The nation’s farmers are set to plant 178.7 million acres of corn and soybeans combined this growing season, according to a USDA’s Prospective Plantings report released Wednesday.

That number was below the average trade guess of 183.2 million acres and caused corn futures to hit its daily "limit up" trading. Limit up is the maximum a price is permitted to increase over the course of a trading day.

Producers are expected to plant 91.1 million acres of corn this year, just 325,000 acres higher than last year. Soybean acres are estimated at 87.6 million, a 5% increase compared to 2020.

Ben Brown, senior research associate in the department of agricultural and applied economics at the University of Missouri, said corn acreage numbers in high-production states such as Iowa, Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, and Nebraska are below last year, with the exception of Minnesota.

“You look at the heart of what we consider the Corn Belt, and everybody (is planting) less corn,” Brown told Agri-Pulse. “I don't know that I can make the statement that the optimism around Chinese purchases was the driving factor for people to plant corn.”

Earlier this month, the USDA announced a sale of 1.156 million metric tons of U.S. corn to China for delivery in the 2020-21 marketing year. Brown noted if trade optimism was a factor, there would have been more corn acres predicted in the Midwest.

“They are maybe not looking at South American dryness and they’re not looking at this optimism around Chinese corn purchases, they’re sitting here saying, ‘We remember what happened last year and we’re making sure to have a diversified safety net,’” Brown said, referring to farmers seeing the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on commodities.

Farmers are expected to plant 46.4 million acres of wheat, which is 5%higher than last year. Some 12 million acres of cotton is expected to be planted, which is less than 1% compared to a year ago.

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"These acreage numbers leave next year's balance sheet in a rationing mode," tweeted Arlan Suderman, chief commodities economist at StoneX Group. "They will be questioned, but they are the numbers that will be traded until USDA updates its acreage numbers on June 30th."

The department also released its Quarterly Grain Stocks report Wednesday.

Corn, soybean, and wheat stocks are all lower than last year as of March 1. Corn stocks are estimated at 7.7 billion bushels, down 3% from last year. Soybean stocks are 31% lower than last year at 1.56 billion bushels. All wheat stocks are at 1.31 billion bushels, which is a 7% drop from a year ago.

Brown said he hasn’t heard of many farmers getting into the field just yet. But with the weather starting to dry out in the Midwest after rounds of rain over the last few weeks, producers are getting the “itch” to begin planting, he said.

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In partnership with: Tennessee Department of Agriculture

From drones to GPS mapping to robotic milking to solar panels, Tennessee farms are a source of innovation. By embracing advanced technologies, farmers have benefitted from a boost to their bottom line while reducing waste, producing energy and protecting the environment.

Here are some of the newest technologies making a difference down on the farm.

Precision Ag: Rapid, Responsive and Accurate Data

A veteran-owned company in Alamo, Tenn., Farmspace Systems LLC is leading the 3-D agricultural production movement, following advancements in mechanization and biotechnology.

“The world needs a ‘third wave’ of increased agricultural productivity to feed and clothe two billion more people by 2050. This third wave will be based on precision agriculture,” says Lt. Gen. John Castellaw USMC (retired), president and CEO, Farmspace Systems.

With the advent of commercially available global positioning systems (GPS) in the 1990s to precisely guide farm equipment, today’s GPS- enabled unmanned aerial systems (UAS) can now determine the “what, when, where and how much” for a variety of inputs including seed, nutrients and pesticides.

“This brings the management level down from farm-wide to zones no larger than 2 to 5 acres with the promise of drilling down to much smaller areas,” Castellaw says. However, he estimates that only around 30 percent of those that could benefit are currently using drones in their farming operations.

Farmspace has partnered with Middle Tennessee State University’s Aviation Department on UAS research and development, as well as establishment of an FAA-approved R&D range in West Tennessee near Alamo.

Looking to the future, Castellaw anticipates that sales will increase as people become more familiar and comfortable with drone operations, similar to the trend in smartphone usage.

“A recent study projected that 80 percent of all UAS operations will eventually be in agriculture. This will be a significant amount of economic activity when the forecast total value of UAS operations is $82 billion by 2025,” he says.

Similarly, GeoAir, one of the 13 finalists in Launch Tennessee’s 36|86: Student Edition Pitch Competition and finalist in the American Farm Bureau’s Rural Entrepreneurship Challenge, is helping farmers with drone technology to identify mold in fields. Founded by recent MBA graduate Alex Adams from Bristol, Tenn., GeoAir takes airborne samples from the fields and then uses that data to create a heat map that illustrates mold hot spots.Thanks to drone technology, farmers can now precisely treat the problem areas, instead of the entire crop, effectively saving time and money.

Dairy Robotics: Milking Down to a Science

Sweetwater Valley Farm, home of award-winning cheese and named the 2012 Innovative Dairy Farm of the Year by the International Dairy Foods Association, is a must-visit for consumers curious about dairy farming technology.

As early as the 1990s, John Harrison was using technology to collect daily activity and milk weights. This system made it possible to better sort cows and aggregate accurate data for daily management and historical analysis. Sweetwater Valley also began using a feed tracker system, which allowed more effective measurement and distribution of feed ingredients.

However, the benefits of technology aren’t limited to just livestock. On the employee-management side, the farm has integrated an evaluation plan that scores each employee in various areas, which is then used for compensation and tracking personal growth.“Farms are also on the edge of being able to produce amazing amounts of energy,” Harrison adds. “We have always found ways of using byproducts, but now we are starting to direct it to the energy grid.” Through the use of anaerobic manure “digesters” (also called methane digesters), manure is being converted into methane for on- or off-farm use such as gas and electricity.

Overall, Harrison finds that the innovations that have most transformed the dairy industry today are robotics, GPS, apps and social media. Of course, simply the ability to collect, store and disseminate massive amounts of data has been paramount to agriculture, and will likely continue to push the industry to new heights.