U.S. corn prospects threatened as drought lingers in the west

Most of the top corn-producing states in the western half of the Midwest are suffering from much worse drought conditions than a year ago and so are heading into the spring planting season with historically dry soils

Reuters / The recent spell of rain and snow across much of the United States has raised expectations that overall field conditions are recovering from last year’s drought and that the crops planted this spring will get off to a strong start with access to adequate moisture reserves.

But despite appearances, the grip of last year’s drought is actually strengthening rather than weakening in key parts of the Corn Belt. That is most notable out west in top producer Iowa and third-ranked Nebraska, where the majority of land still suffers from severe to extreme drought conditions.

Given the western Corn Belt’s growing share of total output, this enduring dryness means that timely spring and summer rains will be more essential than ever this year if the hefty crops currently forecast have a chance of materializing.

East versus west

The 2012 drought affected corn output across the entire country, but it was especially pronounced in the western half of the Midwest and throughout the western Plains, where precipitation levels fell well below long-term averages and temperatures remained consistently above normal throughout much of the growing season.

Meanwhile, the recent rains and snow across the country have fallen primarily east of the Mississippi River.

The end result has been a rebound in soil moisture reserves across eastern Corn Belt states, but a continued drought situation out west.

Given that No. 2 corn state Illinois and other major growers such as Indiana and Ohio lie on the eastern belt, the prognosis looks good for a strong rebound in crop output from that region as long as weather conditions continue to trend toward “normal” over the coming months.

But the problem for corn consumers as a whole is the greater reliance on western Corn Belt states to deliver the lion’s share of the U.S. crop.

Indeed, the top three states in the western Corn Belt — Iowa, Nebraska and Minnesota — produced nearly twice as much of a crop last year as the top three states in the eastern belt. The three western states also accounted for more than 42 per cent of the entire U.S. crop — their highest contribution to the overall corn pile in 10 years.

Illinois, Indiana and Ohio — the top three states in the eastern Corn Belt — accounted for roughly 22 per cent of the U.S. total, their lowest collective share in more than 30 years.

Western worries

The proportionately larger amount of corn produced in the western Corn Belt makes the increasing severity of drought conditions in that part of the country a cause for serious concern.

These worries will probably intensify because the sharply depleted soil moisture in other key states on the fringes of the traditional Corn Belt, such as South Dakota, Kansas and North Dakota, raises questions about their production potential.

History has shown that all the corn states receive a majority of their rainfall during May through August, so there is still plenty of time for the dryness to be alleviated and for the 2013 crops to flourish.

But for the national crop to have even the slightest chance of achieving the early production estimates being thrown around, water reserves across most of the western Corn Belt must increase substantially from current levels.

Most of the top corn-producing states in the western half of the Midwest are suffering from much worse drought conditions than a year ago and so are heading into the spring planting season with historically dry soils, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, a partnership of the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The lingering dryness in arguably the most important corn-producing areas in the country ensures large consumers should not get complacent and certainly should not consider the crop already “made.”

And even if farmers manage to complete their projected corn plantings, this year’s crop must receive regular rains throughout the growing season. It is clear at this juncture that moisture reserves below ground will be insufficient to sustain crop development for long.

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