After corn prices hit a record in 2011 – averaging out to $6 a bushel nationwide – farmers are hoping to cash in this year by planting even more.
Its a bad strategy, said Mike Orzolek, a horticulture professor at Penn State Universitys College of Agricultural Sciences.
Some of these guys would be better off putting their money on a roulette table, he said.
Putting more money and land into a crop that every other farmer is betting on is going to drive prices down, thus cutting the returns on their investment, Orzolek warned.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture projected that farmers are dedicating 95.9 million acres of land to corn production this year, the most since 1937 when farmers filled 97.2 million acres with corn seed. In 2011, they planted 91.9 million acres.
The difference, in part, is that in 1937 the corn yield was nearly 30 bushels an acre. With modern farming techniques, that yield now regularly comes close to, or surpasses, 150 bushels an acre. That works out to 291 million bushels of corn in 1937 but possibly 14 billion bushels this fall, if it is an average year – and projections are for a better-than-average year.
According to the USDAs report, the record high is happening even though Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas have reduced the acres devoted to corn by a combined 270,000 acres. Those states all suffered severe drought last year.
The biggest gains are being seen in Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota, which are adding 2.5 million acres combined.
Final numbers may be different because the USDAs latest figures are based on farmers intentions as of March. Actual acres planted wont be available until later this summer.
High corn prices in 2011 are driving the planting decisions, but Orzolek said farmers are going to undercut themselves. Where last fall farmers were getting $6.50 to $7 a bushel for feed corn, a huge corn crop this year could push prices to $4.50 to $5 a bushel, he said.
The average of $6.01 per bushel for 2011 is 65 percent higher than the average price of corn for the four previous years, which was $3.94 a bushel.
Orzolek said the added corn in the supply chain will help depress the price. There could also be less demand for ethanol, if it is not seen as cost-efficient because of the recent jump in corn prices.
Of course, Orzolek noted, the long growing season ahead carries the inherent risks of any year: A dry summer would be tough because corn fields tend not to be irrigated. If the summer winds up rainy, there is always the risk of a fungus growing that would make the ears unusable for feed.
What has corn replaced in farmers fields? Orzolek said soybeans are losing the most ground. Nationwide, farmers intended to plant 1 million fewer acres of soybeans this year than in 2011.
Orzoleks advice to farmers is to maintain the same acreage mix of crops that they always have. Farmers who double their corn crops and then dont yield enough of a return to pay for that added acreage can go bankrupt.