For farmers who grow some of the biggest U.S. crops, choosing what to plant this year has become a bet on which one will lose less money.
A three-year plunge in prices has sent farm income to the lowest in more than a decade and left parts of the Midwest agricultural economy in recession. While growers probably would lose $70 on every acre of corn or soybeans they sow — the most since 1999 — those crops offer the best chance at profit if yields are better than average, according to AgResource Co. So, even with record global surpluses, U.S. farmers are preparing to plant more corn and soybeans in 2016 and devote less land to wheat, a Bloomberg survey showed.
“Nothing looks very good,” Terry Vinduska, 65, said by telephone from his 3,500-acre (1,416-hectare) farm in central Kansas, the biggest wheat-growing state. Vinduska, who runs the farm with his son-in-law and younger man’s father, plans to expand corn planting by 10 percent and soybeans by 5 percent on land he normally uses for wheat.
While prices for all three crops are down more than 50 percent from peaks in 2012, improvements in seed technology to fight drought, bugs and disease have allowed farmers to collect at least 23 percent more corn and soybeans per acre since 2000, while wheat yields rose just 3.8 percent. Increased output of wheat from places like Russia and Ukraine is sending U.S. exports to a 44-year low, further eroding the appeal for American growers who already are mired in the longest income slump since the 1980s.
To maximize revenue, farmers probably will expand corn planting by 1.9 percent to 89.689 million acres, the first increase since sowing a record 97.291 million in 2012, according to a Bloomberg survey of 32 trading firms and analysts. Soybean sowing may rise 0.8 percent to an all-time high of 83.345 million acres, the survey showed. Most will be planted in April and May and harvested in September and October.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture will release its first planting and production forecasts for 2016 on Thursday and Friday, during its annual outlook forum. On March 31, the USDA will release the results of a national survey of more than 84,000 growers that begins next week.
“Maximizing yield is the new game in town, and that means corn and soybeansoffer more upside than wheat,” said Dan Basse, the president of Chicago-based AgResource, an industry adviser. “It’s much like OPEC producers where they have to produce more to generate income when prices are low. U.S. farmers are not going to leave land fallow.”
About 70 percent of U.S. wheat is the winter variety planted in September and harvested in June. The rest is spring wheat sown in April and May. Last month, farmers told the USDA they planted 36.6 million acres of winter wheat, down 7.2 percent from a year earlier and the second-fewest since 1913. In Nebraska, winter seedings were the lowest on record, and fell in the top producing states of Kansas and Texas.
At current prices and average yields, wheat would generate a loss of about $25 an acre, Basse estimates. The loss would be bigger for corn and soybeans, which are more expensive to plant, but if yields are anywhere near the records of the past few years, farmers would stand a good chance of breaking even or making money, he said.