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Scott Patterson • February 6th, 2024.
Corn or maize is one of the most prolific crops in the world, second only to sugarcane. China’s production of corn is actually greater than that of its rice production, which may be surprising to some people.
Fig 1: A corn field during a drought
Corn is widely cultivated because it has so many uses: food for human consumption, livestock feed, biofuel such as ethanol to power vehicles, in cooking for things such as corn starch, corn sweeteners, and corn oil, in beverages, industrial products, and in a multitude of other products.
Fig 2. Everyday ways in which corn is used.
The three largest producers of corn are the United States, China, and Brazil, but even as the second largest producer, China actually imports corn from the United States, due to a population over three times the size of the US.
While corn can be a resilient crop, it is still dependent on weather conditions and prone to lower yields, especially during prolonged drought. 2012 was an exceptionally bad year for corn production in the US, due to one of the worst droughts in 50 years that stretched across the entire Corn Belt in the central US. Production was 13% lower year-on-year. Since 2012, drought tolerant corn (DT) varieties have been developed in the US and, although they can mitigate the effects of drought on yields, drought tolerant is not the same as drought-proof.
Fig 3. US Drought Monitor for August 2012 across the Corn Belt in the United States.
Iowa is the largest producer of corn in the US, followed by Illinois, Nebraska, and Minnesota. All of these states make up what is known as the Corn Belt, which is where most corn from the US is grown.
Fig 4. Corn Belt area in the United States.
In 2023, drought was most prevalent in Kansas and Nebraska as the global weather pattern called La Niña was weakening and El Niño was forming. This caused most storm systems to bypass the western parts of the Corn Belt, leading to drought across much of the region. Growing conditions further east in Iowa and Illinois were ideal enough for a record corn crop in 2023, which resulted in a 12% increase in production over the previous year.
So is another record crop in store for this year? Maybe, but it’s not looking great right now. The reason is the drought conditions that Kansas and Nebraska experienced in 2023 have moved east over the winter into eastern Nebraska, Iowa, and Illinois, and north into Minnesota. Snow cover is key to providing water from snowmelt to keep the soil moist while protecting the ground from cold dry winds. This winter, there was only brief snow cover. Currently the entire region is snow-free and seeing below-normal precipitation.
While the snow will not provide the usual early moisture, there is still hope that periods of heavier rainfall will develop as the El Niño holds on through the spring. Historically, when El Niño switched to La Niña during the year, heavier spring rains developed across parts of the Corn Belt and helped keep the region from going into a major drought. However, each year is different and several factors across the Pacific Ocean, which affect the weather in the US, may team up to bring lower than expected precipitation and periods of hot temperatures this summer.
In summary, there is hope the drought won’t hold, but it all depends on spring rains developing for this region and ending the current drought conditions. Otherwise, a lower than expected harvest may be on tap.
While the US Corn Belt is already seeing a drought and will be closely monitoring spring rains, China is not in the same position. Coming off a record 2023 harvest, due to favorably timed weather conditions, another year of record-high corn production levels are possible.
With El Niño ending and La Niña developing, there will be a risk for short, intense heat waves during the summer months. These will bring heat stress to crops, followed by periods of heavy, above-normal rainfall, due to additional influences from regional weather patterns. Similar to 2023, typhoons will be an outside threat for damage to corn and many other crops.
Fig 5. Higher corn production areas of China.
It may be a very good year for production again and even possibly enough to offset lower than expected exports from the US and lower yields in Brazil. As weather events become more volatile, close monitoring of weekly trends and month-ahead predictions will be required to stay ahead in the market.
Record breaking heat and areas of drought for many growing regions of Brazil are expected to impact corn production. Similar to the woes of the soybean harvest, corn will be experiencing the impact of dry soil and periodic heat stress. With El Niño holding on through late spring, periodic heavy rainfall will continue. Despite this, some areas have such low soil moisture that even with the brief periods of rain, they will not see the soil recover enough to allow optimal corn planting and growing conditions.
Other growing regions in South America such as Paraguay and Argentina have fared much better over the spring and summer and corn yields are anticipated to be better than Brazil and will also lessen the impact to the global corn trade.
As the top 3 leaders in global corn production, the US, Brazil, and China drive global prices when their production numbers are lower or higher than normal. Other countries in Europe, Central America, South America, and Asia can also influence global prices, so while Brazil is having a down year, the impact to global pricing may not be as significant, as long as the US and China both see the near record production that has been predicted.
While corn is a resilient worldwide crop that has withstood the climate for centuries, the demand for corn is currently so high that any significant worldwide fluctuations in supply could have a big implication on pricing for products made with corn and for food sources for millions of animals and people. Drought has the most negative effect on corn production. The largest corn producing region in the world is currently experiencing a drought and with high uncertainty for the upcoming spring, the resiliency of not just corn, but of the global economy will again be tested.