There are many unanswerable questions and unknowable answers in this business, so I feel a special sort of relief when someone asks me a question that actually has a straightforward answer, like this email I received from a reader last spring:
“Each and every year, x amount of corn acres are planted. Without exception, 8% to 9% fewer acres are harvested. Similar occurrence in wheat, to a slightly smaller degree. However, we always manage to harvest 99% of planted soybean acres. Any idea why that occurs?”
The reader’s observations turned out to be spot on again in 2019, looking at USDA’s most recent figures for planted and harvested acreage. Of the 89.7 million acres (ma) of corn planted in the United States in 2019, only 81.4 ma were ultimately harvested for grain (91%). Meanwhile, U.S. farmers did indeed harvest 99% of the 76.1 ma of soybeans that were originally planted in the spring. Why the different outcomes?
Happy to have an answer, I replied to that reader’s email that a significant portion of planted corn acreage gets cut for silage during the summer, and therefore, those acres don’t end up in the “Corn Harvested for Grain” acreage column. Similarly, a significant portion of planted wheat acreage gets grazed as grass before the grain heads out, and therefore those acres don’t end up being harvested for grain. In contrast, virtually no one grazes or feeds immature soybean plants to livestock (on purpose).
After watching the 2019 corn crop get planted late, develop late and get swarmed by silage-chopping crews who claimed to be busier than ever before, I’ve been anticipating some final acreage figures that would show an unusually large portion of the 2019 crop going into silage and a notably small portion getting harvested for grain. But apparently this has not been the case, at least not according to the latest figures from the National Agricultural Statistics Service.
Only 7.3% (6.6 ma) of the planted corn acreage was reportedly chopped for silage, which is well within the normal range of the past several decades. Back in the ’80s, farmers used to chop 10% to 12% of the corn crop, but in more recent years, the proportion has remained within 6% to 8%.
The “Harvested-for-Grain” category, at 91%, is also perfectly normal compared to recent years. In 2007, the U.S. harvested the highest proportion of corn-for-grain at 92.5%. In 1983 and 1993, there were notably low proportions of harvested acres at less than 86%.
That left only 1.8% of 2019’s planted corn acreage unharvested for any reason (1.6 ma), at least according to NASS’ latest information. That’s a little high compared to most recent years, but a smaller proportion than was seen after the drought of 2012 when 2.6% was left unharvested.
Sometimes, fields do wither in drought, get flooded away, or hailed out. Otherwise, farmers typically don’t abandon or till under any crop if it can somehow provide some revenue. A lot of the 2019 corn crop wasn’t easy to harvest (through mud or snow in several of the northern states), but it mostly got harvested anyway. Other crops may not follow the same pattern, like spring wheat, canola and other more-sensitive small grains and specialty crops that may need to be abandoned after the early heavy snow in North Dakota and the Canadian prairies.
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I’m told that even some of that snow-bound canola is going to be given another try this spring. Corn stalks, however, hold their ears several feet above ground. That means even at the edges of fields where snow drifts formed too high and too hard for a combine to drive through, the grain will still last in the field and likely be harvested eventually in the spring (assuming the pheasants don’t eat it all at that now-very-convenient height).
Keep in mind, of course, that although the usual harvest season is already over, and the number and proportion of harvested versus unharvested acres is entirely observable, these latest figures from NASS aren’t really “final.” For instance, they waited until just now — in the latest January World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates (WASDE) report — to trim the number of 2018’s harvested acres, from 81.7 ma down to 81.3 ma.
It will certainly take until March or April to see how many of the still-standing fields and edges of fields will really be harvested, and it could easily take until next January for the official supply and demand tables to reflect that reality.
Elaine Kub is the author of “Mastering the Grain Markets: How Profits Are Really Made” and can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @elainekub.