When you look at the all-time record corn and soybean harvests last year, 2004 was an exceptional growing season across most of the U.S. cropping region.

What's in store for the coming spring and summer? It's not likely we'll see a repeat of 2004's near-perfect weather, but it should be an above-normal cropping season, forecasters say. In fact, if many growers are gun-shy enough about Asian soybean rust to shift big acres into corn, we could see an 11 billion bushel-plus corn crop again this year.

“We still have an El Niño in play this spring,” says Larry Acker of 3F Forecasts, Polo, IL, referring to the periodic warming of the eastern Pacific. “Generalized rainfalls over wide regions may be limited, especially if El Niño gains intensity. But most of cropping country is going into the planting season with good soil moisture.”

“El Niño may continue to influence our weather through most of the spring,” agrees Tony Lupo, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Missouri. “We could see cooler-than-normal temperatures through March and April, with prevailing winds from a northerly direction, rather than from the south.”

Art Douglas, atmospheric scientist at Creighton University, looks for milder-than-normal temperatures as we head into spring.

“The jet stream will split and bring in cooler temperatures for the southern two thirds of the grain belt,” he predicts. “If El Niño wanes or shifts into neutral, that will allow the northern Pacific to have more control over our continental weather. Temperatures in the western U.S. may be cooler than normal, but the eastern part of the Corn Belt may get more warm weather. Overall, I think we'll wind up with a decent season for most of the country.”

After a mild, early spring, Acker expects an abrupt warm-up and an increase in winds in the Corn Belt.

“In fact, we can expect several days with damaging winds from March 25 all the way to mid-May,” he says. “But the period through May 30 should be wetter than normal with near-normal temperatures. This may be a tough period to get corn and beans planted, but look for a window of opportunity in the second and third weeks of May.

“Summer starts off with normal moisture and temperatures until mid-July,” Acker predicts. “Then weather turns hot and dry until the end of July. This period may be windier than normal, too, and should be our hottest period, with high stress on corn.”

In early August, Acker believes rains will pick up to near normal in most areas, with normal winds and somewhat cooler temperatures.

“But fall should really be windy, beginning about Sept. 20,” he says.

With the likelihood that farmers will grow more corn and fewer soybeans due to the soybean rust scare, Acker looks for 81.5 million acres of corn to be planted. That kind of acreage should produce a crop of nearly 11.5 billion bushels, he estimates.

“The key to the corn crop is going to be that extremely hot, dry period in late July,” he says. “We may lose some yield to insects, but more acres makes up the difference.

“Summer weather is actually going to be better for soybeans than for corn,” he adds. “Getting the crop planted on time will be the big challenge; early planting will definitely be a plus for beans this year. I look for fewer acres in the South to be planted to soybeans, largely due to the rust threat — and conditions will be favorable for soybean rust to hit the South. The southern U.S. will be wet for much of the season.

“I expect a harvested soybean acreage of just under 70 million acres,” he estimates. “That should give us a crop of 2.72 billion bushels. Soybeans should do pretty well, but the size of the crop will be down — especially in the South.”

Dixie's other main crop — cotton — should get off to a decent start, too, says Acker. “Moisture is adequate to ample, so dry soil at planting time shouldn't be a problem,” he notes. “Wetter-than-normal conditions will continue through most of May. In June, the South dries out and warms up, but it looks like there will be more than enough rain during the summer season to raise a good crop.

“From September on, the South may get above-normal rainfall, which could hamper picking in some areas,” he continues. “But it looks like a big crop is on the way. I expect about 14 million acres to be planted to cotton — up some from last year — with 20.2 million bales harvested.”

Summing up, 2005 promises to be a better-than-average cropping year, assuming wet spring weather allows crops to be planted in a timely fashion. Probably not a repeat of the nearly ideal growing conditions of 2004, but still pretty good.

Acker publishes a monthly newsletter with periodic updates and hotlines to flag breaking events in weather, market and crop conditions. You can reach him at 3-F Forecasts, 1710 North Summer Hill Road, Polo, IL 61064. Or call him at 815-946-3001; fax 815-946-2003; e-mail Lacker@essex1.com.

And if you'd like to make periodic spot-checks of intermediate-range weather outlooks, log on to the National Weather Service's Climate Prediction Center at www.cpc.ncep.noaa.gov.