COLUMBIA — Broken stalks and dusty corn cobs from last year’s crop are scattered across many Missouri fields where there should be waist-high corn. Excessive rain this spring has caused a delay in corn planting, which could threaten the quality of the crop and decrease the potential yield for Missouri farmers.
Since Jan. 1, Columbia has received 22.24 inches of rain through May 31, marking this year as the ninth wettest on record, according to Patrick Guinan, assistant professor of climatology at MU.
“In regard to departure from normal precipitation for this year, Missouri is one of the wettest in the U.S., especially across the southern half of the state,” Guinan said. “Some counties across south Missouri received 35 to 40 inches of rain so far this year, which is 15 to 20 inches above normal.” Columbia averages 40 inches for an entire year, he said.
This has created a problem for farmers because the soil is so saturated with water that the heavy machinery cannot move through the wet fields to plant the crop, said Bill Wiebold, plant sciences professor at MU. In addition, the growth of corn already in the ground is delayed because of overly wet conditions and cool temperatures, he said.
Farmers have lost 25 percent of their yield potential simply from the delay in planting, which should ideally be finished in mid to late April, Wiebold said. But this is only part of the problem.
“When we get in a hurry, we plant in a wet soil that’s not ready, and it compacts. Roots don’t grow well in this soil, creating a damaged root system,” Wiebold said. “It isn’t a problem now, but it makes a difference in July if it’s dry.”
The cool weather also has been a problem. This has been the coolest spring since 2002, and a majority of the days this spring have been below the normal temperature, according to Guinan. This has contributed to the wet conditions because the soil doesn’t dry out as well in cool weather. This means the soil stays wet for a longer period, which keeps the farmers out of the fields.
This leaves corn vulnerable to potential diseases that thrive in wet weather. Waterlogged soil creates a chemical reaction, which removes the nitrogen needed for the crop to grow, Wiebold said. Fertilizer is very expensive and could be lost under these wet conditions, he said.
“What this means to the yield is hard to guess, but as more of these problems accumulate, the potential is less and less,” he said.
The National Agricultural Statistics Service shows that Missouri has planted 72 percent of the corn crop this season as of May 25, compared to 96 percent that is normally planted at this time. Missouri isn’t alone in the delay. The 18 top corn-producing states, including Missouri, have only planted 88 percent of the corn crop compared to the 94 percent that’s planted on average at this time.
The corn market is jittery because the differences between the daily high corn futures price and daily low corn futures price, reported by the Chicago Board of Trade, is about 21 cents, said Ron Plain, a professor of agricultural economics at MU.
The difference could be significant for farmers in Missouri with low yields this fall because of rising input costs to plant corn. One of these high input costs is the cost of seed.
The positive side of high seed prices is the flexibility of the seed companies, Plain said. They have raised the prices to accommodate farmers more effectively, he said. The farmers usually order the seeds in the winter for an early planting. If, like this year, the farmers can’t plant the corn early, the seed companies will let the farmer switch to a shorter growing period variety or refund their money.
Another hefty cost of late planting is artificially drying the wet corn that is harvested late in the fall. As corn matures, it begins to lose some of its moisture, said Brian Flatt of Flatt Farms in Centralia.
Flatt, a third generation farmer, said at about 32 percent moisture, the corn is mature, but it can’t be delivered to the elevators until it’s at about 15.5 percent moisture without a price dock. Late corn does not dry well in the fall. That means that these farmers have to artificially dry the corn by using propane. This presents a problem because propane is getting ever more expensive, Flatt said.
Although the actual yield will be determined in July and August, these early worries are not unfounded.
“July is the key month that determines the corn crop,” Plain said. The normal hot and dry weather in July is not good for young corn that hasn’t been in the field for long. However, if July brings cooler than normal temperatures and higher than average rainfall, the corn crop will be better than expected despite the late planting, Plain said.
Time will tell the impact of late planting on the corn yield, grain quality and the market. At the beginning of August the corn prices will reflect the predicted volume and quality of the crop, Plain said. Meanwhile, farmers just have to plant and wait.
“We are pretty hopeful, even though it’s a late crop,” Flatt said. “This isn’t a typical year, so everything is up in the air.”
His father and farming partner, Ron Flatt agreed.
“The season is late, but everything is late this year,” he said. “We’re optimists. All farmers have to be optimists.”