USDA's early numbers released at last week's outlook forum confirm market chatter - soybeans snatch back acres that corn gained last year plus grains and oilseeds keep robbing acres from cotton.
"Corn plantings, while down from 2007, should remain at historically high levels," explains Mark Ash, economist with USDA's Economic Research Service. "Substantial year-to-year price gains continue to support favorable corn returns despite rising input costs, particularly for fertilizer."
ERS projects 2008 corn acreage at 90 million. That's down from 93.6 million in 2007, but well above 2006's 78.3 million.
Total wheat plantings are up as high wheat prices last fall boosted winter wheat seedings, and record prices for spring wheat encourage hard red spring wheat and durum plantings in the Northern Plains.
USDA pegs all wheat acres at 64 million. That's up from 60.4 million last year and 57.3 million in 2006
Soybeans should rebound to 71 million acres. That's up from 63.6 last year, but still well below 2006's 75.5 million acres.
CRP contributes some land. "Combined corn, soybean and wheat planted area is projected at 225 million acres, the highest since 1984," says Ash. "Record prices and large year-to-year gains in net returns for the three major field crops should draw area away from other crops, principally upland cotton, and pull additional land into field crop production.
Planted area for the 8 major crops (wheat, feed grains, soybeans, upland cotton, and rice) is projected at 253.3 million acres, up 6.8 million from 2007, and the highest since 2000 when the total reached 254.2 million.
Contributing to cropland expansion is a net reduction of 2 million acres in the CRP including contracts that were not renewed last October. Soybean double cropping is also expected to be higher with record soybean prices and an additional 1.8 million acres of soft red winter wheat sowed last fall.
Trends differ among wheat classes. Wheat planted area in 2008 is expected to rise 3.6 million acres to 64 million. Winter wheat area is up 1.6 million acres and spring wheat (including durum) is expected to gain 2.0 million acres. Soft red winter wheat plantings are at a 12-year high, spurred by strong prices and ideal planting and germination conditions last fall.
In contrast, hard red winter acres declined slightly as the dry fall and rotational considerations limited plantings in parts of the Central and Southern Plains. In the Northern Plains, spring wheat gains will be tempered by strong prices for competing crops, including feed grains, soybeans, other oilseeds and pulses. Wheat harvested area is expected to expand in line with plantings.
Given record prices, less wheat grazing is expected, reducing abandonment in the Central and Southern Plains. Cattle started coming off some wheat pastures in January.
Cotton and rice lose ground. USDA pegs 2008 cotton plantings at 9.5 million, down from last year's 10.8 million.
What will it take for cotton to regain acres? "Some combination of yields and prices that would gross $1,000 an acre," suggests Dow Brantley, England, Ark, cotton grower.
Rice planted acreage for 2008 is projected at 2.70 million acres, down 61,000 acres from last year. The South is expected to account for most of the area decline. The contraction is driven by high prices for competing crops and expectations of another year of high fuel and fertilizer costs.