Wet weather delays planting in farm belt

Cold and wet weather has delayed spring planting across most of the farm belt. Here in north central Indiana, farmers can be seen plowing their fields in anticipation. But many are holding off the actual planting until the ground warms up and their fields dry out.

Traditionally, this would be corn-planting time. But according to figures released Monday by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), only 10 percent of the corn crop had been planted as of May 6, compared with an average 31 percent.

Spring wheat was better off - 45 percent planted compared with 54 percent average. Soybean planting is traditionally later - only 1 percent planted so far , the USDA says.

The delay in corn planting has not yet posed serious problems, says Terry Francl, agricultural economist with Continental Bank.

''The situation is of some concern, but it will not be critical for at least another week,'' he says. On a national average, an acre yields one less bushel of corn for every day it is planted after May 15.

If corn planting continues to be delayed, corn farmers will have two options.

They can turn to other varieties of corn, which mature more quickly but have lower yields, Mr. Francl says.

Or they can turn to soybeans, ''which in many ways would be good news,'' says Ross Korves, research economist with the American Farm Bureau Federation. He says he believes the market can absorb all the soybeans likely to be produced.

The number of planted acres will be up this year, Mr. Korves adds, a natural reaction after last summer's drought slashed carryover stocks for soybeans and corn; corn production was also held down by the government's payment-in-kind program.

The problem crop remains wheat - too much of it.

''It's going to be a big crop,'' says Edward Andersen, Master of the National Grange, a fraternal order of rural families. The USDA predicts the 1984 crop will be higher than the 2.4 billion bushels produced in 1983, while the surplus remains high.

A major reason is that the wheat acreage reduction programs are not as attractive this year. Farmers complain that they had to take a higher percentage of their land out of production to qualify, and that this year's payment limit included payments made under the payment-in-kind (PIK) program. Under the PIK program, government-held commodity surpluses are used instead of cash to pay farmers for withholding land from production. The signup period was extended to last Friday, but it is not expected to exceed the 86 percent of the wheat acreage base that was enrolled in last year's PIK plan.

Since the winter wheat already planted is spotty, according to Francl, who toured the wheat belt last week, some farmers with damaged crops may have decided to enroll in the set-aside program and not harvest their most badly damaged acres. Actual participation in the program should be known by the end of this week or early next, says a USDA official.

Overall, sign-up in the various crop programs suggests a little caution among farmers this year, observers say.

Enrollment of corn acreage is down from 1983, but managed 54 percent in this year's set-aside program.

Farmers signed up 86 percent of the nation's rice acreage, compared with 95 percent last year.

''It's very middle-of-the-road,'' Korves says.

The outlook for cotton is better now than it has been for two years, according to observers.

Stocks at the end of the 1983-84 year could go below 3 million bales - a substantial drop after 7.9 million bales on hand after the 1982-83 season.

As of May 6, the USDA estimated 31 percent of the cotton crop was planted, compared with an average 41 percent by this time of the year.

Rice planting was 51 percent complete, down from the 60 percent average, but actually up from the 42 percent planted by this time last year, the USDA says.

The weather outlook for the rest of this week bodes well for corn farmers, says Peter Leavitt, executive vice-president of Weather Services Corporation, a private forecasting firm in Bedford, Mass. He sees warmer and drier weather ahead for the Midwest.

''Every year they worry about it being too wet, and every year the crop gets in,'' he says. Weather problems do persist for wheat in the northern plains, where it has been too cold to develop well, he says. In western Texas, it actually has been too dry to plant cotton.

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