Tom Hall, Senior Agronomist, Rooster Strategic Solutions

On your marks … Get set … And wait a few more days, at least until conditions improve so corn planters can start running. The targeted start date for corn planting in much of the country is the week of April 15th to 20th, so we’re close. But soil temperatures in the central corn belt are still in the mid-40s. The soil temperature needs to be at least 50 degrees at a 2-inch-depth before planting can realistically begin.

Farmers are betting big on beans. According to the USDA Planting Intentions report, farmers will plant 91 million acres of soybeans and 89 million acres of corn this year. For soybeans, that’s a 10-year high, and it’s 3 million soybean acres more than farmers said they were going to plant when asked last month.

Commodity prices are high. Fertilizer costs are higher. The price of fertilizer, especially nitrogen, is one of the primary drivers for the big jump in soybean acres. That’s because a soybean crop typically needs in the range of 20 to 50 pounds of nitrogen per acre compared to the 200 to 250 pounds per acre that’s applied to corn. And with the recent hikes in fertilizer prices, that adds up to real money. Last year, you could buy a ton of anhydrous ammonia for $400. Today you’ll pay $1400 for that same ton. Urea, a common granular nitrogen fertilizer and the base product of several nitrogen solutions, has also seen steep price increases, from $400 per ton last year to $900 per ton at current prices.

Fortunately, commodity prices are still high, which helps absorb the fertilizer sticker shock that farmers are facing. The day before the Planting Intentions report was released, soybeans touched $17-per-bushel; the day after the report, soybean prices dropped to $16-per-bushel, while the futures price of corn found a new annual high of $7.50. For corn to be profitable, farmers will need to lock in a price around $6. According to a Purdue study, farmers should consider bumping up their planting populations from 30,000 to 32,000 plants-per-acre when prices rise about $6 (see chart, below), but this only holds true for the best-yielding parts of the field. Research suggests that pushing the population on poor ground is as likely to result in a yield loss as a yield gain.

Nothing Runs Like a High-Speed Planter. Volatile commodity and input prices are causing heartburn across the corn belt, but equipment technology has taken much of the anxiety out of getting the crop planted in a timely fashion. Ten years ago, farmers were typically planting at 4 to 5 mph, covering 13 acres-per-hour. Today, a farmer with a 12-row planter can run at 10 to 12 mph, and cover 23 acres-per-hour, or 283 acres in a 12-hour day; a farmer with a 24-row planter can plant an astounding 566 acres in a 12-hour day.

Granted, the soil conditions and topography will dictate the planting speed. For instance, in my part of the world (Central Virginia), trying to plant at 10 mph across the rough, hilly, rocky ground will break a planter into pieces after the first hour. But 5 to 7 mph is realistic, and that increase makes a big difference over an entire season. What’s even more impressive is that this burst of speed can be maintained with little to no degradation in terms of planting population or seed spacing.

Pray for Rain. A quick look at the most recent drought monitor map (below) confirms what farmers already know: The wheat crop on the high plains is in trouble. About half of the Colorado wheat crop is in poor to very-poor shape, with only 11 percent rated in good condition. It’s not too late for moisture but these western farmers need it NOW.