Corn planters rolled across the state Wednesday, making up for time lost during an unseasonably cold and wet April.
The window of corn-planting opportunity opened a crack Sunday, enabling farmers to start planting what promises to be their most lucrative crop ever.
With all hands on deck Wednesday, they likely turned in a peak performance of 1.4 million acres.
As of Monday, 8 percent of Iowa’s corn acreage had been planted, which compares with 82 percent a year ago and the five-year average of 48 percent, according to the weekly crop report issued by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.
Dan Gaffney, who started planting his 52nd corn crop Sunday on his farm near Lamont, said he was surprised how much the soil dried out over the weekend. “Lots of wind and a little sun on Sunday really helped,” he said.
Until planters started rolling this week, farmers were “starting to get a little worried,” said Jim Fawcett, an ISU Extension field agronomist based in Iowa City.
Their big concern, he said, is the loss of yield potential, which begins to decline dramatically after May 20.
After that date, the average yield loss is about 10 percent, said Fawcett. “By the end of May, the average loss can be as much as 30 percent,” he said.
With corn prices at record levels, farmers are even more reluctant than usual to suffer yield losses, said Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey, who, like most Iowa farmers, just started planting corn this week.
“I’m not nervous, not yet,” said Mark Recker, 41, who until the weekend had yet to plant any of the 1,400 acres he farms near Arlington in Fayette County.
Last year, which was characterized by optimum planting conditions after mid-April, Recker started planting corn on April 20 — his earliest corn planting date since he started farming in 1994.
“This year, it just feels like you’re only going to get short windows, so you’d better be ready,” he said.
Last year, Tracy Franck, 50, who with family members farms 2,500 acres in southern Buchanan County, finished planting corn on May 2. This year, he started on Sunday, the first of May.
Franck said he was not nervous but that he would have been if weather delays had continued this week.
After the first week of May, farmers who still have most of their corn to plant will have to resist the temptation to start “mudding it in,” Franck said.
Planting corn in wet soil causes compaction, which can impair germination and root growth, ultimately lowering yields.
“Ideally, I would like to be done on May 3, but that won’t happen this year,” said Dick Gallagher, 66, chairman of the Iowa Corn Promotion Board.
Gallagher, who raises corn and soybeans on 800 acres in Washington County, said he has never planted corn later than May 22 in 37 years of farming.
Farmers’ ace in the hole is planting capacity, say Northey and ISU corn specialist Roger Elmore.
With many 36-row planters in operation, Iowa farmers can plant 1.4 million acres a day, according to Elmore’s calculations. Given their intentions to plant 13.9 million acres of corn this year, they could, with favorable conditions, finish planting in 10 days — well before significant yield losses become a problem.
With his 12-row planter, which may be a bit on the small side by modern standards, Gallagher said he could plant all his corn in four days “with really good going.”
Under the same ideal conditions, Franck, with his 16-row planter, said he would need a week to plant all his corn.
If much corn remains to be planted after May 25, some farmers will divert some intended corn acreage to soybeans, which have a shorter growing season, Northey said.
They will be reluctant to do so, he said, given that corn could yield gross per-acre revenue of $1,200, which compares with about $700 per acre for soybeans.
Switching to soybeans is not an option for Franck and other farmers who have already applied expensive nitrogen fertilizer on their intended corn acres.
Some farmers who stick with corn may switch to earlier maturing hybrids, though Elmore cautions against doing so before May 25.
“Patience is the key here. Don’t panic,” Elmore said.