Monster machines fan out on U.S. farms facing slow sow
With the U.S. spring planting season off to a historically slow start, an increasing number of farmers are counting on powerful tools to catch up: Monster machines that sow 36 rows of corn at once and feature high-tech innovations like computer-guided directional equipment.
The technological wizardry from companies like Deere & Co and AGCO Corp is pitted in a frantic race against time, with farmers scrambling to get seeds in the ground because a slow start depresses yields and reduces the size of their harvest. Delayed planting in turn can raise prices for food processors, livestock feeders, and ethanol producers, leading to eventual increases in food and fuel costs nationwide.
Grain traders and analysts so far have shrugged off the sluggish planting pace due to soggy soils, partly because they believe the big machines can sow crop quickly.
While the giant planters can put seed in the ground at record speeds, the paradox of the modern farm economy is this: the advances in technology cannot offset the consolidation in the industry, according to agronomists. With fewer farmers tilling the nation's soil, and the average farm size growing year by year, the 2013 crop cannot get in the ground much faster than it did decades ago.
"When you see big planters running fast, they're certainly planting eight or 12 times faster than we planted 30 years ago," said Emerson Nafziger, an agronomist at the University of Illinois. "We had smaller planters and tractors, but we just had so many more of them."
The number of farms producing the nation's corn crop declined 27 percent in the decade leading to 2007, an analysis of the most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture data shows. It took 112,122 farms to produce 80 percent of the corn crop in 2007, down from 153,389 farms 10 years earlier.
In the three years since 2010, it has taken U.S. farmers 62 days to plant their crops. That is virtually unchanged from an average of 63 days over the prior three decades. Planted acreage has climbed 21 percent since the 1980s, to 92.4 million acres (37.4 million hectares).
The consolidation of farming is a key reason farmers - no matter how hard they work during improving weather - will struggle to eclipse a record that has stood for nearly two decades. The fastest stretch of planting occurred in a single week of May in 1992, when farmers rolled through 34,103,730 acres, or roughly 43 percent of that year's planting. That bested the prior record, set in 1984, by more than 5 million acres.