It's never been more difficult to predict acreage of the major U.S. crops than it is for 1998. Freedom to Farm legislation is working as intended, putting the pressure on the market to determine how producers will divvy up the land.

It all comes down to incentives. Wheat producers shot a scary message at the market when they filled out the survey for USDA's January Winter Wheat Seedings Report. Last fall (when wheat prices were 50 cents higher than when the survey was taken) hard red winter wheat producers decided there were better options. At the top of the list will likely be grain sorghum. But soybeans and corn will also get a chunk of the 3 million acres that were expected to be planted to wheat last fall.

Soft red winter wheat country is a different story. Producers there upped acreage slightly, but not as much as anticipated. That leaves more-than-expected room for corn production, and the wheat ground will likely be doublecropped with soybeans.

Southern cotton producers continue to tell us they'll plant fewer cotton acres in 1998, opting for corn and soybeans as well. Want just two reasons long-time cotton producers have, in many cases, decided to call it quits? 1) Hefty deficiency payments are dwindling under the '96 Farm Bill, and 2) continuously rising insecticide costs.

Corn acres will be up from the 1997 figure. Up until the winter wheat report revealed the start of producers' migration, Pro Farmer anticipated 1998 corn acres of about 82 million, up from '97's 80.2 million. After the report, however, it's become obvious that corn acreage will reach a minimum of 82 million and could be as high as 82.7 million.

The main reason more of the 3-million-acre winter wheat shortfall wasn't given to corn? Grain sorghum will likely be planted in areas of Kansas more traditionally planted to wheat. That's the central and southwestern parts of the state, where irrigation isn't as widely used. As a result, sorghum acres could rise from earlier expectations as much as a combined 1 million acres in Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. That could mean a feed-grain supply surge for the cattle belt.

Corn acres will also likely rise in North Dakota and South Dakota, where winter wheat seedings were also down from year-ago levels. Spring wheat may be the obvious choice, but producers in the Northern Plains tell us springtime soil moisture levels will determine whether they plant corn, beans or spring wheat.

If spring conditions are excellent (moist) in the Upper Plains, producers will increase corn and bean production. If conditions are average to poor (dry), they'll plant spring wheat. For 1998, spring wheat acreage could be as low as 18.5 million or as high as 20 million, depending on moisture supplies.

Another reason for Dakotans' interest in corn and soybeans: good to excellent 1997-crop yields. Seed companies are running new varieties of short-season corn and soybeans to the market as they see the Midwestern Corn Belt expand westward.

1997's bean surge will be hard to repeat. Many of the same arguments that support a potential increase in corn acres also support an increase in bean acres. However, don't forget bean acres surged dramatically in 1997, to nearly 71 million. That at least suggests there will be some consolidation of acreage this year. That's the primary reason we currently see up to a 1-million-acre drop in soybean production from that of 1997.

Much of last year's expansion was credited to the "want" of Midwestern producers to get to a 50-50 rotation. But traditional cotton areas also contributed to the acreage surge. We see absolutely no sign that the trend will end in 1998 - cotton acres will be down and Southern bean acres will be up.

Bottom line: The acreage mix for 1998 is far from settled. But the winter wheat report changed the entire picture for 1998 corn and soybeans. You should now look for more corn and bean acres than earlier expected, increasing the urgency to take advantage of what should be considered attractive pricing opportunities in new-crop 1998 corn and soybean futures.