.75 for corn and $9.30 for soybeans. In May, cash prices were near $3.00 for corn and $8.30 for soybeans. The difference will result in an unrealized loss on grain held in December 31, 2019 inventory on many farms.

ARC/PLC payments likely will be higher than the December 31, 2019 receivable. Lower MYA prices will result in higher ARC/PLC payments than estimated on December 31, 2019.
To summarize, three items will take a larger role in 2020 income projections than usual:
  • Unrealized loss on 2019 crop. Farmers who held 2019 grain inventory likely will have large losses on holding that crop into 2020. Marketing weights suggest that 60% of the corn crop and 46% of the soybean crop is held into the next year.
  • Changes in 2019 ARC/PLC payments. Expectations of the size of these payments increased because of lower prices.
  • Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) payments (see farmdoc daily, May 22, 2020). CFAP provides partial compensation for losses on grains held unpriced on January 15, 2020.
Income Projections for 2020

Income projections for 2020 are made using output from the Farm Projections Tool, a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet that can be downloaded from the FAST section of farmdoc. Farmers can use this spreadsheet to make projections for their individual farms. Special adjustments are made to the output to account for the above three items, which are not accounted for by the program automatically.
In this article, the farm for which 2020 projections are made represents a typical farm in central Illinois:
  • A 1,600 acre grain farm with 200 acres owned, 400 acres share-rented with a 50–50 share lease, and 1,000 acres are cash rented at $260 per acre.
  • The farm is located in central Illinois and has non-land costs equal to those contained in central Illinois budgets for high-productivity farmland: $561 per acre for corn and $359 per acre for soybeans.
  • Yields for 2020 are projected at trend-levels of 216 bushel per acre for corn and 68 bushels per acre for soybeans.
  • The farm has $1,200,000 of debt.
Pre and Post-COVID Net Incomes

Incomes are estimated for a pre-COVID scenario and a post-COVID scenario (see farmdoc daily, April 28, 2020 for a discussion of price scenarios). Prices used for the pre-COVID scenario are $3.90 per bushel for corn and $8.75 per bushel for soybeans. Under this scenario, net income is projected at $44,330, which is down from 2018 and 2019 levels. A $44,330 income would be at an insufficient level to maintain the financial position of most farms. Most farms would use working capital to provide for cash needs, resulting in reductions of working capital. Many farms would see net worth declines. This pre-COVID income estimate does not include any MFP payments. Due to low incomes, pressures likely would have built for a continuation of the MFP program into 2020, particularly without improvement in trade relations and growth in exports. Whether or not MFPs would have occurred in 2020 given the pre-COVID scenario is an open question.

Under the pre-COVID prices ($3.90 for corn, $8.75 for soybeans), ARC/PLC payments would not result for 2020 (payable in 2021), and the pre-COVID income statement in Table 1 does not include any ARC/PLC payments. Note that many Illinois farms would have received 2019 commodity title programs. These payments will be received in 2020 but should have appeared on the 2019 income statement, and been a receivable on the year-end 2019 balance sheet.



Post-COVID income is projected using 2020 cash prices of $3.20 per bushel for corn and $8.60 per bushel for soybeans. These prices are close to current bids for 2020 fall-delivery. As a result, crop revenue is reduced from $1,005,830 for the pre-COVID scenario to $890,960 for the post-COVID scenario, a decline of $114,870 (see Table 1). A number of other changes also are incorporated into revenue:
  • Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) payments are included at $29,187 (see farmdoc daily, May 22, 2020). These payments are in the process of being paid. Our estimates represent CFAP payments of 40% of 2019 production (208 bushels per acre for corn and 64 bushels per acre of soybeans).
  • Marketing loss on 2019 crop. Grain held into 2020 likely was sold at lower values than that placed on year-end 2019 balance sheets. The -$43,680 loss is based on 40% of 2019 production being sold in 2020 at a loss of $.55 per bushel for corn and $.65 per bushel for soybeans.
  • Increase in 2019 ARC/PLC payments. Lower Market Year Average (MYA) prices will result because of the lower, post-COVID prices, increasing ARC/PLC payments for 2019. This will show as a gain on 2020 income statements because 2019 ARC/PLC payments would have been under-estimated for 2019.
  • 2020 ARC/PLC payments. These payments were unlikely in the pre-COVID scenario but are likely in the post-COVID scenario. The post-COVID scenario includes $43,000 of 2020 ARC/PLC payments. We estimate these payments at roughly $60 per base acre for corn and $0 per base acres for soybeans.
After considering all adjustments, gross revenue declines from $1,015,830 for the pre-COVID scenario to $946,467 for the post-COVID scenario, a decline of -$69,363. Net farm income is projected to decline from $44,330 per farm for the pre COVID–19 scenario to -$25,033 for the post-COVID scenario (see Table 1).

Commentary

A -$25,053 net income would be very low, and result in negative net incomes on most Illinois grain farms. However, the -$25,033 does not include other forms of assistance such as the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) programs administered through the Small Business Administration (SBA). Both are loan programs, not direct payments. However, PPP loans are forgivable provided used for qualifying business expenses (see farmdoc daily, April 14, 2020). Though EIDL loans are not forgivable, an emergency advance portion, for those who received it, did not have to be repaid (see farmdoc daily, May 12, 2020). A significant number of farms have enrolled in these programs, but likely not the majority of grain farms in Illinois. Moreover, any forgivable aid from these programs likely will not be enough to cause incomes to be positive.

Also not included in the -$25,033 is additional Federal aid currently being discussed in Congress and at the USDA. Given the above projections, additional aid at the levels of last year’s MFP program would be needed to bring incomes close to 2019 levels, with last year’s income levels not being at a particularly high level.

Of course, much could change projections. Favorable market news is possible, perhaps leading to higher prices. Surprises often occur in agriculture. Of course, more negative results are possible as well.

Much of 2020 income is dependent on Federal aid. More Federal aid could cause 2020 incomes to be near or above 2019 levels. More worrisome is 2021, which likely will have lower levels of Federal aid. Given recent setbacks in Coronavirus control, it seems reasonable to expect social distancing measures to be relatively long-lasting, quite possibly into next summer and beyond. If this is the case, ethanol demand could remain low, and the economy will not be in full recovery. Demand for crops could remain low going into 2021, and 2021 could be a very low-income year for Illinois grain farms.

Prevented Plant Impacts on 2019 Illinois Grain Farms Incomes

link to farmdoc Daily article

In 2019, spring weather was very wet, and many farmers in Illinois had prevented plant (PP) acres. Compared to 2018 incomes, 2019 incomes declined more for those farms that had a larger proportion of their acres in PP. While some have suggested that PP payments may overcompensate farmers, the income results presented in a new paper from the University of Illinois do not support the contention. Todd Gleason has this discussion with ag economist Gary Schnitkey.




Farms Included in Study

Table 1 shows 2018 and 2019 incomes on Illinois grain farms enrolled in Illinois Farm Business Farm Management (FBFM). To be included in Table 1, a farm had to meet the following criteria:
  • Receive the majority of their incomes from grain operations,
  • Have over 500 acres, and
  • Have records that were certified useable by Illinois FBFM staff in both 2018 and 2019.
A total of 1,483 farms meet these criteria, with results for all farms given in Panel A.
For all farms, tillable acres averaged 1,525 per acre, with a range of 500 acres to over 13,000 acres. Net farm income averaged $184,460 in 2018, declining by 51% to $89,866 in 2019 (see Panel A of Table 1)



Income Declines as Percent Prevented Plant Acres Increases

In Panel A, the 1,483 farms are divided into five categories based on the proportion of PP acres. In 2019, 73% of the farms had no PP acres. Even given the wetness of 2019, most Illinois grain farms planted all acres in 2019. Still, of the farms in this sample, a sizable proportion (26%) has some PP. Of those farms that had PP, 15% had less than 10% of their acres in PP. Percentage of farms then declines as the proportion of PP acres increased: 8% had between 11 and 30% of acres in PP, 2% had between 31% to 50%, and 4% had over 50%.
Incomes declines became more negative as the proportion of acres of PP increased, as shown in the last column in Panel A of Table 1. With no PP, the average income change was –45% from 2018 to 2019. The income change was
  • –53% when PP when less than 10%,
  • 97% when 11% to 30% of acres were PP,
  • –103% when 31% to 50% of acres were PP, and
  • –112% when over 50% acres were PP.
On average, net incomes in 2019 were negative when over 31% of acres where PP: -$3,832 per farm when PP was between 31% to 50%, and -$12,638 when PP was over 50% of tillable acres.
Incomes in Table 1 include all sources of revenue, including that from additional government payments offered in 2019 to counter incomes lost due to trade difficulties. Market Facilitation Program (MFP) payments are included in revenue (farmdocDaily, July 30, 2019). Also included is the 10% increase in PP payments.

Income Declines by Region in Illinois

Northern Illinois had more delayed planting than other areas of Illinois. Only 43% of the farms located in northern Illinois got all their acres planted, compared to 81% for central Illinois and 60% for southern Illinois. Over 10% of northern Illinois farms had over 30% of their acreage in PP (6% in 315 To 50% and 4% in over 50% categories) Income declines were larger in northern Illinois than in other parts of Illinois. The average income change in northern Illinois was –76%, compared to –45% for central Illinois and 53% for southern Illinois.

Commentary

The above results do not present an analysis of whether taking PP or planting was the correct decision. To conduct that PP/plant comparison, one would have to link up farms with the same growing conditions who made different PP/plant decisions and then see corresponding results. In this article, we compare incomes with different levels of PP. Given the reluctance of Illinois farmers to take PP, we assumed that most farmers who took PP had no alternative but to take PP. 
There has been some thought that PP payments may provide more than adequate compensation (see Brasher, https://www.agri-pulse.com/articles/12390-coverage-changes-could-limit-prevent-plant-payout ). In 2019, for example, the Risk Management Agency lowered the standard PP payment factor on corn from 60% of the guarantee to 55% (see Risk Management Agency, https://www.rma.usda.gov/en/News-Room/Frequently-Asked-Questions/Prevented-Planting-Coverage-Factor-Changes-for–2019 ). As incomes decline with more PP, income results in this article do not support the contention that PP provides overcompensation. Of course, results could vary by across years.

USDA Surprises Drive Corn Prices Higher

original farmdoc Daily article

by Todd Hubbs, ILLINOIS Extension

The Acreage and Grain Stocks reports, released on June 30, produced some surprises for the corn market. The drop in acreage spurred a rally in corn prices and injected some optimism into the corn outlook moving into the 2020 marketing year. The market turns to weather forecasts and the upcoming WASDE report for price formation over the short term.




Corn producers reported they planted or intended to plant 92.01 million acres of corn this year, 2.31 million more than planted in 2019. Corn planted acres came in 3.2 million acres lower than the average trade guess and 4.98 million acres smaller than March planting intentions. Compared to March planting intentions in major producing states, the June survey revealed lower corn acres in all states. In particular, the western Corn Belt saw substantial acreage reductions with North Dakota (800,000 acres), South Dakota (600,000), and Nebraska (700,000) leading the way. The eastern Corn Belt saw one million acres of corn dropped from March intentions with Illinois and Indiana at 400 thousand acres each. The five million acres drop in corn acres did not move into other principal crops and hints at expanded prevent plant acreage for corn this year.

Producer intentions to plant principal crop acreage show a 9.3 million acre increase from 2019. The USDA estimates that acreage planted to principal crops will total 311.9 million acres. The planned increase in total planted acreage from a year ago came from increases in feed grains and soybeans. Sorghum acreage came in 355,000 acres higher than a year ago at 5.62 million acres. Barley and oats increased by 76,000 and 324,000 acres, respectively. Soybean planting intentions indicated farmers plan to plant 83.8 million acres of soybeans, up 7.7 million acres from 2019. The soybean acreage came in at the low end of market expectations. An additional 2.24 million acres of corn remain unplanted at the time of the survey and brings into question whether those acres may end up in alternative crops or unplanted. The surprise in corn planted acreage led to a strong rally in corn prices. The market’s focus now turns to demand and weather.

While the Acreage report revealed a positive surprise for corn prices, the June 1 stocks report came in much higher than expected. June 1 corn stocks came in at 5.224 billion bushels, slightly higher than last year and about 273 million bushels larger than the average trade guess. The higher than expected stocks total revealed a lower level of feed use in the third quarter of the marketing year. Feed and residual use during the first three quarters of the marketing year sits at 4.729 billion bushels. To reach the projected 5.7 billion bushels of corn, the USDA projects for feed and residual during this marketing year, feed and residual use in the fourth quarter must equal 971 million bushels. Fourth quarter feed and residual use has not equaled that level since the 2005–06 marketing year. Based on current stocks estimate, it appears feed and residual use this year may not reach the projection of 5.7 billion bushels and may see the USDA lower the estimate in the next WASDE report on July 10.

A lower feed and residual amount points toward a larger carry out into the next marketing year. The potential for the current marketing year ending stocks eclipsing 2.2 billion bushels, while not sure, looks high. Ethanol production continues to recover from the weakness seen in April and May. Corn use for ethanol in the third quarter totaled 955 million bushels, down 387 million bushels from the third quarter of the last marketing year. For the week ending June 26, ethanol production came in at 900 thousand barrels a day, up almost 18 percent from a month ago. The recent uptick in Covid–19 cases and subsequent policies enacted around the country to fight the spread insert a considerable level of uncertainty into ethanol use projections. Corn use for ethanol may flatten out as the virus’s resurgence mitigates economic activity during the peak driving season and may carry over into the next marketing year. An expectation of USDA lowering corn use for ethanol by 50 million bushels in the next WASDE report seems reasonable.

Corn exports appear on track to hit the USDA estimate of 1.775 billion bushels for the current marketing year. Outstanding sales as of June 25 sit at 332 million bushels. Exports through June 25 for the marketing year total near 1.38 billion bushels. While the export pace sits slightly below the USDA estimate, some light Chinese buying and strong domestic prices in Brazil hold positives for corn exports. Higher corn prices and the potential for slow global growth may prevent an acceleration of exports as the calendar moves into the next marketing year.

A higher carry out, despite lower acreage, places an added emphasis on yield potential. Some dryness in major corn-producing areas looks feasible over the near term. The recent drought monitor showed areas in North Dakota, Illinois, and Indiana poised to come under stress if dryness continues. The overall impact on the crop is challenging to predict now. An extended dry period as the early-planted crop moves into pollination will push corn yields lower. The projection for harvested corn acres sits at 84 million acres, 2.7 million more than harvested in 2019. If USDA’s yield projection of 178.5 comes to fruition, corn production comes in near 15.0 billion bushels with the present acreage intentions, up around 1.37 billion bushels from 2019.

Corn prices already reflect lower acreage and weaker demand. Subsequent rallies in corn prices rely on the weather. The prospect of the market building a weather premium seems high over the next week given the current weather forecast.

ISAP | Conservation Practices, the Supply Chain, & Consumers

Margaret Henry, Director of Sustainable Agriculture - Pepsico
Ryan Sirolli, Global Row Crop Sustainability Director - Cargill

Companies along the food and fiber supply chain are thinking through how to incentivize clean water and conservation practices while providing for consumers’ wants and demands.
 

Expected Harvest Prices for Corn & Soybeans in 2020

farmdoc Daily Soybean article
farmdoc Daily Corn article

The farmdoc team at the University of Illinois has created a model projecting the average fall price for corn and soybean futures in October. University of Illinois Agricultural Economist Gary Schnitkey says, at USDA’s current projected yields, it puts December corn futures at $3.10 and November Soybean futures at $8.36.

Given current yield estimates, a statistical model suggests that the harvest price for crop insurance in Midwest states will be near $3.10 per bushel. Higher yields, above current estimates, would be expected to result in lower prices and vice versa. Thus, higher prices could happen if 2020 yields are lower than the trend. Conversely, an above trend yield would likely result in lower prices. A harvest price below $3.00 per bushel is a distinct possibility with above trend yields.

Given current yield estimates, a statistical model suggests that the harvest price for crop insurance in Midwest states will be near $8.36 per bushel. Higher yields, above current estimates, would be expected to result in lower prices and vice versa. Thus, higher prices could happen if 2020 yields are lower than the trend. Conversely, an above trend yield would likely result in lower prices. A harvest price below $8.00 per bushel is a distinct possibility with above trend yields.

Anticipating June 1 Corn Stocks

Next week (June 30th) USDA will release the quarterly grain stocks report for corn. These numbers have not been updated since March. It will reflect consumption patterns during the coronavirus pandemic.

The third-quarter grain stocks number is important because it gives the trade an actual tally of how much corn is left from the total available supply in the United States. Early this month USDA projected about 5.7 billion bushels of corn would be used this marketing year in the feed and residual category. This is the one that has the most scrunch room in it. University of Illinois Extension Agricultural Economist Todd Hubbs says if the June stocks report shows 4.89 billion bushels left in the bin, then things are on track, “It will be on track and you make actually see feed and residual move up a little bit if it is in that range. We typically see a fourth quarter feed and residual higher than what that would imply for the third quarter or the first three quarters’ feed and residual use. So, it is on track with the possibility of USDA raising feed and residual numbers.”

The feed and residual number, of course, isn’t the only consumption category for corn. Ethanol took a big hit during the first two months of the pandemic shut down as people stayed home and cars sat idle. The ethanol grind was down 26.7 percent in March and April. It was off in May, too, says Hubbs, “I assume that we will see the kind of convergence rate we’ve seen under the last couple of months of the lockdown. I have the (month of) May number at around 308 million bushels which puts total use for the quarter at around 969 million bushels. Which is way down from what we would normally do in the third quarter of the marketing year.”

The third primary consumption category is the export of corn. Hubbs expects it to be about 1.2 billion in total for the first 9 months of the marketing year. When you total it all up, the exports and the domestic usage, third quarter consumption looks to be right at three-billion-bushels. Hubbs says that number would put June 1 stocks at 4.89 and that figure is less than what was on hand last year at this time, “We would have slightly lower (stocks of corn), about 300 million bushels lower. We must remember we had much smaller crop in the previous year than we did in 2019. So, we will have fewer bushels in the bin, but we won’t be using as many bushels as we did in the last marketing year.”

USDA will update the grain stocks report next Tuesday, June 30th at 11am central time.

Dicamba | Too Hot to Spray

Farmers and retailers have been under pressure this season to get herbicides applied to soybeans and it has caused a lot of headaches. A Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling caused a five-day pause in the application of three of the four available dicamba products. In Illinois, unlike other states, that pause was upheld and then the state tried to remedy the situation by adding five days to the application window - which now closes June 25th. Mostly it is going to be too hot spray during that time frame. Another regulation prohibits application on days warmer than 85 degrees says University of Illinois Extension Weed Scientist Aaron Hager, “Looking at the long term forecast from the National Weather Service, it looks like the next five days will be a no-spray situation. We’ve high temperatures well in excess of 85 degrees for today, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and on into Monday. So, of the seven days we have left, it looks like on the extended forecast there may be only about two days.”

Regulations require the forecast to be checked within 24 hours of the intended application says the ILLINOIS Extension Weed Scientist, “The forecast can change over time but it looks like, at least for the next several days, we are going to have to leave the Dicamba sprayers parked.”

That’s for the Dicamba resistant soybeans. Other soybeans just look awful. There have been herbicide products for decades that burn the leaves of soybeans and then they grow out of it but this year’s damage is, well, in a word serve. Again, here’s ILLINOIS’ Aaron Hager, “A couple of possible reasons why that could be the case. 1) The environmental conditions, obviously, when these were applied. If they are applied under very warm air temperatures under bright sunshine we tend to see more soybean response compared with applications that happen under cooler and perhaps cloudy skies.”

The other possible explanation lies in the practice of adding a residual herbicide into the post-application herbicide mix. Hager says some of the residual herbicides could be acting in the tank mix like an additional crop oil. This would lead to a more rapid uptake of the herbicide and a consequently quick and extensive development of the burning leaf symptoms.

Returning to Dicamba soybeans. Illinois farmers unable to make applications by June 25th will need to use alternative products; Glyphosate, PPO inhibitors, or both. The problem is that waterhemp is likely to be resistant to one of the two, and maybe both. If that is the case, Aaron Hager says there are no good chemical options for the field.

Dicamba & the National Family Farm Coalition

Dicamba herbicide products designed for use with GMO cotton and soybean have been pulled from the marketplace, or at least are in the process of being pulled. This is the result of a lawsuit filed by plaintiffs including the National Family Farm Coalition. Todd Gleason talked with the president of NFFC about the reasons why the farmer organization felt compelled to go to court to keep Dicamba, in this latest form, off the market.

Trying to Reason with History and Policy in a Time of Crisis

On May 15, 1862, Abraham Lincoln signed into law an act of Congress establishing “at the seat of Government of the United States a Department of Agriculture.” Two and one-half years later, in what was to be his last annual message to the Congress, Lincoln said: "The Agricultural Department, under the supervision of its present energetic and faithful head, is rapidly commending itself to the great and vital interest it was created to advance. It is precisely the people’s Department, in which they feel more directly concerned that in any other. I commend it to the continued attention and fostering care of Congress.


Concluding Thoughts
by Jonathan Coppess, Univesity of Illinois

farmdoc Daily Article

There are more than 40 million Americans who have lost their jobs and more than 100,000 Americans have died in just a few months. The brutal killing of George Floyd adds another tragedy to a list already too extensive. With so much pain ripping through America today, the policy decisions by the Trump Administration in the food and agriculture sector are concerning. Too little has been done to assist those who need food in a pandemic and too much on trying to curtail access to food aid. These are decisions likely to produce long-lasting, deep reverberations in the body politic with consequences difficult to foresee. Farmers are struggling and payments can provide some help but the decision to prioritize payments over food is not likely to be well-received by the many waiting in long lines at food banks, struggling just to feed their families. Worse still the obvious greed of the few pushing to capture ever larger payments, especially when considered with the historical examples reviewed herein. This difficult legacy haunts every discussion about farm policy, never more so than now.

Concerns are not the equivalent of criticism for its own sake but rather a call for policies and decisions that better reflect needs and values. The failure to make real, incremental progress too often builds to a breaking point, causing vast harm and greater costs. Few words in American history are more haunting on this point than those of President Abraham Lincoln in his second inaugural address. Among them his warning to a war-weary citizenry that the fighting could continue “until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword” (Lincoln, April 10, 1865). For those willing to learn, the brief record highlighted here provides a starting point from which to draw important lessons.

CFAP Calculations, Payment Rates, & Explanation



University of Illinois ag policy specialist Jonathan Coppess and ILLINOIS Extension Farm Broadcaster Todd Gleason discuss the USDA CFAP coronavirus direct payment announcement.

CFAP payments for corn and soybeans max out at 1/2 of total production and are subject to other payment limitations. The calculation compares 1/2-of-total-production to 100% of total-unpriced-inventory on January 15th. The smaller of those two numbers is multiplied by the payment rate to attain the full CFAP payment. FSA will provide a spreadsheet for the calculation and other related paperwork starting May 26, 2020.

$0.33.5 for corn
$0.47.5 for soybeans

CFAP funds will be distributed in two checks. The first will be 80% of the full amount. The second will be up-to-the remaining 20% depending on available funding. It could be prorated to a smaller amount.


This payment rate schedule was developed by University of Illinois Ag Economist Gary Schnitkey. The payment schedule is not Illinois specific or an all-inclusive commodities list. See farmers.gov for USDA CFAP details.

Discovering How Cover Crop Termination Impacts Insect Populations

Researchers at the University of Illinois were in the field this week counting insects in cereal rye used as a cover crop ahead of corn. It's all part of the work ILLINOIS Extension Entomologist Nick Seiter is doing with cover crops.

 
This University of Illinois cover crop research is funded in part by Illinois NREC. The Nutrient Research Education Council was created by state statute in 2012 and funded by a 75-cent per ton assessment on bulk fertilizer.

Corn, Soybeans, COVID-19, & the Farm Safety Net

It sure looks like COVID–19 is going to do some serious damage to the nation’s corn and soybean farmers. A new study from the University of Illinois estimates the damage at about eight billion dollars. This was the case on May the 5th.



That eight billion is a decline of nine percent across the nation and ILLINOIS Extension Ag Economist Gary Schnitkey says it does not include losses that have already piled up for corn and soybeans still in the bin from last year, "If you look at the 2019 crop, obviously there are losses on the 2019 crop from the sales value, we were looking forward at the 2020 crop and getting a feel for the losses on the 2020 crop."

That loss Gary Schnitkey is talking about is the difference between what farmers were expecting to make pre-COVID–19 and what they are likely to make post-COVID–19 on the 2020 corn and soybean harvest, "So we took the futures prices on that date to reflect what harvest prices would look like, projected forward the market-year-average based on that harvest price, and came up with estimates of losses given those futures prices today (May 5, 2020). We kept the trend-line yields the same, so the calculations would only show the (COVID–19) price decline as what’s happened to revenue."



The farmdoc Daily article shows these projected lost revenues by crop, but notes that, conceptually, this does not work in practice because commodity programs make payments on base acres combined not actual planted acres. Still, it provides an important guidepost. The per acre revenue difference for corn from February to May is $107 per acre. Again these are national averages and do not include any government payments. For soybeans, it is $36 per acre.

Combined the total nationwide loss from February to May is about $12 billion for the 2020 corn and soybean growing season. A projected PLC payment for corn covers about one-third of that loss says one of the articles co-authors, Ohio State University Ag Economist emeritus Carl Zulauf, "The eight-billion-dollar estimate in the article is after we’ve taken out our estimate of the PLC payment. The PLC payment right now is only for corn at the average. We do two estimates. One for a low price and one for an average price relationship. But the PLC payment at the average price relationship is covering about one-third of the total cost. So, in other words, it is around twelve-billion, but if you net it out you get to the eight-billion-dollars."



The eight-billion-dollar loss uses a basis calculation related directly to crop insurance. Stay with me here. It is the Market-Year-Average Cash Price minus the Crop Insurance Harvest Price. That’s 8 under for corn and 2 under for soybeans. If you use a wider basis under a low price scenario, say where there is a burdensome ending stocks number, those are 28 under for corn and 43 under for soybeans. In that case revenue loss is over $10 billion.

You may read the article summarizing the impact of COVID–19 on a corn and soybean farm on the farmDOC daily website.

WHIP+: Farm Aid for Losses Due to Natural Disasters

farmdoc Daily article

The signup period for a program called WHIP+ (whip-plus) is open for farmers suffering losses because of natural disasters during the last two years.



WHIP+ is the continuation of a federal disaster aid program. Most farmers in the corn belt will recall it as the program used last year to bump up prevent plant payments by 15%. Congress introduced WHIP+ last summer, then during the December appropriations process, it dropped in an additional $1.5 billion dollars in funding and expanded qualifying crop losses to include losses due to excessive moisture and D3 and D4 drought.

Producers who suffered either of these types of losses in 2018 or 2019 can apply for WHIP+ assistance through a local Farm Service Agency (FSA) office today says University of Illinois Research Specialist Krista Swanson, "So, the program provides payments for yield losses but there are still a lot of unknowns. The signup period started March 23rd. However, FSA offices across the state do not have what they need to process the applications. So, there is a copy of the application online that people can look at and we are hearing that some counties are going ahead and filling those out with farmers. Other counties are just taking names and putting people on a list."

Again, although USDA opened signup March 23, 2020, county offices are not yet able to process applications and do not have an estimate on when they will be equipped to do so. Some counties are filling out the draft paperwork, others are simply taking names. The application is not difficult says Swanson, "They have provided a payment calculation and we can tell from it that a substantial yield loss will be required. It is based on the expected value of the crop to the value of the crop harvested. This is also reduced by any insurance indemnity payments. So, again you would have had to have a loss per the terms of the calculation that exceeded any crop insurance payment. We do not know what the value rate is in the calculation."

That missing value means almost every farmer should sign-up for WHIP+. Farmers can contact county FSA offices to express intent to apply and ask to be notified when applications can be processed. The USDA has not published a sign-up deadline. The WHIP+ program is not related to the coronavirus direct payments Congress funded through the recently passed CARES act.

Farmers and the Paycheck Protection Program

Congress has moved to allocate additional money to the Paycheck Protection Program and farmers could benefit.



Bob Rhea of the Illinois Farm Business Farm Management Association says some farmers should be able to apply for the government-backed SBA loans, “We believe farmers are eligible to participate in the PPP, the Paycheck Protection Program, under the CARES Act. They don’t specifically identify agriculture as a participating entity but in the very broad scope of things they say any eligible business with less than 500 employees is eligible to participate in the Paycheck Protection Program.”

PPP is administered through local banks and is available through Farm Credit offices. Bob Rhea says it is a loan but one that can be easily forgiven. Here’s how self-employed farmers and others would make the paycheck calculation, “It does include a very unique forgiveness provision for a Small Business Administration loan. It is really based on eight weeks out of 52. Approximately 15% of their 2019 income is the part can be forgiven for a self-employed person. For those that are seeking loans for their payroll, it will be measured on the payroll they incur in the eight weeks on the loaned funds after they are disbursed.”

Rhea says there are a few other pieces that can be used to generate the loan-forgiveness provisions of the Paycheck Protection Program. These include mortgage interest, rents, and utilities costs. Seventy-five percent of the disbursed funds must be used for payroll expenses. Check with your local bank or Farm Credit office to see if your farm qualifies.

US Corn, Soybeans, and Wheat in World Perspective: Importance of the US Cropped Acre Constraint

By Carl Zulauf, Agricultural Economist - The Ohio State University & Krista Swanson, University of Illinois ACES
link to farmdoc Daily article

Wide-spread concern exists over the large decline in US share of world corn, soybean, and wheat exports (see Figure 1). Moreover, quantity of corn and wheat exports have never consistently exceeded their early 1980 levels (see Figure 2). Tariff wars have heightened the concern. Long term impact of the tariff wars is a concern, but this article argues that graphs such as Figures 1 and 2 exaggerate the decline in US agriculture’s international standing and mask key relationships that frame private and public decisions. Data cited in this article come from PSD (Production, Supply, and Demand website).







Reasons for Exaggeration Growth in domestic US use is ignored. US consumption of meat, livestock products, and especially biofuels has grown, displacing exports, everything else remaining the same. Zulauf estimates US corn exports are 1.4 billion bushels smaller than if US corn market trends of 1984–2004 had continued to hold (farmdoc daily, 11/20/2019).

US policy changes are ignored. In particular, CRP (Conservation Reserve Program, which was authorized in 1985, pays for taking environmentally sensitive cropland out of production. Fewer cropped acres mean prices are higher than they would otherwise be. Higher prices reduce demand for exports more than domestic demand, resulting in fewer exports or slower growth in exports.
Broader markets in which a crop exists are ignored. Corn is a feed grain, soybean is an oilseed, and wheat is a food grain. Corn and soybeans are preferred among these crops around the world. However, their share of harvested feed grain-food grain-oilseed acres has increased more in the US (from 50% in 1972–1976 to 71% in 2015–2019 vs. 15% to 29% for rest of the world). Faster growth in preferred crops imparts an advantage to the US.

Conclusion

A more encompassing and likely more accurate measure of US agriculture’s international role is its share of aggregate world feed grain-food grain-oilseed production.
US share of world feed grain-food grain-oilseed production has declined, but by much less: from 19.3% in 1972–1976 to 16.2% in 2015–2019 (see Figure 3 and Data Note). This conclusion also holds for relative share decline. Relative decline in US share of world corn exports is –52%. It is calculated as percent change in 2015–2019 share from the 1972–1976 share, specifically [1 – (34.9% / 72.8%)] (percent values from Figure 1). Relative decline in US export share is –62% for soybeans and –69% for wheat. In contrast, relative decline in US share of world feed grain-food grain-oilseed production is only –16% (1 – (16.2% / 19.3%).




Closer Look

Because magnitude of a share matters, it is important to examine a share over its range of values (0% to 100%), as Figure 3 does. But, such a graph can mask important smaller, shorter-run changes. Figure 4, a smaller magnitude picture, clearly reveals 2 periods of decline. The first peak-to-trough is from 1982 (20.9%) to 1991 (16.3%). It closely follows the 1973–1980 crop prosperity period. The second peak-to-trough is from 2007 (17.6%) to 2015 (15.9%). It largely overlaps the 2007–2013 crop prosperity period. However, declines in 2018 and 2019 beg a question, “Have the tariff wars undone a possible stabilization in US share following large price declines since 2012?” Between the two declines, US share partially recovered, likely due in part to the large reduction in US prices due to policy changes enacted in the 1985 farm bill.




Role of US Acres Since the early 1980s, all growth in cumulative US production of feed grains, food grains, and oilseeds has come from yield as harvested acres declined by 26 million (see Figure 5). Since 2000, harvested acres have essentially not changed in the US while increasing by 301 million in the rest of the world. The constraint on US acres reflects both bioclimatic factors and public policy. It seems unlikely to change in the near future. The constraint means, if US domestic consumption grows faster than US yield, prices will increase, giving rest of the world an incentive to bring acres into production. This scenario played out as the US expanded its biofuel markets since 2000.




Summary Thoughts

A widely-expressed concern is the decline in US share of world corn, soybean, and wheat exports.
This decline however exaggerates the decline in US agriculture’s international standing. It also masks key relationships that frame private and public decisions.

A more accurate perspective is US share of world feed grain-food grain-oilseed production. This share has declined but by much less than US share of world corn, soybean, or wheat exports.
The decline occurred in two periods: 1982–1991 and 2007–2013. The second decline has, so far, been much less than the first. But, declines in 2018 and 2019 prompt the question, “Is the second decline resuming, especially in light of the tariff wars?”
A key feature of contemporary US agriculture is a constraint on cropped acres. Given this constraint, growing US demand faster than yield means most of the benefits accrue to the rest of the world as they bring more acres into production. Such has occurred since 2000 as the US expanded its biofuels markets.

The US cropland constraint prompts the following policy questions / issues. Given this constraint,
  • What is the appropriate role and funding for export promotion programs?
  • What should US biofuels policy be, in particular the size of mandated markets?
  • What should be the size and goal of US conservation land retirement programs?
  • What is the appropriate role and funding for public agricultural research?
These issues span multiple titles in the farm bill, suggesting the US cropped acres constraint could be a foundation theme directing debate over the next farm bill.

Planting Corn and Soybeans in 2020



by Emerson Nafziger, ILLINOIS Extension Agronomist

March rainfall in Illinois ranged from normal to a couple of inches above normal, but the last week of March and first week of April have been relatively dry, and field operations are getting underway. The April 6 NASS report indicates that there were 3.1 days suitable for fieldwork in Illinois during the week ending on April 5, but no planting was recorded. As is often the case in early April, soils are wet over most of the state.

The 4-inch soil temperatures at 10 AM have been close to 50 degrees in southern Illinois, and over the past week they have increased from the low 40s to the mid–40s in central and northern Illinois. The forecast is for a return to cooler weather later this week, and possibly to wetter conditions as well. Such “yo-yoing” is normal for April, and it often brings up questions about what to do when the weather forecast is for conditions to deteriorate as planting approaches. Do we plant or do we wait?

There is no question that the ideal is for seed of both corn and soybean to be planted into soils that are relatively dry, and that are warm (and warming) enough to allow germination and emergence to get started quickly, and plants to grow steadily after emergence. The most recent example of the benefits of this was in 2018, when planting was delayed until May, then May weather was very warm, and the crops “never looked back” on their way to new yield records. In 2017, early corn planting was followed by a week of cool, wet weather, which led to a lot of replanting. The replanted crop often yielded more than the first crop, almost certainly because it had warmer conditions under which to germinate and begin to grow.

Having soils stay dry after early planting into cool soils is much better than having them turn wet: the germination process is very slow at low temperatures, so seeds will bide their time until soils warm up, and dry soils are a safer place to do that. If it turns wet, seeds will last longer in cool soils than in warm ones, both because low temperatures delay the germination process (and the demand for oxygen), and because colder water contains more oxygen than warmer water. Still, seeds that spend a week or more in wet soils at temperatures in the low 40s are subject to “imbibitional chilling injury” that can mean abnormal growth and poor emergence even if seeds survive. This is considered more of a problem in corn than in soybean, in part because more soybean seeds than corn seeds tend to die under such conditions and so don’t show those symptoms.

Planting date
Now that we’ve passed the first week of April, plantings of this year’s corn or soybean crops from now on can’t be considered “very early”, but the message from some agronomists about the need to plant soybeans as early as March continues, and more producers are choosing to begin planting soybeans before they begin planting corn. With planting date responses for the two crops essentially identical on a percentage basis, which crop to start with is more or less a tossup. The deciding factor in that case should often be which fields are ready first. Fields where soybeans grew last year will often be in good shape to plant earlier than those where corn grew, and that may mean planting some corn first. It certainly makes little sense to plant soybeans when it’s too wet just to plant them earlier than corn.

I have mentioned before the possibility that soybeans planted very early—in March or early April—might occasionally yield less than those planted in late April or early May. I dug up some data from a study that we did back in 2001–2003 in which we started planting as soon as we could (without planting in mud) using different seeding rates and varieties with different maturities. Figure 1 shows yields from this study, with planting date averaged over sites. Yields were not as high as we’d expect today, but the earliest planting yielded the least of all the planting dates. This was not due to low stands, with the exception of the Urbana site in 2001, when it froze (temperatures in the upper 20s) just as the crop was emerging, and about half of the plants from the first planting date were killed. We had five sites in southern Illinois, where average yields were even lower, but the earliest planting there (average of April 15) yielded less than either the early May or late May planting.


Figure 1. Soybean planting date responses over nine trials in central/northern Illinois, 2001–2003.

While changes in seed quality, spring weather, and perhaps genetics have lowered the threat of such losses from very early planting, we can’t rule out the possibility that planting soybeans in March or early April may not always maximize yield. That’s not necessarily because of stand loss from frost or wet soils. Frost can typically kill soybean plants only in a one- or two-day window as the plants are breaking through the soil surface. Frost that occurs after the first two leaves unroll can kill the growing point, but then buds will break and form (usually two) new stems. Most low stands in soybeans follow heavy rainfall soon after planting, and chances of that happening are not closely tied to when the crop is planted. Instead, the evidence is that low temperature stress during early growth may limit node and seed number per plant, therefore limiting yield potential. The fact that the earliest planting in northern Illinois responded so much to seeding rate reflects the fact that these plants did not have as many seeds as those planted later.

One of the incentives to plant soybeans very early is that some seed companies provide free replant seed. I do not know if “free” includes the cost of seed treatments (for replant seed) that are commonly applied to soybean seed at the point of sale. Soybean seed meant for early planting is often treated with several plant protectants, including ILeVO® for decreasing the incidence of SDS. That disease is generally considered more likely to be a problem when soybeans are planted into cold soils.

The debate among agronomists regarding the merits of planting soybeans in March or early April—before the start of corn planting—is still alive, but focusing on “corn versus soybean” as if it’s a contest mostly misses the point. Both corn and soybean benefit from early planting most of the time, and both face similar risks when conditions deteriorate after we plant early. We shouldn’t decide when to start planting or which crop gets priority based on how “tough” each crop is or on trying to prove someone wrong. The goal instead is to minimize risk and to maximize yield potential. The 2019 growing season was such that that penalty from late planting was relatively less for soybeans than for corn. That doesn’t mean that corn should get first planting priority this year. Both crops should get priority, with actual planting order determined by factors such as logistics, how fast fields dry, and crop insurance.

Recent research on how both corn and soybeans respond to planting date in Illinois is summarized below in Figure 2. I’ve shown both lines on the same figure before, but here I’m including the actual data for both crops along with the curves in order to show how variability changes as planting is delayed. While we did not try to plant soybeans before mid-April in this study, note that hardly any of the April soybean plantings produced less than maximum yields in these trials. With mid-April plantings yielding the same as late-April plantings, it seems unlikely that yields from planting in March would have been higher than those from planting in April.


Figure 2. Corn and soybean planting date responses in Illinois trials. Each trial included four planting dates, and yields were converted to percent of the maximum yield in that trial.

Unlike soybean, the earliest planting dates for corn did not consistently produce the highest yields in the trials shown in Figure 2. This was not due to poor stands or frost damage, but was the result of growing conditions later in the season, and was more common when yields levels were lower. It’s difficult to untangle what happened in each of these, but in a few cases the early-planted crop experienced cool temperatures in May that might have lowered yield potential. The growing season was relatively dry in some of these sites as well, and small differences in rainfall timing could have favored the crop that was planted a little later. We added an additional planting date in mid-March in the very dry spring of 2012, and lost about half of the stand to frost during the second week of April.

Planting depth
Recent developments in automated depth and down-pressure controls on planters have brought new attention to the issues of planting depth and seed placement. While research done over a few sites often identifies a “best” depth, such results don’t very well predict what the best depth will be in a given field the next time. We can guess the best planting depth about as well as we can guess the weather, although the depth decision is easier in some soils than in others. Most studies include planting both too shallow and too deep, with a few depths in the middle, and results typically show, to no one’s surprise, that it is better to avoid planting too shallow or too deep.

An additional feature available on some planters is a sensor for soil moisture coupled with the ability to vary planting depth based on where in the soil there’s enough moisture to get germination started. This has potential for dry areas where soil moisture frequently is low during the planting season. But I think we need to be cautious with this in the eastern Corn Belt, where soils are heavier and where heavy rainfall after planting and before emergence is a much serious threat to stand establishment than dry soil at planting. Planting deeper means that emergence almost always takes longer, and that means more chances of having problems related to wet soils and surface compaction (crusting) as soils dry out after they get wet. In practice, I think this means that planting 3 inches deep or deeper in most Illinois soils (sandy soil is an exception), even if that’s where soil moisture is adequate, has a better chance of lowering stand counts than it does of increasing them. Most corn seed has the ability to emerge from 3 inches deep if soil conditions are good, but when soil conditions deteriorate after planting, those three inches can turn onto an obstacle course for seedlings. That can compromise stands and stand uniformity, both of which are needed for getting the highest yields.

Today’s planters do a good job of pressing soil against seeds for the sides and above, resulting in good seed-soil contact without compacting the soil above the seed. Good seed-soil contact forms a conduit by which water can move through the soil into the seed as germination begins. That effectively enlarges the soil volume from which seeds can draw water, which means that even soils with lower moisture content often have enough water to allow germination, especially in silt loam and silty clay loam soils without clods. Clods form when soil that was tilled when it was wet dries out. With less tillage and less time between tillage and planting today, soils often do not to dry out very much before planting. As a result, uneven stands due to uneven soil moisture is relatively rare in most Illinois fields. Those who can’t remember when they last saw uneven stands due to uneven soil moisture at planting—that is, times when some seeds had to wait for rain before they emerged—might have reason to question the advisability of having soil moisture determine how deep seeds are planted.

So where, between too shallow (let’s say one inch) and too deep (3 inches in most soils) should we plant? Soybeans planted in the first half of April with soil temperatures (2 inches deep measured at 7 or 8 AM) less than 50 should probably be planted 1.25 to 1.5 inches deep, and corn at least 1.5 inches deep. When planting into warmer soils later in April or in May, 1.5 inches is good for soybeans and 1.75 inches for corn. Manually changing planting depth on a 24-row planter is good exercise, but may not always be worth the time it takes. As long as we’re planting between 1.5 and 2 inches deep, it’s not clear that trying to fine-tune depth based on current and future soil conditions has much potential to improve stands.

Especially when planters move at speeds of 6 mph or faster and when the soil surface is not very smooth, some seeds end up shallower and some deeper than the nominal setting. Equipment and seed companies have looked at the effect of planting depth on stands and yields, and have in some cases managed to produce large yield differences by employing “mistake” settings. Measuring the uniformity of seeding depth by digging up seeds is difficult, but high-speed cameras can estimate depth as seeds drop and settle in place. One study done by digging up corn roots at maturity reported a standard deviation of about an eighth of an inch, which would mean that about 5 percent of seeds would be at least a quarter of an inch shallower or deeper than the average. That’s probably acceptable at normal planing depths. More weight and more uniform down-pressure have improved planting depth uniformity, and if 75 percent or more of plants emerge over a period of about 15 growing degree days (24 hours at average temperature, longer than that if it’s cool) and the rest within one more day, it’s unlikely that any yield has been lost due to non-uniformity of planting depth.

Uniformity of distance between seeds is good enough to maximize yield potential in most fields, and needs no further mention. Despite what yield contest winners say they do, there is no reason for most people to plant slower than they do now. If the monitor says enough seeds are being dropped, and either the monitor or previous experience (by seeing how stands look after emergence) say they’re spaced uniformly enough, they probably are.

Seeding rate
Most people have decreased the number of soybean seeds dropped per acre over the past decade or so, but seed quality has also improved, and so the number of plants needed to maximize yield has probably not decreased as much as the seeding rate. We know that seeding rate responses are highly variable: in a series of 25 seeding rate studies in Illinois between 2015 and 2018, we found that the stand (not seed) numbers needed to maximum dollar return to seed ranged from 50 to 200 thousand, and there was no correlation between yield and plant stand needed to produce that yield. That means that the best way to set seeding rates is to average over seeding rate trials to get a best-guess prediction.

Averaged over the 25 responses, the plant stand needed to maximize the net return to seed was about 107,000 plants. At 80% stand establishment, that would require planting 134,000 seeds per acre. While that seems like a reasonable seeding rate, the “best” seeding rate was higher than that in about half of the trials and less than that in the others. Responses were fairly flat in most of the trials, though, which says that moving around within a range of 125,000 to 145,000 seeds per acre won’t miss the mark by much. If you expect emergence to be higher than 80%, seeding rates can be decreased. If you’ve gotten good yields planting only 100,000 or 110,000 seeds in the past, feel free to do that again. Keep in mind, though, that yield responses to seeding rate may not be very visible. So while 100,000 seeds might produce a good yield of 75 bushels, using 130,000 seeds might increase that by 2 bushels, which won’t look like much but would increase profits by $12–13 per acre.

The response of corn to plant population is much more consistent that for soybeans. Figure 3 below shows the response to corn plant population over 44 trials in Illinois between 2012 and 2018. Each trial included four to six hybrids, with planted populations ranging from 18,000 to 50,000 per acre. Final stand closely matched seeding rate, so they’re used interchangeably. The average yield at the 100% (of maximum) yield level was 237 bushels per acre. We used a wide range of seeding rates in order to produce visible responses, even though we know that this range extends far outside the range that producers might consider. Yields at 48–50,000 plants were lower than those at 34–36,000. So what we chose as the high end of the range ending up “bending” the curve, which changed where it reaches a maximum. The curve fitted to yields from the populations up to and including 42,000 shows that the maximum yield was produced at 36,900 plants per acre, and the optimum population—where the last seeds added were paid for by the increase in yield—was 33,400 plants per acre.


Figure 3. Corn plant population response over 44 trials in Illinois, 2012–2018.

It’s also worth noting that, although we find best returns from plant populations in the 32,000 to 35,000 per acre, having them a few thousand higher or lower is not going to change yields or net returns by very much. Yield level doesn’t make much difference: yields in 2012 were about 50 bushels lower than in the highest-yielding years of this study, but the population response was about the same as in other years. Going up to 40,000 isn’t very likely to increase yields, but it won’t increase costs much, either, so it won’t do much harm in productive soils. Marlin Jeschke of Pioneer recently reported that harvest populations for non-irrigated entries in the NCGA Corn Yield Contest over the past five years was 36,700, so it’s clear that current hybrids don’t don’t require unusually high populations to produce high yields.

If planting is delayed in 2020
Should management of corn or soybean change if planting is delayed in 2020 like it was in 2019? We’re certainly hoping that any delays are not on the scale that we saw in 2019, but we did not see many signs last year of things we should change if planting is late in 2020. That may have been because of good weather and good yields even after the late planting. About the only thing we might want to consider if corn planting is delayed into June is to move to earlier–maturing hybrids in the northern part of Illinois. Hybrid strip trials planted in that region in early June last year showed lower yield for hybrids later than 107–108 days RM. We did not see this with late-planted soybeans there, nor for either corn or soybeans in central and southern Illinois.