Climate Conditions & Corn Production

Climate Conditions & Corn Production
June 3rd, 2023 | Krista Swanson, National Corn Growers Association

Now that corn planting is mostly in the rearview, attention turns to growing season climate conditions and what that means for corn production in 2023.

Planting Progress & Crop Conditions

The USDA reports 92% of corn is thought to be planted as of May 28, 2023, a notable jump from 81% a week prior and ahead of the 84% five-year average. In most states planting progressed very quickly. In other states, where planting initially progressed more slowly, corn planting has now surpassed or nearly caught up to the five-year average.

With 72% of corn estimated to be emerged, the USDA reported 2023 corn conditions for the first time this week with 69% rated Good or Excellent (G/E) and 5% rated Poor or Very Poor (P/VP). In comparison, the first weekly corn crop condition ratings were 73% G/E with 4% P/VP in 2022, and 72% G/E with 5% P/VP in 2021. The three largest corn producing states – Iowa, Illinois, and Nebraska – all have notably lower estimated G/E as compared with the first condition ratings a year ago.

Abnormally Dry Areas Expand Across the Corn Belt

While drought conditions across the United States have improved notably over the past year, the trend across the corn belt is reversing. Based on the U.S. Drought Monitor released on June 1, 2023, just 19.0% of the contiguous U.S. is in D1 to D4 drought conditions, compared to 49.3% a year ago. However, when the abnormally dry “D0” drought is also included the improvement is less notable and trending in the opposite direction. Currently 50.1% of the mainland is in D0-D4 drought, a jump from 40.6% a week ago. While in recent years drought conditions have impacted parts of the corn belt, the current situation is largely across the entire corn belt. The Midwest region that includes three of the four largest corn producing states jumped to 66.2% in D0 to D4 drought from 27.0% a week ago. Meanwhile corn producing states from the high plains to Texas continue to battle areas of severe drought that persist in addition to widespread abnormally dry areas. 

Climate Patterns and Corn Yields

In March, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported the end of La Niña, a phase of the recurring climate patterns in the tropical Pacific that influence climate patterns in various parts of the world including the United States. While currently in the transition phase, in May NOAA forecast a greater than 90% chance of El Niño conditions developing within the next couple of months. El Niño tends to bring favorable growing conditions for crops in the Midwest, so it is a welcome transition for farmers after three growing seasons of La Niña, all of which were at or below trendline yield years for U.S. corn. Since 1990, most years with an El Niño dominated growing season have had corn yields above trendline, often exceeding a standard deviation above trend and never lower than a standard deviation below trend. Corn yields in years with a La Niña dominated growing season tend to be near or below the trendline.

What Does This Mean for U.S. Corn Production?

Here are three takeaways related to climate conditions and U.S. corn production in 2023.

  1. The USDA is projecting what would be a record 181.5 bushel per acre corn yield for 2023. While this is notably higher than the U.S. average of recent years, the USDA bases this on a weather-adjusted trend yield assuming normal planting progress and summer growing season. When paired with anticipated acres, this results in a near peak level production estimate of 15.3 billion bushels. The transition to El Niño supports the possibility of a record yield, but notably, at least part of the 2023 growing season is occurring in a neutral phase. Depending on when El Niño conditions officially materialize, the pattern may be too late to have the normal expected influence on plant growth or the critical pollination period for corn. However, the U.S. has already achieved normal planting progress overall and has achieved trendline yield in many neutral years as well.  
  2. The USDA process for crop progress survey is a subjective process in which approximately 3,600 respondents from across the country estimate the progress of crop development, crop conditions, and producer activity. While certainly a valuable and worthy source of weekly reporting, it does not necessarily capture the magnitude of acres unplanted or transitioned to another crop which is a real possibility in some areas of severe drought conditions. The USDA June 30th Acreage report will provide insight as to if, or to what extent, such changes occurred and how many corn acres are planted.
  3. For the areas of the corn belt that have transitioned to abnormally dry in the past week, the dryness is supporting a strong root system and is not necessarily having a negative impact on the corn at this point. The recent NOAA most likely outlook for the upcoming month indicates most of the northern and eastern corn belt will remain warmer and dryer than normal throughout June. Their forecast for drought conditions shows improvement in the western corridor of the corn belt and development of drought in the Midwest and western corn belt. The severity of these changes may impact corn production and will be something to watch this summer.

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