On Friday, March 31st, USDA released the Prospective Plantings report. These acreage estimates are based primarily on surveys conducted by the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) during the first two weeks of March. Principal crop acres planted were projected nationally at nearly 312 million acres, up roughly six million acres compared to last year. Corn acres are estimated at 92.0 million, up 3.42 million from last year. Soybean planted acres are estimated at 87.5 million, up slightly from last year by 55 thousand acres. Cotton acres are projected to be down 18% from last year, at 11.3 million acres. Peanut acreage is projected at 1.55 million acres, up 7% from last year, and rice area is projected at 2.58 million acres, up 16% from last year. All wheat acreage is projected at 49.86 million, up 9% from last year. Projections from the Prospective Planting results are comparable to recent projections released at the February USDA Outlook Forum which had March projections calling for 1 million more acres of corn, no difference in soybean acres, and 500,000 fewer acres of cotton.
The market expected more corn acres in 2023 compared to last year. Corn plantings were held back in 2022 due to high fertilizer prices, which have been alleviated slightly, allowing for a rebound in acreage. Cotton was expected to struggle to retain acres this year due to struggling demand and lower prices compared to other commodities. Every state, besides Arizona, is projected to remain steady or see a decrease in cotton acreage from last year. Rice acres are seeing a rebound on higher prices, but a forecast of wet weather in the Midsouth over the next couple of weeks could lower plantings. Price reaction from the report was mixed, with harvest contract corn unchanged, soybeans 10-15 cents higher, cotton 0.40 cents lower, and rice unchanged.
How reliable are the March prospective planting numbers? The NASS planted acreage projections across the U.S. generally hold well with low predictive error and hold especially well for corn and soybeans (Figure 1). There appears to be a larger error, albeit still quite small, when predicting planted acreage for cotton and rice. This is likely for two reasons stemming from the fact that cotton and rice are grown primarily in southern states. The larger variance can be due to (1) the smaller sample size of farms and (2) the alternative crops available to plant in place of corn and soybeans. Most of the U.S. corn and soybean acreage is grown in the upper Midwest but tends to take up acreage across the entire U.S. which allows for a larger sample of farmers and less variance. In the south, farmers rotate corn and soybean crops with cotton, peanuts, and even some vegetables. This makes it more difficult to project acres that may shift based on rotational needs, commodity prices, input costs, and weather.
One way to investigate the difficulty in projecting acreage is by choosing the subsample of southern states to see if 1) there is more variance across the changes in corn and soybean acreages given a smaller sample and 2) the pattern of acreage changes across cotton and rice still holds in the subsample. We find this to be true (Figure 2). We see more differences each year between prospective and actual planted acreages in corn and soybeans across southern states, and the general pattern of differences each year for cotton and rice still holds between the full U.S. sample and the southern subsample. This implies that we should generally not expect any significant changes in harvest price expectations driven by differences in planted acreages but rather look to future market-moving events.
Figure 1. Comparison of Prospective vs. Actual Planted Acreage across the U.S. (2014-2023)
Figure 2. Comparison of Prospective vs. Actual Planted Acreage across Southern States (2014-2023)
 States included are Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia.
Biram, Hunter, and William E. Maples. “Key Takeaways and Reliability of the 2023 Prospective Plantings Report.” Southern Ag Today 3(14.1). April 1, 2023. Permalink