Montana isn’t exactly Iowa, but when the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Thursday that America would break a near 80-year record for corn acres, ears were perking up, even here.
A rare sight in Montana fields not long ago, corn is expected to cover 115,000 acres this year, according to the U.S. National Agriculture Statistics Service. That’s up from 77,000 acres just two years earlier, according the survey-based Prospective Plantings report. The annual March report provides the first look at what American farmers intend to plant.
Nationally, farmers intend to plant 97.3 million acres of corn, a little more than in 2012 and 6 percent more than 2011. The last time farmers planted more was 1936 when corn acres totaled 102 million.
Montana acres have increased at a much faster pace, up 43 percent since 2011. Strong prices and bio-engineered varieties are convincing Montana farmers to try corn even in dryland areas lucky to receive a foot of moisture a year. Compare that to Iowa, where 30 inches of precipitation is the norm.
Earlier this month, two Billings-area farmers were honored by the National Corn Growers Association for producing more than 200 bushels of corn per acre. The national average was 122 bushels.
“I love to raise corn,” said Tom Robertus, of Laurel. “I’ve gotten great yields and when you harvest it, it’s not itchy like barley.”
Robertus placed second in the irrigated class for producing 228 bushels an acre last year, which is roughly twice the amount of barley he could grow on the same irrigated land. Corn requires a lot of fertilizer, which is costly, but the yield makes it worthwhile, he said.
On Wednesday, Robertus was hauling pallet boxes loaded with corn to area farmers. He sells corn seed for DuPont Pioneer Seeds. His afternoon delivery was to the arid plains of Broadview, where father and son Les and Mitch Auer have been alarming passers-by with roadside corn acres for a few years. In July, the Auer’s corn acres rise from the arid beige landscape like a green mirage.
The corn is genetically modified to withstand the herbicide Roundup, which allows the Auers an entire growing season to kill the weeds in their field, while still having a crop to sell. Wheat-killing insects, like sawflies, are forced to move on when the corn for which they have no appetite gets a chance.
The following year, they can plant wheat or barley into a field that is not only weed-clean, but also more productive because of the fertilizer applied to the corn.
It’s been a dry winter and Auers’ fields are clear, but it’s been cold enough that Mitch Auer says it would be hard to cut a shovel through the frozen sod.
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It will be weeks before the ground warms enough to plant corn, which Robertus said shouldn’t go into earth cooler than 50 degrees. The Laurel farmer has been planting corn for decades and farmers defer to his judgment.
“I’ll go when he tells me to,” Mitch Auer said.
The Auer’s plant a short-season variety, 74-day corn, but it takes much longer than that to string together enough warm days to produce a crop. Other farmers with better growing conditions can plant 92-day corn in late April or early May, and end up harvesting in early October.
East of Park City, farmer Mike Bernhardt has slowly added corn acres over the years and stepped away from sugar beets. Bernhardt and his brother sell corn to two local grain companies. Corn for grain has hit several price records in recent years, as a federal mandate for ethanol has made corn for all uses more expensive. Roughly 40 percent of the corn grown in the United States goes to ethanol. That demand has made it more expensive to feed corn to chickens and livestock. As a result, the price that shoppers pay for meat and milk has also increased.
Grain corn has been profitable for the Bernhardts, and the varieties have become easier to grow.
“That has a lot to do with it, especially grain corn. Of course, we’re kind of transitioning away from sugar beets, but raising more edible beans too,” he said.
The Bernhardts raise corn, pinto beans, malt barley for beer, and spring wheat, all of which have paid exceptionally well in recent years, partly because high corn prices have helped push the price of their commodities upward.
Montana wheat sales have surpassed $1 billion a year for four of the last five years. Sales of the 2012 wheat crop are expected to top $1.7 billion, according to NASS. Corn has boosted the price of wheat and feed barley, because feedlots turn to lower-quality versions of other grains to fatten animals when corn becomes too expensive. Likewise, bean prices have risen in recent years as challenging weather and expanding corn acres meant fewer beans were planted.
Thursday’s news of a near 80-year record for planted corn, as well as word that the United States had more corn in than expected, sent commodities prices tumbling for both corn and wheat as markets responded to a potential increase in supply.
Robertus saw the drop coming, with Thursday’s anticipated report of more acres. The numbers are sure to change again if drought steals some of corn’s pop.
There’s never been a high price farmers couldn’t grow their way out of, he said.