DES MOINES, Iowa - This year's corn crop has soared to a new national record, breaking expectations in many states that received too much rain early on and a summer dry spell that brought back drought concerns.
In its first crop supply and demand report since the partial government shutdown, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said Friday it expects 13.99 billion bushels of corn, more than the September forecast of 13.8 billion bushels. The previous record was 13.1 billion in 2009.
Some observers thought there would be a subpar harvest in the Midwest, including Iowa and Nebraska. Heavy rains delayed spring planting by several weeks, causing some farmers to give up planting the wettest fields. Then, drought conditions returned in the summer months.
"Better than expected" are the three most popular words in Iowa right now, said Chad Hart, an agriculture economist at Iowa State University.
"When they started to drive the combine in the field they thought, 'Oh this probably isn't good,' but by the time they got down that first row they were saying those magic three words," he said.
Exceptional harvests were found around the country, thanks to adequate rain and cooler temperatures at the time corn pollinated. At least 18 states will set records for the amount of corn produced per acre, among them are Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, and Ohio.
"I was pleasantly surprised at both the corn and beans," said Jerry Main, 74, who farms about 500 acres in southeast Iowa near Fairfield.
A 65-acre field he planted several weeks late in mid-June is yielding about a half a crop, he said. The hot summer further stressed his crops.
"We would have had a bumper crop if we'd just had another inch or two of rain in August," he said.
Iowa barely maintained its status as the nation's top corn producer with an estimated 2.2 billion bushels. Illinois was second at 2.1 billion bushels, Nebraska third (1.6 billion bushels) and Minnesota fourth (1.3 billion).
But with great abundance comes lower corn prices.
A year ago, corn peaked at more than $8 a bushel as supplies dwindled in the drought. On Friday morning, corn fell to $4.17 a bushel before the report, the lowest price since 2010. It rebounded to $4.25 later in the day.
Farmers who rent land at average prices typically need around $4.40 to $4.60 a bushel to break even. But profitability is highly dependent on how much a farmer pays for rent. Many farmers own their own land and not all pay average or above prices.
"We're talking about tremendous revenue still to this market," Hart said.
Corn users, including ethanol manufacturers, see higher profits with lower grain prices.
Improved profit has led some ethanol makers to reopen plants that had been closed because they weren't making money.
Cargill Inc. announced Monday it had restarted production at a plant in Fort Dodge, Iowa, idled since 2011 and Three Rivers Energy in Coshocton, Ohio, resumed production last month at a plant it bought in receivership that had last operated in 2008.
Livestock producers who buy corn-based feed for cattle, chickens, and hogs also benefit from lower corn prices.
Consumers, though, won't see food prices significantly affected.
USDA report: http://www.usda.gov/oce/commodity/wasde/latest.pdf
State-by-state statistics: http://www.usda.gov/nass/PUBS/TODAYRPT/crop1113.pdf