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Column: Crop tour raises yield doubts for top U.S. corn, soybean states

CLARKS GROVE, Minn. (Reuters) - After four days on the road evaluating yield potential in U.S. corn and soybean fields, scouts found government predictions issued earlier this month might be the most controversial in the highest producing states, placing greater uncertainty on final production scenarios.

Soybean plants around 45-days before harvest are seen on a farm near Norborne, Missouri, U.S., August 28, 2018. REUTERS/Dave Kaup/File Photo

I was a scout this week on the Pro Farmer Midwest Crop Tour through the main U.S. corn and soybean states. This was my seventh time on the western leg of the crop tour, which covers South Dakota, Nebraska, western Iowa, and Minnesota. The eastern leg surveys Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and eastern and central Iowa.

This was the 28th annual crop tour, a long-running event held in the third week of August that is hosted in partnership with Farm Journal, the parent company of Pro Farmer.

Since the U.S. Department of Agriculture last year eliminated objective yield measurements for the August report, the crop tour numbers offer even more insight into harvest potential than in previous years since they include things like ear measurements and pod counts.

Only about half of the normal number of scouts participated this year, but they took measurements in 1,542 corn and 1,525 soybean fields, a record for the crop tour. Scouts traveled in pairs each day instead of three or four per vehicle to reduce close contact, and all nightly meetings were virtual.

Crop tour yields and pod counts are best compared against those from previous tours, because there are sampling biases in certain states based on the parts of the state that the routes cover.

Pro Farmer will be taking the crop tour data and other information into account when it publishes national and state-level estimates for corn and soybean yields on Friday at 1:30 p.m. CDT.

IOWA CORN

When comparing year-on-year tour data against USDA’s August yield projections, the top corn and soybean producing states were where the scouts’ findings apparently clashed with government forecasts.

Rough corn yield samples from the tour averaged 177.8 bushels per acre in No. 1 grower Iowa, the lowest tour finding since 2013. That was down 3% from both the 2019 tour and the three-year tour average.

USDA sees Iowa corn yield at 202 bpa, just 1 bpa short of 2016’s record and up 2% from last year. The Iowa tour yield was 10.4 bpa below what the scouts pulled in 2016.

Corn yields in central and eastern Iowa, hit hard by the Aug. 10 derecho, were the lowest relative to previous years. That raises the question whether scouts discounted some of the wind damaged fields too severely or if more crop was lost than expected.

Drought has been a problem across Iowa this year, especially in the central west. But the soybean pod counts in the derecho-impacted districts were not significantly below the state average as was the case for corn. That could suggest that the wind damage, not drought, was a primary driver of the lower corn results in central Iowa.

USDA expects Iowa’s soybean yield at 58 bpa, some 3% below the state’s record. The crop tour numbers do not significantly dispute that, though the tour findings might suggest a bushel or two lower. The tour measures the number of pods in a square yard (0.84 square meter) since there are still many factors that can affect final yield.

Iowa is the country’s second-largest soybean producer.

ILLINOIS SOYBEANS, OTHERS

USDA pegs yield in top soybean grower Illinois to hit a record 64 bpa, nearly 1% above 2018’s record. But the crop tour’s pod counts were down 6% from 2018.

Illinois scouts noted that the sins of the spring were evident in both soybean and corn fields. Crops were planted early but sustained a very wet and cold stretch shortly afterward, which did not lead to the best emergence. USDA has Illinois corn yield 1% below 2018’s high, but the tour yield was 4% lower than two years ago.

One issue for the tour in Illinois is that it takes very few samples in the top producing east-southeast district based on historical routes. Anecdotal reports from the southern part of the state suggest bean yields there should be very strong and could offset some of the potentially less impressive northern areas. The same could happen for corn.

Corn was exceptional in Minnesota, and the tour numbers suggest that at a record 197 bpa, USDA’s prediction could be too light. Pod counts in Minnesota implied USDA is likely in the ballpark for soybean yield.

In Nebraska, the tour samples indicate that USDA’s corn yield might be a hair too high, but the pod counts supported the agency’s forecast. Farther east, the tour numbers suggested that Ohio’s corn yield could be a touch better than what USDA thinks, though its soybean yield could be somewhat too generous.

South Dakota’s crops were the most impressive that the tour has ever sampled, and although USDA sees corn and soybean yields setting records in the state, there could be even more upside. Tour data in Indiana did not offer anything contrary to USDA’s projections.

The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a market analyst for Reuters.

Editing by Steve Orlofsky

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