By Tom Polansek and Mark Weinraub
SHERIDAN, Illinois (Reuters) - With the U.S. spring planting season off to a historically slow start, an increasing number of farmers are counting on powerful tools to catch up: Monster machines that sow 36 rows of corn at once and feature high-tech innovations like computer-guided directional equipment.
The technological wizardry from companies like Deere & Co and AGCO Corp is pitted in a frantic race against time, with farmers scrambling to get seeds in the ground because a slow start depresses yields and reduces the size of their harvest. Delayed planting in turn can raise prices for food processors, livestock feeders, and ethanol producers, leading to eventual increases in food and fuel costs nationwide.
Grain traders and analysts so far have shrugged off the sluggish planting pace due to soggy soils, partly because they believe the big machines can sow crop quickly.
While the giant planters can put seed in the ground at record speeds, the paradox of the modern farm economy is this: the advances in technology cannot offset the consolidation in the industry, according to agronomists. With fewer farmers tilling the nation's soil, and the average farm size growing year by year, the 2013 crop cannot get in the ground much faster than it did decades ago.
"When you see big planters running fast, they're certainly planting eight or 12 times faster than we planted 30 years ago," said Emerson Nafziger, an agronomist at the University of Illinois. "We had smaller planters and tractors, but we just had so many more of them."
The number of farms producing the nation's corn crop declined 27 percent in the decade leading to 2007, an analysis of the most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture data shows. It took 112,122 farms to produce 80 percent of the corn crop in 2007, down from 153,389 farms 10 years earlier.
In the three years since 2010, it has taken U.S. farmers 62 days to plant their crops. That is virtually unchanged from an average of 63 days over the prior three decades. Planted acreage has climbed 21 percent since the 1980s, to 92.4 million acres (37.4 million hectares).
The consolidation of farming is a key reason farmers - no matter how hard they work during improving weather - will struggle to eclipse a record that has stood for nearly two decades. The fastest stretch of planting occurred in a single week of May in 1992, when farmers rolled through 34,103,730 acres, or roughly 43 percent of that year's planting. That bested the prior record, set in 1984, by more than 5 million acres.
Farmers and agronomists are focused on corn because it is the biggest crop grown in the United States and is planted prior to soybeans in the spring. And the record-slow start to seeding this year already is affecting USDA harvest estimates, with the USDA last week lowering its forecast for the yield on this season's corn crop to 158 bushels per acre, down 4 percent from its outlook in February.
The forecast is still 28 percent higher than last year's drought-ridden yield, which pushed grain prices to record highs.
The next few days will be crucial, since experience shows corn planted after May 20 could see a 12 percent loss in yield, said Nafziger, the Illinois economist. Where planting is delayed beyond May 31, yield could see a 20 percent decline.
The USDA on Monday will report on planting progress.
"This is the type of year all farmers wish they had the big planters," said Justin Welch, an account manager for Dupont Pioneer, one of the world's largest seed companies.
Delayed planting causes yields to drop because of its effect on how plants develop. For corn, it means the crop will pollinate later in the summer, when hot, dry weather is more likely to cause damage.
That is why Michelle and John Stewart, owners of Spirit Farms in Sheridan, Ill., last week let loose four massive, green-and-yellow John Deere planters, each capable of covering 36 rows of corn. The Stewarts have traded up year-by-year recently, and the 36-row planters are the biggest that can run in their area of northern Illinois.
A large planting rig can run more than $250,000 and is a marvel of modern farming technology. The planters' arms stretch 90 feet wide when in use and fold for storage. A GPS device inside the tractors helps operators steer straight and prevent planting sections of the field twice, saving seed and time.
Vacuum-release spindles drop kernels at just the right depth, in precisely spaced intervals. And seed hoppers have been centralized on planters to efficiently distribute seed to each row, reducing how often farmers must stop to restock seed.
Climbing a ladder into the driver's seat of a Deere tractor recently, Spirit Farms' crop production manager Dane Killam said the technology in the machine is "the next step in farming."
"It's more-precision planting," Killam said.
The monster-sized machines have quickly gained a foothold. Nationwide, about 40 percent of planters are more than 16 rows wide, up from about 4 percent 10 years ago, according to IRON Solutions, which tracks transactions of agricultural equipment.
"Farmers are sitting on a lot of great years," said Darwin Melnyk, chief executive of IRON Solutions, referring to profitable harvests. "We've seen them invest a lot in their farming operations, including more land and certainly equipment."
Coming off a year in which planting finished early, only to see young crops whither in the drought, investors want to see how the crop develops after planting before making any judgments on yield potential, said Nicole Thomas, a partner for McKeany-Flavell Co, which has advised companies like General Mills Inc and Kraft Foods Group Inc about commodity costs.
The United States is expected to see a "pretty substantial" increase in corn inventories even if yields are cut by planting delays, she said. The reason: An increase in yield after last year's drought and another year of massive plantings.
A rush to plant can set the stage for havoc in the markets, though, because haste creates risks of its own. Corn planted in soil that has not had sufficient time to dry does not develop root systems and can yield poorly.
Planting too quickly also can expose crops to widespread losses. An entire harvest might be hit by an ill-timed heat wave just when corn is pollinating, for example.
North Dakota farmer Randy Thompson has new 36-row and 24-row planters that enable him to seed his corn crop about three times as fast as he could with older, smaller machines.
But the technology has not made good farming technique obsolete. A decade ago, farmers would "plant for awhile and then they'd wait awhile," said Thompson, who has been farming his land for 28 years and plans to grow about 5,000 acres.
"If some of the crop had a problem, at least all of it didn't have a problem," he said. "Nowadays, they don't seem to care. They just want to get 'er done."
(Editing by David Greising, Mary Milliken and Marguerita Choy)