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USDA: Highest corn acreage since 1936 expected

GRAND FORKS -- Corn, already on the rise in the Upper Midwest, will shine even brighter this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture predicts.

Farmers in North Dakota, Minnesota and South Dakota will, on balance, plant more corn this year than in 2012, according to USDA's influential prospective plantings report issued March 28.

The outlook for wheat and soybeans, the region's other two major crops, is mixed.

North Dakota farmers will plant an estimated 4.1 million acres of corn this spring, up from the record 3.6 million acres in 2012.

"This is in line with what we were expecting," said Tom Lilja, executive director of the North Dakota Corn Growers Association.

Corn prices have been extremely strong, in part because 2012 drought hurt production in the U.S. Corn Belt. Also, new faster-maturing corn varieties allow the crop to be raised in parts of the Northern Plains where the growing season once was too short.

This year, for the first time, corn grown in some areas of western North Dakota is eligible for coverage under federally subsidized crop insurance, which will encourage more farmers to grow it, Lilja said.

Drought has hammered parts of South Dakota, and farmers in hard-hit areas are expected to plant more acres to crops that require less moisture than corn. Some South Dakota fields also could be planted to hay, which is in short supply because of drought, officials say.

Subject to change

As always, be a little skeptical of the annual report from the National Agricultural Statistics Service, an arm of USDA. It reflects what farmers, when surveyed in early March, said they expect to plant this spring.

The numbers in Thursday's report will affect grain prices, which will influence what farmers end up planting. USDA will release actual planting figures June 29.

"This is just USDA's first shot at it (estimating acreage)," said John Sandbakken, executive director of the National Sunflower Association in Mandan. "There will be some adjustments in what's actually planted."

Weather also will influence what area farmers, particularly ones in snow-heavy northeast North Dakota and northwest Minnesota, plant this spring.

"There's always a possibility of that," Lilja said. "But there's still plenty of time" before planting.

Whither wheat?

Wheat, once the region's dominant crop, has lost acres in recent years to corn and soybeans.

The March 28 report, though containing several positive signs for the region's wheat industry, indicates that trend won't change in 2012.

In North Dakota, farmers will plant an estimated 7.65 million acres, down from 7.84 million in 2012.

That reflects big projected declines in winter wheat and durum wheat acres from a year ago. The number of spring wheat acres, however, is expected to rise to 6.2 million from 2012's 5.75.

A late spring could cause some farmers to plant soybeans on some fields instead of wheat, he said.

Montana farmers are expected to plant 5.48 million acres of wheat, down from 5.77 million acres in 2012.

Gordon Stoner, an Outlook, Mont., farmer and past president of the Montana Grain Growers Association, said final planted acreage could vary substantially from the USDA estimates.

"I'm sometimes a little suspicious" of USDA's initial acreage estimates, he said.

This year, USDA estimates that U.S. farmers will plant 56.4 million acres of wheat, up 1 percent from 2012.

Best guess on other crops

Following are USDA's best guesses on other popular crops in the Upper Midwest:

Sunflowers: U.S. sunflower acreage is pegged at 1.7 million, down from 1.9 million in 2012.

Farmers in North Dakota, traditionally the nation's top sunflower producer, will plant 636,000 acres, down from 860,000 acres a year ago.

The North Dakota estimate seems too low, based on what seed dealers and others involved in the sunflower industry are reporting, Sandbakken said.

Last year, Sandbakken said USDA's initial sunflower acreage estimates for 2012 appeared too low. USDA later raised its acreage estimate, proving him right.

South Dakota sunflower acreage has been rising in recent years, and USDA projects that will continue in 2013.

Sunflower acreage in the state is pegged at 650,000, up from 645,000 a year ago. If USDA is right, South Dakota sunflower acres will surpass those of its northern neighbor in 2013.

Durum: U.S. durum acreage is estimated at 1.75 million, down from 2.1 million in 2012.

In North Dakota, the nation's top durum producer, acreage is pegged at 1.1 million, down from 1.3 million in 2012.

Durum prices are relatively poor, and even boosters of the crop have said it likely would lose acres to more profitable alternatives.

In Montana, the nation's second-leading durum producer, farmers will plant an estimated 480,000 acres, down from 520,000 acres in 2012.

Canola: U.S. canola acreage is pegged at 1.65 million, down from 1.76 million in 2012.

In North Dakota, the nation's leading canola producer, acreage is projected to fall to 1.23 million from 1.46 million a year ago.

Prices for existing supplies of canola remain extremely strong. Prices for canola that will be harvested this fall are substantially lower, though still high by historical standards.

Barley: If USDA is right, Montana farmers will plant more barley acres than their peers in North Dakota, traditionally the nation's leading barley producer.

USDA estimated Montana barley acres at 1 million, up from 950,000 in 2012. More farmers in central Montana are growing the crop, Stoner said.

North Dakota farmers will plant an estimated 950,000 acres of barley, down from 1.06 million acres in 2012.

Barley farmers in the state say alternative crops, such as soybeans, are increasingly attractive.