Saga of Low Yields Picks Up Steam

Some believe USDA missed August national projection badly.

Published on: Aug 29, 2011

The more people you talk to, and the people from more states you talk to, it becomes apparent to this observer, at least, that everyone wants to know where USDA got it's corn estimate in August, not just for certain states, but for the entire country. Perhaps they are pessimistic, but we're hearing farmers talk as low as 140 bushels per acre as a national average.

Why the talk? Some early reports aren't encouraging. One machinery dealer in central Kansas says their area isn't hurting too bad, but south of I-70 in general it was dry. Some corn has already been harvested. Undocumented reports put yields as low as 30 bushels per acre.

OK, southern Kansas isn't the heart of the Corn Belt. But central Illinois is, and in preparation for the Farm Progress Show this week, some corn has been harvested. It was earlier-maturity corn. Yields in the 120 bushel per acre range on ground that should kick out 200 bushels plus have been bantered about.

One farmer from Hendricks County, Ind., where average yield is typically pushing 155 or higher, says the county average yield will be lucky to run around 120 bushels per acre this year. He's not expecting a whole lot more out of his corn crop than that as an average.

What has the people who haven't shelled corn yet so pessimistic? Because they've been in their fields, and found many sorts of abnormalities related to heat and dry weather at pollination time. The most common seems to be unusually long exposed cob meaning excessive tip abortion. There are also many reports of zipper ears, with one or more rows of kernels missing on the side of the ear that faced outward, toward the sun and the most heat. These ears often are shorter than normal and sometimes pucker up somewhat. They're better than a nubbin, but they're far from ears that will make 200 bushels per acre.

The other factor farmers are throwing in is the high nighttime temperatures. Most think that factor helped hold down yields a year ago, and it was just as big a problem, if not more so, in many areas this year. Even Minnesota, where water was more plentiful, had excessive heat, much more than normal for that northern state.

So why didn't USDA pick this up if farmers are that pessimistic? Because they stayed with the same formula that produced an embarrassing 10 bushel too-high guess a year ago, and didn't adjust it. And because when the field enumerators went to the field in most states, there weren't ears to count yet. So there weren't unusually fertilization patterns to detect.

Others talk about more barren stalks than usual. Throw in more than an average number of reports of green snap, root lodging from high winds, hail and prevented planting, and USDA may need a wishbone in its collective pocket to avoid a drubbing on its August estimate for the second year in a row. The September estimate, where field enumerators have actually seen ears in fields, may gibe indication of whether the farmer undercurrent that is pessimistic or USDA is more on track.