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Indiana farmers far behind planting corn

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The soggiest April in decades has left Indiana farmers far behind in their annual sprint to plant the state’s corn crop, a delay that could cut farmers’ yields if fields don’t dry out within the next two weeks.

As of Sunday, only 5 percent of Indiana’s corn crop had been planted. In contrast, an average of 47 percent of the state’s corn acreage had been planted by early May during the past five years, said Chris Hurt, an agricultural economist at Purdue University.

With several weeks of wet weather behind them, Hurt said farmers are now hoping that forecasts of drier weather later this week prove true so they can get back in their fields.

“Right now there’s concern, but certainly not panic, especially if we can make it through this week and get back into the fields. A week from now, we’ll be getting pretty nervous if there’s not been much progress,” he said.

The most recent year when Indiana had so little of its corn acreage planted was in 1996, when 8 percent of corn was planted by the first week of May, Hurt said.

The last time Indiana farmers had only 5 percent of their corn planted by early May was in 1984, when that percentage was in ground by May 6 of that year, said Greg Matli, deputy director of the Indiana field office of the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Matli said the service’s computer database shows that Indiana’s worst start to corn planting came in 1961, when by May 10 of that year only 1 percent of the state’s corn had been seeded.

Hurt said late corn plantings don’t necessarily mean reduced yields because the weather in July and August plays a key role as corn pollinates and the kernels fill out. However, July and August are typically the hottest and driest period of the growing season.

After May 20, Hurt said agronomists begin urging farmers to consider planting shorter corn varieties that mature more quickly to lessen the chances of a late-planted corn crop being harmed by an early frost or freeze.

The National Weather Service said central Indiana — the state’s prime corn growing region — had its wettest April in 45 years, with 7.23 inches of rain, or nearly 4 inches more than normal, falling in the Indianapolis area.

Indiana isn’t alone in its predicament because the Eastern Corn Belt states all endured an unusually wet April that left fields muddy, ponded with water.

West-central Indiana farmer Matt Martin said he and his father have been able to plant corn on only three days this spring in their Fountain County fields near the Illinois state line.

Although they managed to plant about 15 percent of their crop during that stretch in late April, he said that’s well below the 75 percent of their corn crop usually planted by early May.

“We’re waiting for the land to drain and for the temperatures to warm up. What makes a huge difference is temperatures and warming the soil up,” Martin said.

He fears that heavy rains that fell over the past week could ruin some of the corn that he’s planted by creating a hard, muddy surface that prevents the seeds from germinating properly.

Martin is hoping for several days of dry weather to provide the 10 or so days he and his father need to get most of their corn crop planted. If most of their corn is planted by May 10, he said it would be “acceptable but not ideal.”

“Anytime after the May 10th you’re looking at a very possible yield reduction. In certain years if you plant after that time you can still get late summer rains to boost the yields but it’s really pushing it,” Martin said.

Although not even 1 percent of Indiana’s soybean crop had been planted as of Sunday, soybeans have a shorter growing period and can be planted weeks later than corn, Hurt said.

Over the past five years, he said an average of 13 percent of the state’s soybean crop had been planted by early May.

© 2009 Associated Press. Displayed by permission. All rights reserved.

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