Monster machines fan out on U.S. farms facing slow sow
Farmers and agronomists are focused on corn because it is the biggest crop grown in the United States and is planted prior to soybeans in the spring. And the record-slow start to seeding this year already is affecting USDA harvest estimates, with the USDA last week lowering its forecast for the yield on this season's corn crop to 158 bushels per acre, down 4 percent from its outlook in February.
The forecast is still 28 percent higher than last year's drought-ridden yield, which pushed grain prices to record highs.
The next few days will be crucial, since experience shows corn planted after May 20 could see a 12 percent loss in yield, said Nafziger, the Illinois economist. Where planting is delayed beyond May 31, yield could see a 20 percent decline.
The USDA on Monday will report on planting progress.
"This is the type of year all farmers wish they had the big planters," said Justin Welch, an account manager for Dupont Pioneer, one of the world's largest seed companies.
Delayed planting causes yields to drop because of its effect on how plants develop. For corn, it means the crop will pollinate later in the summer, when hot, dry weather is more likely to cause damage.
That is why Michelle and John Stewart, owners of Spirit Farms in Sheridan, Ill., last week let loose four massive, green-and-yellow John Deere planters, each capable of covering 36 rows of corn. The Stewarts have traded up year-by-year recently, and the 36-row planters are the biggest that can run in their area of northern Illinois.
A large planting rig can run more than $250,000 and is a marvel of modern farming technology. The planters' arms stretch 90 feet wide when in use and fold for storage. A GPS device inside the tractors helps operators steer straight and prevent planting sections of the field twice, saving seed and time.
Vacuum-release spindles drop kernels at just the right depth, in precisely spaced intervals. And seed hoppers have been centralized on planters to efficiently distribute seed to each row, reducing how often farmers must stop to restock seed.
Climbing a ladder into the driver's seat of a Deere tractor recently, Spirit Farms' crop production manager Dane Killam said the technology in the machine is "the next step in farming."
"It's more-precision planting," Killam said.
The monster-sized machines have quickly gained a foothold. Nationwide, about 40 percent of planters are more than 16 rows wide, up from about 4 percent 10 years ago, according to IRON Solutions, which tracks transactions of agricultural equipment.