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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