April was too wet and too cool, and kept farmers from planting corn. Only 3% of Iowa's 2011 corn crop was planted as of April 24, compared to 61% a year ago. About 28% planted is normal for that date, based on the average of the last five years. However, corn planters are finally rolling in parts of Iowa, as farmers have been getting some corn in the ground during the last few days of April.
With corn prices in the $6 to $7 per bushel range and the current supply of corn the tightest that corn stocks have been in over 15 years, pressure is on farmers to produce a big U.S. corn crop this year. As we head into the first few days of May in what has been a delayed planting season, everyone is asking: Can the state catch up on planting once farmers finally get into the fields?
It's interesting to look at historical crop planting information compiled by the Iowa office of USDA's National Ag Statistics Service or NASS. Greg Thessen is the state statistician who heads up that office in Des Moines and oversees the weekly surveys of planting progress in Iowa. Based on the average of the last five years, history shows Iowa farmers can plant up to slightly more than 20% of the state's corn acres in one week.
About 1.4 million corn acres can be planted on a good day
Remember though, the five-year average includes one of the fastest planting seasons on record, which was last year, 2010, and it also includes one of the slowest planting seasons, which was the very wet spring of 2008.
Another way to look at this question is to consider how many acres are planted per day that is suitable for fieldwork. On average, during any week this time of year, fields are suitable for work about 3½ days, or half the time, points out Roger Elmore, Iowa State University Extension corn agronomist.
"We can put a lot of corn in the ground quickly," notes Elmore. Last year, based on data from the Iowa Crops and Weather Reports compiled by NASS, Iowa farmers planted from 37,000 acres per suitable day to nearly 1.4 million acres (see the table accompanying this article). In 2008 and 2009, over 1.2 million acres were planted per day suitable for field work during the best weeks.
Modern planters and GPS technology allow faster planting
"Several factors contribute to the ability of farmers to plant rapidly," says Elmore. "Modern planters are larger than older models, fields are larger, and more fields have improved drainage with more tile drainage installed in recent years. Also, global positioning systems, improved operating lights, planter monitors and well-equipped tractor cabs all allow farmers to plant longer hours with less fatigue. In addition, the common knowledge that yield penalties generally are less with early planting than late planting has spurred this trend."
USDA's 2011 planting intentions survey released at the end of March indicated Iowa farmers intend to plant approximately 13.9 million acres of corn this spring. Doing the math, you see that if farmers can plant about 1.4 million acres per day on a good day, they could get the state's corn crop planted in just 10 days.
"It remains to be seen how long it will take to plant our estimated 13.9 million corn acres this year," sums up Elmore. "Iowa farmers are well-equipped to do it in record time, if the weather cooperates. We just need 10 excellent days!"