CHICAGO -- Corn farmers were unable to plant on soggy or flooded fields from Arkansas to North Dakota this year, signaling tighter grain stockpiles even after rising demand for livestock feed and ethanol sent prices surging.
The Department of Agriculture may cut its planting forecast on June 30 to 90.629 million acres, according to a Bloomberg News survey of 31 analysts. That’s less than the 92.178 million that farmers predicted in a government survey three months ago and would be the USDA’s biggest such reduction from the March forecast since 1995.
Ohio River Valley and North Dakota had triple the normal rainfall in the past 90 days, Mississippi River floods were a record in May, and millions of Midwest acres were inundated with water. While prices slumped in the past few weeks, as drier weather improved conditions, late planting means fields are susceptible to heat and frost damage before this year’s harvest in September.
"It’s incredible how wet it has been this year," said Scott Stirling, who plans to make an insurance claim for the first time in his 21 years of farming because 500 acres of his 7,500-acre farm near Martinton, Ill., were too soggy to plant. "We needed the best crop ever to begin to rebuild inventories this year, and that’s just not going to happen."
Corn futures for July delivery, the closest to expiration, reached a record $7.9975 a bushel on June 10 on the Chicago Board of Trade. The contract has slumped 15 percent since then as Greece’s debt crisis spurred investors to sell commodities. Still, December futures are up 85 percent compared with the most-active contract a year ago, as ethanol producers demanded record amounts of grain to make biofuel, and record meat prices kept livestock producers from cutting herds.
Higher grain prices mean consumers are paying more for everything from Hormel Foods’s Jennie-O turkey to Del Monte’s Kibbles ’n Bits dog food. Global food prices are up 37 percent in the past year, reaching a record in February, according to the United Nations.
Another period of unusual weather, such as a heat wave in July or August or an early freeze, may send corn to $10, said Chad Hart, a grain-market specialist at Iowa State University in Ames.
"This market is primed to head up, and up significantly, if we have a short crop," Hart said. "Concern about what’s going on in Europe and other places in the world has pulled everything down, but if we start to see some real concerns about how corn production is shaping up, we could see the market do a U-turn in a hurry."
As many as 500,000 acres in Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota and Missouri may be hurt by floods on the Missouri River, Hart said. The United States is the world’s biggest exporter for corn, soybeans and wheat.
Wet weather that extended into June also may have prevented farmers from seeding more soybeans, an alternative to corn because it has a shorter growing season. About 76.487 million acres may have been sown with the oilseed, down from the previous USDA estimate of 76.609 million, according to the Bloomberg survey.
Spring wheat, grown primarily in the Dakotas, Montana and Minnesota, may have dropped to 13.279 million acres, compared with 14.427 million estimated in March, according to the survey. That would leave total U.S. wheat planting at 56.725 million acres, down from the government’s March estimate of 58.021 million.
Terry Borstad, who grows spring wheat, corn, soybeans and other crops on his 6,000-acre farm near Starkweather, N.D., said about 1,500 acres will go unplanted this year because some areas remain under water.
"The 75 percent we’ve been able to plant, I feel fortunate," Borstad said. "A lot of farmers have only been able to get in 50 percent or 25 percent."
More of the U.S. corn crop will be used to make fuel in the marketing year that ends Aug. 31 than to feed animals for the first time, the USDA estimates. Ethanol refiners may consume about 40 percent of last year’s harvest.
While U.S. lawmakers are mulling an end or limits to tax credits for ethanol after corn and oil prices surged, petroleum refiners are still required to use 15 billion gallons of renewable fuels by 2015.
"That means ethanol production is totally unresponsive to price," Wallace Tyner, an agricultural economist at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., said in a report this week. "There’s no flexibility."
Meat companies are passing higher costs to consumers. Austin, Minnesota-based Hormel, the largest U.S. turkey producer after Butterball LLC, has raised prices twice this fiscal year to offset increased spending on feed, James Splinter, the vice president for the company’s grocery products division, said on a June 16 conference call.
Even as feed prices rise, Mark Legan, a hog farmer with 2,400 sows in Coatesville, Ind., said he’s not planning to reduce his herd. Legan said he’s using more distillers dried grains, a byproduct of ethanol plants, in feed rations, cutting his corn and soybean-meal costs by almost 10 percent.
"We’re hoping to be able to stay the course and manage through this, but going forward, the world needs more corn," Legan said. "Everyone feeding or using corn is concerned about what 2012 will hold, as far as availability of corn. There’s a lot of uncertainty."