When this week's batch of Crop Progress numbers were released, the report was widely expected to show U.S. farmers had rapidly advanced their row-crop harvest pace. After all, we were shut down by snow and rain just a week before, and the industry was itching to get back to work.
And back to work it went! Nationwide, we harvested 10% of the 2018 corn crop in the seven days leading up to Sunday, Oct. 21, as well as 15% of the 2018 soybean crop during those same seven days.
Historically, it's not unusual to see 10% of a corn crop harvested in any given week, particularly at this time of year. The fastest average pace of U.S. corn harvest tends to occur in weeks 42, 43 and 44 (or, in normal English: the last half of October leading into the first week of November). In fact, the fastest weekly advance in corn harvest that we've ever seen in the past decade took place during the week leading up to Sunday, Nov. 2, 2014, when the nationwide corn harvest figures shifted by 19 percentage points.
That's a percentage, though. A proportion of total bushels. The 2014 corn crop was more enormous than the nation had ever seen -- 14.2 billion bushels. But the 2018 corn crop is expected to be even more enormous than that -- 14.8 billion bushels. Think about this: Harvesting 10% of the 2018 crop in one week would be equivalent, in raw-bushel terms, to harvesting 15% of the 2012 crop in one week. The 2012 crop contained only 10.8 billion bushels of corn.
So I translated the past 10 years of corn harvest progress data into bushels per week instead of percentage points per week. Assuming the industry works seven days per week, including Sundays during this time of year, those figures could then be turned into bushels per day. Over the week between Oct. 15 and Oct. 21, 2018, the nation's corn harvesters brought in 1.478 billion bushels of corn in total, or an average of 211 million bushels per day.
That assumes, of course, that USDA's overall corn production estimate turns out to be correct. Let's go ahead and assume that. Some Crop Progress observations feel a little more loosey-goosey than others. For instance, when USDA's community-based observers drive out into the countryside and guesses what percent of winter wheat has been planted, they're working with an unknown denominator. Nobody knows, with certainty, how many overall acres winter wheat farmers intend to plant this fall. So nobody can calculate, with certainty, what percentage of those acres have already been planted.
Soybean and corn harvest progress, on the other hand, is pretty clear for observers to see. Without doing anything more than looking out a car window, someone can count how many cornfields were already taken for silage, how many fields contain freshly harvested stubble, and how many are left to be harvested. We should feel pretty high confidence in those harvest progress numbers, even if they don't always jibe with our own frustrating, local experiences while the rest of nationwide progress continues.
Seeing how fast the 2018 corn crop was harvested in late September, and how quickly it has resumed its typical pace in late October, I'm reminded of the early progress of this year's crop, starting with the spring's rapidly accumulating heat units and continuing through summer. It doesn't feel like it, after all the anxiety-inducing rain delays, but we are basically back on track. Even in Iowa and eastern South Dakota, the corn harvest figures are fewer than 10 percentage points behind the typical five-year average pace.
This past week of harvesting 211 million bushels of corn per day, nationwide, didn't break any records or prove anything new or wonderful about the industry's throughput capacity. The fastest pace, back from 2014, was equivalent to 386 million bushels per day. The average over the past 10 years is more like 154 million bushels per day.
The Midwest weather forecast looks like it will cooperate for a few days and then get a little surly going into the weekend. Perhaps there won't be any record-shattering weekly harvest progress figures this year. And that's probably okay. So far, the futures spreads in the corn market have remained bearish but stable. Commercial traders haven't been crushed with any sudden onslaught of corn bushels that they're not prepared to handle. The cash market's basis bids, also, make it seem like traders have already sufficiently dialed in the big crop. Bushel by bushel, truck by truck, day by day, week by week, and percentage point by percentage point, the 2018 corn harvest will get done ... eventually.
Elaine Kub is the author of "Mastering the Grain Markets: How Profits Are Really Made" and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @elainekub.
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