TERRE HAUTE —
Roger Sturgeon is “champing at the bit,” wondering just when enough sunshine and heat will dry out his soggy farm fields, allowing him to start planting on 1,900 acres near Riley.
And time is ticking away on when he and other farmers can make a decision on what crop can be planted.
That’s a big difference from last year, when Indiana farmers were nearly finished planting by mid-May, but then faced one of the driest droughts in decades.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports just 12 percent of the nation’s cornfields have been planted as of this week. Usually, almost 25 percent is planted nationwide by this time, based upon a five-year average.
It’s much more stark in Indiana.
Just 1 percent of the corn has been planted as of the start of this week, compared with 82 percent of the corn crop at this time last year, said Jim Luzar, agriculture and natural resource specialist for Purdue University’s Vigo County Extention Service.
Indiana’s five-year average is to have 41 percent of corn planted by the start of this week.
“It is definitely a concern,” Luzar said. “The most immediate task farmers face is anxiety. Some of the soils are very saturated. If we continue to get rain this week and are waiting next week to see if the ground will dry up, then there will be evaluations of maybe going with a shorter-season corn hybrid relative to what farmers had intended to plant.”
Luzar said farmers must resist what he calls “knee-jerk reactions” and a temptation to get into fields “and get on soil that can compact.”
There is a 60 percent chance of rain today in Vigo County, dropping to a 30 percent chance on Friday, according to the National Weather Service. However, the weekend looks to be dry, but cooler, into the 60s.
Adding to the uncertainty are commodities markets, which in recent months have shown volatility. Corn prices dropped about 80 cents in early April but jumped 40 cents early last week, with planting delays accounting for at least some of those swings, said Chad Hart, an Iowa State University agricultural economist.
“The market is ready to make a run, but it doesn’t know which direction to go yet,” Hart said in a news release. “There’s some cause for optimism in the middle of all this volatility in the market.”
Sturgeon said if his land gets 1 to 2 inches more of rain, it will mean waiting even longer for fields to dry.
“Everybody in this area will probably stay with corn acres until at least the end of this month or until the 5th or 7th of June. After that, you will see a lot acres start switching over to beans,” Sturgeon said.
“If you plant it much later, you will have wet corn. It doesn’t mature to where it is dry coming out of the fields and then you have extra expenses with drying charges,” he said. “It adds to the expense.”
“Right now, we are just chomping at the bit, like a bunch of horses waiting to jump out of the stalls. Everyone has done all they can up to this point with field work” and applying chemicals, he said.
Sturgeon said he has only applied anhydrous ammonia to about 20 percent of the land he planned to plant with corn. That still gives him flexibility to plant soybeans. “Once you put that anhydrous on, you really hate not to plant corn because that is a pretty sizable expense. Once you do that, you will push that [corn planting] date a little harder,” Sturgeon said.
“As soon as it dries up and we are ready to go, we will be putting in some long hours to try to catch up,” he said.
Terry Hayhurst, of Hayhurst Farms in southern Vigo County, said there “is water standing just about everywhere” on his farm ground.
Yet, Hayhurst is not concerned.
“You just have to be patient and wait for the fields to dry out,” he said, as his land has a heavier clay soil, which retains water and is slower to dry. It’s soil that helped him get two-thirds of his normal crop during last year’s severe drought.
“Our soils have a lot better water holding capacity later into the summer,” he said.
Hayhurst said it will likely be late next week before he can get into his fields to plant a crop. He will plant corn as late a June 15.
Farmers with crop insurance will usually not plant corn past June 4. After that, they declare the land unplantable and collect the crop insurance, Hayhurst said.
Hayhurst does not have insurance on his 1,200 acres, as his yields usually stay steady, at 122 bushels per acre on corn, because of the soil type. He usually plants about 600 acres in corn, the rest in soybeans and wheat.
The USDA recently estimated that U.S. farmers would plant 97 million acres of corn this year, which would be 100,000 more acres than last year, and estimated that this year’s crop could produce a record harvest if yields are close to the trend line or above. That’s if farmers can get the crop planted soon.
Frank Miklozek said he’s not worried.
He farms 800 acres, with 400 acres located about two miles south of Riley. There, Miklozek said in April he dug to install drainage tile and found the subsoil, 18 inches to 24 inches below the surface, was still dry, a reminder of last year’s drought.
“There is water on the surface in the fields, but I am glad we are getting the water,” Miklozek said. “The subsoil is still dry. We’ve got 2 inches of rain over the last few days and it is just about all gone. I’m not worried. If we get a few more sunny days, we could probably be in the field soon,” he said.
Miklozek said he is not concerned that he has not started to plant corn. He is already looking toward planting more soybeans, a crop he says can be planted as late as July 4 and still get up to 40 bushels per acre.
“I don’t like the volatility of this corn and it costs so much money to put this corn crop in. If the [U.S.] gets a 97 million acre corn crop, the corn will be worthless. The market will crash,” Miklozek said.
Sturgeon said he thinks this year may represent a balancing act.
“There is some kind of a balance when it comes to weather. Whether it is a short-term balance or a long-term balance, it always seems to come to an equilibrium some how,” Sturgeon said. “We would like to see what is considered normal. But, the last few years are extremes, so I don’t know what is normal is anymore,” he chuckled. “Every year is different.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Reporter Howard Greninger can be reached at 812-231-4204 or firstname.lastname@example.org.