John Phipps: Planting Speed is a Race Against Weather and Geography

John's World 4/27/2019
Planting speed is a factor of not just weather, but geography. John Phipps explains in John's World. ( Farm Journal )

If it’s April it must be time to talk about planting speed. Indeed, many farmers are frustrated by the way corn traders seem to be ignoring the calendar. In turn, analysts and traders point out how fast modern equipment can get the seeds in the ground, so there is less to worry about as far as the date goes.


Once again, economists at the University of Illinois have waded into the discussion with careful graphs and charts which suggest it’s about weather. I agree, but with one addition. If you remember last year when we talked about this, I pointed out how geography could be a factor. This is a map of Illinois divided roughly in 100-mile bands. My argument then (and now) is planting begins from north to south, and regardless how fast the machines move, spring temperatures have their own inherent speed. Soils warm up and dry out first in the south, which is why we have those irritating corn planter videos from Texas in February.


Scott Irwin and Todd Hubbs’ most recent explanation of why the planting season doesn’t shorten much contains what I think is some proof of my theory.


Keep in mind Illinois is about 400 miles north to south. Iowa on the other had is about half that. Now look at the economist charts for planting speed trends for both states. While I agree the number of days needed to seed has not declined sharply with newer equipment, the planting season is still decreasing slowly. Note that the slope or rate of change of this decrease is noticeably faster in Iowa than Illinois. In fact, it’s over 5 times faster. Modern equipment will still speed up individual farmer operations, but my conclusion is it will accelerate state planting speed in Iowa far beyond anything we can do in Illinois, simply because we are a north-south state, and Iowa is an east-west state.


Of course, this whole discussion matters little in the long run, because what happens state wide isn’t important – except for bragging rights. It’s what happens nation-wide that counts. But Illinois farmers should keep in mind it’s a race where we’re fighting latitude as well as machinery. I agree with Irwin and Hubbs that the three biggest speed factors are weather, weather, and weather, but on the state level, I think it’s weather, weather and geography.