DES MOINES, Iowa — Farmers intend to plant 97.3 million acres of corn this year, the most since 1936, the USDA's spring planting survey said Thursday.
The overall corn acreage forecast is up slightly from last year's 97.2 million acres and reflects a shift in where the grain is grown. Acreage in some states hit hardest by last year's drought retreated, while Southern states such as Arkansas, Mississippi and Texas are shifting cotton acres to corn.
Chad Hart, an agriculture economist at Iowa State University, said Texas is a prime example. The state is changing more than 1 million acres normally planted in cotton for corn. Farmers there are in desperate need of grain to feed livestock after two years of debilitating drought, and are betting on a corn crop to replenish feed, Hart said.
Corn remains profitable, as prices are holding strong at around $7 per bushel because drought conditions left the grain in short supply. Corn stocks fell 10 percent from a year ago to 5.40 billion bushels, the lowest March stockpiles since 2003, the USDA said in a separate report Thursday.
Corn prices fell Thursday after the report was released, as it showed there was 7 percent more corn stockpiled than expected.
Record corn acreage is expected in Arizona, Idaho, Minnesota, Nevada, North Dakota, and Oregon. Iowa, the nation's leading corn producer, will plant an estimated 14.2 million acres in corn, the same as last year. And Minnesota is up 3 percent to 9 million acres.
But the states that suffered significantly during last year's drought – the worst since the 1950s – expect to plant slightly less corn acreage: Illinois' acres are down 5 percent to 12.2 million and Nebraska corn acres are down 1 percent at 9.9 million acres.
Brad Tank, a farmer near the western Iowa town of Blencoe, said he expects to plant his normal mix of half corn and half soybeans on his 685 acres.
"I'm hoping that with winter hanging on longer than it did last year that things will be a little more toward normal," he said.
The USDA report addressed other crops, too, including soybeans. Farmers plan to plant 77.1 million acres – a small decline from 2012's 77.2 million acres but still the fourth highest on record.
Compared with last year, soybean acreage intentions are down across all of the Great Plains, with the exception of North Dakota, as drought conditions have persisted. However, increases in planted area across most of the eastern Corn Belt and parts of the Southeast nearly balance out the plains' declines.
If the estimates come to fruition, the planted soybean areas in New York, North Dakota, and Pennsylvania will be the largest on record. Iowa soybean acres are expected to rise 1 percent to 9.4 million acres, while Illinois is up 4 percent to 9.4 million. Nebraska is expected to see soybeans acres fall about 6 percent to 4.7 million.
Darrel Good, an agriculture economics professor at the University of Illinois, said with plenty of land available for planting, the weather now becomes a focal point.
"The attention will focus very quickly on planting weather and thoughts of yield prospects," he said. "The question is what kind of summer we're going to have."
Darin Von Ruden, a Wisconsin dairy farmer who milks about 50 cows, tries to grow as much of his own corn for feed as he can. But last year's drought was so severe that he had to chop up more cornstalks than he wanted to for feed.
This year, the 45-year-old Westby resident spent $4,500 to $5,000 per month on corn-based feed for the past few months.
Von Ruden was encouraged by the USDA projection, but remains cautious and concerned that the drought could persist.
"If it's another dry year that makes a difference on how much the actual yield is," he said.
Growers in portions of the Corn Belt have had reason for optimism in recent weeks as storms pummeled the nation's midsection with snow, in some cases more than a foot deep.
As spring planting season nears, much of that has melted off, which has boosted soil moisture and raised levels of rivers that often serve as irrigation sources.
But temperatures remain below normal throughout much of the Midwest. Missouri is weathering its coldest March in at least 17 years, and frozen soil persists in east-central Iowa and southwestern Wisconsin.
The U.S. Drought Monitor's weekly report said Thursday that roughly half of the continental U.S. remains in some form of drought, with the most pronounced dryness lingering in the key Midwestern farm states.
Some 96 percent of Nebraska as of Tuesday was gripped by extreme or exceptional drought – the two worst classifications – as was one-fifth of Iowa and nearly two-thirds of Kansas.
Associated Press writers Jim Suhr in St. Louis and Dinesh Ramde in Milwaukee contributed to this report.
Follow David Pitt at http://twitter.com/davepitt