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USDA: Drought cut corn crop by about one-fourth

Jan. 12, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

DES MOINES, Iowa -- For farmers like Earl Williams, last year couldn't have started out better or ended much worse as a warm, sunny spring that let him plant early gave way to record heat and drought that devastated his corn.

Williams ended up with about two-thirds of the crop he expected, and a U.S. Department of Agriculture report released Friday showed most corn farmers didn't fare much better. The final report on the 2012 growing season showed farmers harvested 10.78 billion bushels of corn, less than three-fourths of what the agency predicted last spring.

While the report covers many other crops, much of the attention has been on corn, which is widely used as an ingredient in many foods, provides feed for livestock and is mixed with gasoline as ethanol. The crop also was the hardest hit by the drought that settled in just as the plants were maturing.

Williams, 62, usually gets 150 to 160 bushels per acre on his 1,000-acre farm near Rockford in northern Illinois. Last year, he got about 100, and he's been looking at the sky ever since, hoping for heavy rain or snow to break the drought that still grips the region.

"I've yet to run into anyone around me who wasn't ready for 2013 to come," he said.

Yet things could have been worse. Because demand remained strong and corn prices remained high -- above $7 a bushel for much of the summer and fall -- the 2012 crop was the most valuable ever produced, with a value of around $85 billion, said Chad Hart, an agriculture economist with Iowa State University.

The harvest also was the eighth largest in U.S. history, a reflection of a big increase in recent years in the number of acres planted and crop technology that has improved plants' ability to withstand drought.

"We learned that corn plants can build roots very, very deep," said Brent Wilson, technical services manager for DuPont Pioneer, a major seed company.

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