State's milo acreage nearly triples

Wet weather in May and June combined with uncertain commodity prices helped push Arkansas farmers away from planting cotton and corn, but the same two factors contributed to an almost threefold amount of grain sorghum planted in the state compared with a year ago.

Producers planted about 500,000 acres of grain sorghum, also known as milo, this year, compared with 170,000 acres in 2014, according to the acreage report released Tuesday by the National Agricultural Statistics Service. This year's planted sorghum acreage was twice the amount the service estimated in its prospective plantings report in March.

While a wet spring accounted for some of the shift, low prices for other row crops also played a role.

Scott Stiles, an economist for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, said he was surprised by the jump in projected sorghum acreage between March and June.

"Once you're into late May, you're past the optimal [yield] point for sorghum," Stiles said. But he said strong export demand is generating as much as a $1 per bushel premium for sorghum compared with corn, making sorghum very attractive to growers.

Grain agronomist Jason Kelley agreed that low commodity prices drove planting decisions that then had to be adjusted when fields stayed too wet to plant for longer than expected.

"It's tough," he said. "Soybeans are OK. Cotton's not very good. The corn price isn't very good. Grain sorghum, if you look at it right now, that looks like the best thing going." The service said the 500,000 acres would be the most sorghum planted in the state since 1986 when producers planted 675,000 acres.

While the service reported that as of June 1, producers had planted or said they planned to plant around 240,000 acres of cotton -- 10,000 acres more than expected in March -- both Stiles and cotton agronomist Bill Robertson predicted the harvested amount would be shy of 200,000 acres this year.

The Arkansas Boll Weevil Eradication Board is tracking 198,500 planted acres, Robertson said Tuesday. But even at 240,000 acres, the state's cotton acreage would still be an all-time low for the crop. Last year, growers planted 335,000 acres of cotton.

"The bottom line is that a number of gins are struggling," Robertson said. With so few acres in production, many "aren't going to be able to justify opening their doors." He said the number of active gins shrank in 2014 from 39 to 35, and more will likely close this year.

With planting delays caused by frequent rains, farmers were expected to turn to soybeans, which can be planted later in the season compared with other crops.

However, the service said in its report that growers planted 3.3 million acres of soybeans, down about 4 percent from the 3.45 million it estimated in March. The 2015 figure is still up 2 percent compared with the 3.24 million acres planted last year.

Some producers are still planting their soybean crop, said Jeremy Ross, a soybean agronomist with the UA System Division of Agriculture.

"We should be wrapping up in the next couple of days," Ross said, adding that some growers dealing with flooded fields are trying to decide whether to replant or apply for crop loss coverage.

For other major crops, the service reported that growers planted 500,000 acres of corn, 7 percent less than the 540,000 acres planted a year ago; 1.391 million acres of rice, down 6 percent from the 1.486 million acres planted last year; and 350,000 acres of wheat, down 25 percent from the 465,000 planted in 2014. The wet weather also took a toll on acreage used for hay, which shrank from 1.225 million acres last year to 1.055 million acres this year.

Eugene Young, deputy director of the service's Delta Regional Office in Little Rock, said Tuesday that the acreage report was based on surveys completed by farmers that covered both "seed in the ground" as of June 1 and their intended plantings after that date, which could change if fields were too wet to plant.

Young said the service will get more accurate figures on acreage planted when it conducts harvest surveys in September and October.

Because planting delays extended past mid-June, the service said Tuesday that it will resurvey producers in Arkansas, Texas, Kansas and Missouri to collect updated acreage information on cotton, sorghum and soybeans. The service said that at the time of its initial survey done over the first two weeks of June, the planting delays caused by wet fields resulted in a portion of planted acres in those states being left out of the survey.

Young said such an occurrence "is a rare event" that sometimes needs to be done to firm up figures needed for national production estimates. The updated figures will be released Aug. 12.

With crops in the ground, growers now must wait to see how the weather in July and August will affect yields.

Ross noted that 2014 also saw a wet, late start but still saw several yield records set. For its soybean crop, the state is looking at two different situations. South of Interstate 40, the crop is looking good, he said. But north of that line, most of the soybeans have been planted in the past two to three weeks.

"The next two months will dictate yields," he said. If weather stays relatively cool, then production should match yearly averages, he said. However, if heat indexes climb, then the bushel-per-acre figure will fall.

Business on 07/01/2015