November 19, 2016

US Corn Ethanol Market | an interview with Carl Zulauf

Ethanol was a factor in both the price run-up that began in 2006 and the price run-down that began in 2013. Tepid growth replaced explosive growth. The question for the future is, “What is ethanol’s organic growth rate (growth without government policy stimulus)?” Recent history suggests growth will continue in the corn ethanol market, but it likely will be notably lower than the growth in yields. Thus, upward pressure on corn prices is less likely.

Corn Ethanol in Historical Perspective
US Department of Agriculture data on US corn processed into US ethanol begin with the 1980 crop. It is reported monthly in the World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates. Corn processed into ethanol grew at an average annual rate of 6% between 1985 and 2000, exploded to a 24% annual growth rate between 2000 and 2010, then slowed to 1% per year after 2010 Ethanol Growth vs. Yield Growth. The explosive growth in the first decade of this Century largely coincides with the impact of government policies. These policies first led to the use of ethanol as an oxygenate additive in gasoline, then to the use of ethanol as a substitute for gasoline and by extension oil The latter was accomplished through mandates on market size enacted by Congress in 2005 and 2007.

Return to Equity for Processing Corn into Ethanol
Since January 2005, Iowa State University has issued a monthly report on the costs and returns to processing corn into ethanol. The report is based on (1) a model plant created using best available information and (2) current prices for corn, ethanol, natural gas, and distillers dried grain. Among the measures calculated is a return on equity. Figure 2 reports the average of monthly returns to equity by crop year. Even though growth in the ethanol market slowed dramatically after 2010, average return on equity remained positive for the 2011–2015 crop years (13%). As expected, return on equity was higher for the 2005–2010 crop years (30%). For additional discussion of the return to processing corn into ethanol, see Irwin, 2016.

Ethanol Growth vs. Yield Growth
A measure of growth in demand (growth in corn processed into ethanol expressed as a percent of corn production) is compared with a measure of growth in supply (growth in US corn yield). To illustrate the calculation of these measures, 3.71 billion bushels of corn was processed into ethanol in the 2008 crop year, 0.66 billion bushels more than processed in the 2007 crop year. US production of corn in 2007 was 13.04 billion bushels. The growth in corn processed into ethanol was +5.1% of 2007 corn production (0.66/13.04). US yield of corn per planted acre was 151 bushels in 2008 vs. 149 bushels in 2007. Rate of growth was +1.3% [(151/149) - 1]. These two measures were calculated for each crop year.

Yield growth strongly exceeded the growth in corn used to produce ethanol relative to corn production before 2000 and after 2010 (see Figure 3). The two measures increased at about the same rate (2%) between 2000 and 2005. Between 2005 and 2010, growth in corn used to produce ethanol relative to production strongly exceeded growth in corn yields. Not only did corn processed into ethanol increase dramatically during the latter period, but the growth in corn yields was also abnormally low. Reinforcing these bullish price factors was China’s rapidly growing demand for soybeans (see Zulauf, 2016).

Summary Observations

  • From the perspective of 2016, expansion of the US corn ethanol market was largely squeezed into the 10 years from 2000 to 2010 (83% of the expansion occurred in these years).

  • The squeeze was largely driven by US policy decisions.

  • At the same time that policy was strongly pushing demand, growth in corn yields suddenly slowed, with a likely explanation being a multiple year period of suboptimal growing conditions.

  • However, the increase in demand for corn ethanol spurred by policy would have exceeded the growth in yield even during the high yield growth period of 1980 to 2000.

  • The result was not just an increase in corn price but an explosive increase in corn price.

  • This price increase increasingly looks unsustainable as yield growth returns to a path closer to history and ethanol growth returns to a level more consistent with long term organic growth due to market incentives, not policy factors.

  • If the preceding point holds, agriculture will need to make painful adjustments as it enters a world that will likely look more like 1980–2000 than 2005–2010.

  • Nothing in the historical review suggests that the corn ethanol market would not have developed. The continuing positive return to equity since 2010 suggests the market is sustainable. In particular, ethanol appears to have carved out a role as a competitive source of octane for gasoline, which is translating into a growth in exports of ethanol. For additional discussion of this topic, see Irwin and Good, 2016. But, annual organic growth is slower and unlikely to exceed the growth in yields.

  • This 35 year story does however raise caution about using policy to expand markets.

  • In particular, the design of such policy needs to respect the underlying private market, including attributes such as sustainable non-publically subsidized growth; role of competing demand components, such as livestock in the case of ethanol; and the scope and magnitude for supply growth to be uncertain and how this uncertainty may interact with policy induced demand growth.

  • Interesting, important, but probably unanswerable questions are what would be the current state of the corn ethanol market and by extension corn prices if government policy had not intervened and more narrowly if the 2007 mandate had not been enacted. The answers to these questions may tell us more about the future of corn and other field crop prices than any other set of questions.

November 14, 2016

Watch the Feed Usage Number for Corn

Last week, when USDA raised the sized of the U.S. corn crop, there was a collective gasp in farm country. Prices are already very low, and an even bigger crop wasn’t expected. All attention now has turned to how this mammoth supply will be used in hopes consumption can chew through the mountain of corn.

U.S. farmers are harvesting their largest corn crop on record at some 15.2 billion bushels. It’s the western corn belt that really came through this year with big yields. The November USDA Crop Production report shows that even in the last month those yields got bigger. Up 3 bushel to the acre in Nebraska and South Dakota. 4 bushels higher in Minnesota. And a 17 bushel to the acre increase in North Dakota that came about once farmers (the only real source for yields in that state) took a look at the yield monitors in their combines.

The increased yield for the corn crop creates a scenario says University of Illinois Agricultural Economist Todd Hubbs where the ending stocks to use ratio is 16.4 percent under current consumption projections. That’s a level, he notes, that has not been seen since the 2005/06 marketing year. And while the corn for export and ethanol numbers seem sound, the feed and residual number has Hubbs concerned.

Quote Summary - They’ve had the feed and residual use projection at 5.65 billion bushels for the few reports. It’s a big number. It is 10 percent up over last year and, with the increased livestock numbers we’ve seen, it sounds reasonable. However, when you consider the mitagating factors surround feed usage; the unseasonably warm fall; a large corn crush for ethanol which increases the availability of distillers grains; DDG’s that may not be shipped overseas because of China’s recent import restrictions; and you see lots of alternative sources for feed rather than corn. Even though there are strong livestock inventory numbers, the mitigating factors want to make you give feed a good look as we move through the marketing year.

Think of it this way. There are a lot of corn acres and lot ethanol plants west of the Mississippi River - Iowa, Nebraska, and Minnesota are three of the top five corn producing states in the nation. There are also a lot of wheat acres, and a lot of cattle, and a lot of hogs, and more than a few poultry operations. Those birds and animals eat a lot of feed, but the ranchers and farmers make decisions based on economics. Clearly it has been cheaper to leave cattle on pasture this warmer than average fall, and it may be cheaper to feed wheat and DDG’s rather than corn. We won’t really know the impact until the Grain Stocks report is released January 12 says Todd Hubbs.

Quote Summary - The grain stocks report is the only way to back out how much corn for feed is being used. We know how much corn is being crushed for ethanol. There is a pretty good figure on how much of it is being exported. The Grain Stocks let us back figure a calculation for feed usage over the first quarter of the marketing year. So, on January 12th of 2017 the report will come out giving us the December 1 stocks report. This will give us an indication of just how strong feed us is.

So, while a deserved focus has been placed on corn exports, foreign production, and corn used for ethanol, a major portion of each corn crop is fed to livestock. Given the large projected increase for feed and residual usage this marketing year, monitoring those projections will be really important to price discovery.

November 10, 2016

Trump | Now what for U.S. Corn Exports

Tom Sleight, CEO of the United States Grains Council discusses the future of U.S. grain exports under a Donald Trump administration.

November 03, 2016

Crop Insurance Payments - an interview with Gary Schnitkey

Harvest prices used to determine crop insurance payments for corn and soybean policies in the Midwest are based on Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME Group) futures settlement prices during the month of October. The 2016 harvest price for corn is $3.49 per bushel. This is 10% lower than the $3.86 projected price set in February. The soybean harvest price is $9.75 per bushel. That’s 10% higher than the $8.85 projected price. For the most part it means crop insurance payments to farmers will be relatively low says University of Illinois Agricultural Economist Gary Schnitkey.

November 01, 2016

Assessing the Potential for Higher Corn Prices

The odds are against four dollar cash corn this year and next, at least for any extended period of time.

The monthly average cash price paid to farmers in the United States for their corn has been less than $4.00 a bushel for 27 consecutive months. It’s likely to stay that way well into 2017, too, says University of Illinois Agricultural Economist Darrel Good unless something changes, “Some combination of a reduction in corn supplies and increased consumption will be required in order for prices to move above $4.00 per bushel for an extended time.”

On the supply side, or how much corn is around, USDA’s next Crop Production report is due November 9th. It will contain a new forecast of the size of the 2016 U.S. corn crop. Previous history of yield forecast changes in November in years when the forecast declined in September and again in October as was the case this year, says Darrel Good, show very mixed results with 5 moving lower, 1 unchanged, and 4 of the ten getting bigger. The trade is leaning toward a smaller corn yield this time around. So, not a lot of supply side help expected from the USDA reports on this fall’s crop. That make the southern hemisphere pivotal.

Brazilian production declined from 3.35 billion bushels in 2015 to 2.64 billion bushels in 2016 due to late season drought. Early season USDA projections are for production in 2017 to rebound to 3.29 billion bushels. In addition, Argentina is expected to expand corn area due to reductions in export taxes.

It is too early in the South American growing season to assess yield potential, but production well below early projections would be required to push corn prices higher says Good in his Weekly Outlook on the Farm Doc Daily website. He also thinks a more likely source of a reduction in corn supply may be reduced corn acreage in the United States next year.

Darrel Good - Assuming a three million acre reduction in harvested acreage and consumption during the 2017–18 marketing year near the 14.525 billion bushels projected for this year, the 2017 average yield would need to be below 173 bushels in order for year-ending stocks to be reduced from the 2.32 billion bushels projected for the current year. Under the acreage and consumption assumptions made here, a yield near trend value of 169 bushels would result in year-ending stocks of about 1.99 billion bushels.

There are lot of supply side ifs in that statement. Maybe then demand for corn could be the key to higher prices. The good news here is that U.S. corn exports are up, but that’s based upon last year’s poor corn crop out of Brazil. It doesn’t appear feed usage will increase either, thinks Good, and while the ethanol grind has be increasing, USDA has already penciled in an extra 100 million bushels of usage.

It appears unlikely thinks Darrel Good that higher corn prices will be generated by a large reduction in the estimated size of the 2016 U.S. crop or stronger than projected demand for that corn. That leaves a smaller than expected South American crop or a much smaller U.S. crop in 2017 as the potential sources of higher prices. If South American production increases as projected, a large decline in U.S. acreage and/or a 2017 yield below trend value may be required to push the average corn price above $4.00 during the 2017–18 marketing year.

October 27, 2016

Reducing Nutrient Losses

Participants in the University of Illinois 2016 Water Quality Conference Reducing Nutrient Losses panel discuss ways in which farmers and landowners can manage water quality.

  • Laura Christianson, Crop Sciences - University of Illinois
  • Ruth Book, State Conservation Engineer - USDA NRCS
  • Jason Solberg, Illinois Fertilizer & Chemical Association
  • Debbie Fluegel, Trees Forever

October 26, 2016

Soybean Yields in Illinois

via FarmDocDaily
by Gary Schnitkey, Agricultural Economist - University of Illinois

In recent years, soybean yields in Illinois have been exceptional, leading to questions on whether technologies have caused a "jump" in soybean yields. While the 2016 state yield will be an outlier, it is too early to say that a new regime of soybean yields exists. Relative to corn yields, soybean yields must increase more to have the same relative yields as in the early 1970s.

Comparing Soybean Yields to Trend

State soybean yields for Illinois have been exceptional from 2014 through 2016. In 2014, Illinois' soybean yield was 56 bushels per acre. The 2014 yield was a record high, 4.5 bushels per acre higher than the next highest yield of 51.5 set in 2010. The 2015 state yield again was 56 bushel per acre. In 2016, a new record will be set, with state yield estimated at 62 bushels per acre in the October Crop Production report produced by the National Agricultural Statistical Service. A 2016 yield of 62 bushels per acre would be 6 bushels per acre higher than the previous highest yield set in 2014 and 2015.

Comparisons to trend further illustrate how high recent yields have been in Illinois (see Figure 1). Fitting a linear trend through soybean yields results in an increase of .48 bushels per year. The 2014 through 2016 yields are significantly above the trend: 5.1 bushels in 2013, 4.6 bushels per acre in 2015, and 10.1 bushels per acre in 2016. The 2016 yield is a statistical outlier. Only one other yield has been 10 bushels away from the 1972-2016 trend, that being in the 1988 drought year when the actual yield was 11.5 bushels below trend

Why are Soybean Yields High?

Recent high soybean yields then lead to the question of what is causing the high yields. Have growing conditions been abnormally good in the past three years, leading to the high yields? Or has technology changed such that a higher yield should be expected in the future? Perhaps genetics have improved, or farmers' use of fungicides and other inputs have been leading to higher yields.

This question - is it good weather or technology changes - is difficult to answer from just observing time series of data. Two contradictory thoughts. Recent yields have been high, and the 2016 yield is a statistical outlier, suggesting technology changes. On the other hand, historical jumps in yields or trends have rarely occurred in the last 50 years. For example, corn yields appeared to be increasing at a faster after 1995 than before 1995. Belief in an increasing yield trend decreased after the poorer yields of 2010, 2011, and 2012. The recent high soybean yields in recent years may simply be a signal of exceptional growing conditions.

Soybeans Compared to Corn Trends

While soybeans have had exceptional yielding years recently, soybeans relatively to corn yields have not been at historically high levels. Figure 2 shows soybean yields divided by corn yields. Higher levels indicate that soybean yields are higher relative to corn. In 2016, soybeans divided by corn yield is .31, which is not above average.

Over time, soybeans-to-corn yields have been trending downwards. An expected level of soybean-to-corn yields in 1972 was .32. The .31 value in 2016 is below the expectation in 1972. The Illinois state yield for 2016 is projected at 202 bushels per acre. For a .32 soybean-to-corn yield ratio to result in 2016, soybean yield would have to be 64.6 bushels, 2.6 bushels higher than currently projected.

Soybean yields have been declining relative to corn yields because of higher trends for corn. In Illinois, corn yields have been increasing by 1.8 bushels per year compared to .48 bushels per year for soybeans. Over time, the higher increase in corn yields causes lower soybean-to-corn yields


Soybean yields in Illinois have been exceptional in recent years, with yields being much higher than trend yields. It is too early to say that a permanent change has occurred, and history suggests permanent changes occur rarely.

October 06, 2016

Harrington Seed Destructor Testing

The Harrington Seed Destructor is being tested for infield efficacy at the University of Illinois to control herbicide resistant weeds.

October 03, 2016

Big Corn and Soybean Crops Get Bigger is a Myth!

with Scott Irwin, Agricultural Economist - University of Illinois

There is a long-standing market saying that "big crops get bigger and small crops get smaller." This statement refers to the yield forecasting cycle of the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS). That cycle for corn and soybeans consists of monthly yield forecasts that begin in August and extend through November and culminate with the final yield estimate for the season that is released in January following harvest. Specifically, the statement implies that early NASS yield forecasts are "conservative" in years when yields are high and get larger as the forecast cycle progresses and are "optimistic" in years when yields are low and get smaller as the forecast cycle progresses. These notions are tied to the more general idea that NASS yield forecasts are "smoothed," meaning that the final yield estimate results from cumulative monthly changes in forecasts in the same direction. Some tend to believe that smoothing of NASS yield forecasts, particularly in years of yield extremes, is intentional in order to minimize or spread the price impact of very large or small yields. Alternatively, yield forecasts may appear to be intentionally smoothed simply due to the fact that forecasts become more accurate during the forecast cycle as more actual yield information is incorporated into the forecasts.

September 29, 2016

Grain Farm Working Capital Nearly Exhausted

Four consecutive years of lower commodity prices has nearly exhausted the financial resources of U.S. grain farmers. Todd Gleason looks into the problem with an agricultural economist from the University of Illinois.

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