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Corn prices moving forward

Published March 27, 2017

URBANA, Ill. – May corn futures prices tumbled to the lowest price level since December during the week ending March 24. Large crop estimates from around the world placed downward pressure on the corn market despite some positive domestic consumption numbers in exports and corn used for ethanol. According to a University of Illinois agricultural economist, large global corn stocks appear to be the key factor currently in the corn market. 

“Numerous recently released USDA reports show a mixed picture for old- and new-crop corn prices in 2017,” says Todd Hubbs. “If the United States sees a reduction in corn production this year, it may provide limited support for corn prices due to the growth in foreign production.”

The USDA World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates report released on March 9 contained larger forecasts for the current harvest of the corn crops in both Brazil and Argentina.   The same report raised corn exports and year-ending stocks in South America. The Brazilian corn crop is projected at 3.6 billion bushels. Although some market observers expect upward revisions of this number, Hubbs says it is quite large currently and would require an ideal crop for much improvement.

“The Argentinian corn crop is in a similar situation, with a projected production level of 1.48 billion bushels,” Hubbs says. “Current weather in South America indicates a good possibility for these large production numbers. At present, the world stocks-to-use ratio sits at 21.2 percent, which is up slightly from February and shows some upward potential moving forward.” 

Domestic use reports for corn provide some support for corn prices. Census Bureau corn export estimates from September 2016 through January 2017 exceeded the cumulative USDA inspection estimates by 42 million bushels. Weekly export inspections through March 23 placed corn exports at 1.254 billion bushels. If the 42 million bushel spread is maintained through March 23, corn exports sit at 1.296 million bushels.

“The current pace of corn exports looks to exceed the USDA marketing year estimate of 2.225 billion bushels,” Hubbs says. “Current U.S. Gulf FOB prices are under competitor prices in Brazil and Argentina with an expectation that the competitive advantage in the export market will be maintained until Brazilian exports from the second crop come into the market this summer.”

According to Hubbs, in addition to the backing from export numbers, ethanol production reports have also been supportive for corn prices. Weekly estimates from the U.S. Energy Information Administration indicate that ethanol production in March 2017 is running about 5 percent above production in March 2016. Ethanol production continues at over 1 million barrels a week and places corn used for ethanol well on pace to reach the USDA projection of 5.4 billion bushels. “A large amount of distillers grain production combined with lower DDGS exports create a scenario in which the use of corn for ethanol production may be hindering corn used in feed,” Hubbs says.

Livestock reports present a neutral picture for feed use. 

The USDA’s monthly Cattle on Feed report released on March 24 indicated that feedlots with capacity of 1,000 head or more placed 4 percent more cattle into feedlots during February 2017 than during February 2016. The total number of cattle on feed as of March 1 was approximately the same as on the same date last year. Broiler chick placements are running around 1 to 2 percent higher than last year during March. The March 20 Milk Production report showed 56,000 more head of milk cows for February of 2017 than the previous year. On March 30, the USDA will release the Quarterly Hogs and Pigs report. This report will reveal the size of the pig crop during the previous quarter (December 2016 to February 2017). Hubbs says the estimates will provide insight into potential feed demand from the hog sector during the last half of the 2016-17 marketing year for corn. “The ability to meet the 5.6 billion bushels projected by the USDA for feed and residual during the 2016-17 marketing year may be hampered by the availability of distillers grains and other corn feed substitutes,” Hubbs says.

The most important reports for old- and new-crop corn price prospects are still to come. On March 31, the USDA will release the quarterly Grain Stocks report which will reveal the magnitude of stocks of corn as of March 1. The estimate of March 1 corn stocks will be fundamental for projecting feed and residual use of corn for the current marketing year. Also on March 31, the USDA will release the annual Prospective Plantings report. Hubbs says expectations on corn planting intentions tend to indicate fewer acres than last year’s planted acreage of 94 million acres.

“If corn planting intentions are near the low end of expectations, which currently sit in a range between 89 and 92.5 million acres, the report could provide support for old- and new-crop prices,” Hubbs says. “A large March 1 corn stocks number will send a signal of lower feed use and the weight of the large foreign corn production could create downward pressure on prices despite some positive indications of corn consumption. The size of a price adjustment, if any, is contingent on the ability of demand to outpace the large corn supplies in South America.”


Farming becoming riskier under climate change

Published March 27, 2017
Dry conditions will impact yield late in the growing season.
  • Climate change is predicted to impact agriculture, but a new study puts these changes in terms that are directly applicable to farmers.
  • For Illinois, the corn planting window will be split in two to avoid wet conditions in April and May. 
  • Each planting window carries increased risk – the early planting window could be thwarted by frost or heavy precipitation, and the late window cut short by intense late-summer drought.
  • Farmers and crop insurers must evaluate risk to avoid losing profits.

URBANA, Ill. – Scientists the world over are working to predict how climate change will affect our planet. It is an extremely complex puzzle with many moving parts, but a few patterns have been consistent, including the prediction that farming as we know it will become more difficult.

Scientists infer the impact on agriculture based on predictions of rainfall, drought intensity, and weather volatility. Until now, however, the average farmer may not have been able to put predictions like these into practice. A new University of Illinois study puts climate change predictions in terms that farmers are used to: field working days.

“Everything else flows from field working days,” says U of I and USDA Agricultural Research Service ecologist Adam Davis. “If you’re not able to work, everything else gets backed up. Workable days will determine the cultivars, the cropping system, and the types of pest management practices you can use. We’re simply asking, ‘Can you get in to plant your crop?’”

In a previous study, the group developed models that reliably translated past climate data into field working days for Illinois. In the new study, they coupled those models with climate change scenarios to forecast field working days into the future.

The group ran the models for nine crop districts in Illinois for two time periods, mid-century (2046 to 2065) and late-century (2080 to 2099), using three climate scenarios ranging from mild to extreme. 

The models suggest that the typical planting window for corn will no longer be workable; April and May will be far too wet to work the fields in most parts of Illinois.

“Going forward, we’re predicting warmer and wetter springs, and drier, hotter summers,” Davis says. “The season fragments and we start to see an early-early season, so that March starts looking like a good target for planting in the future. In the past, March has been the bleeding edge; nobody in their right mind would have planted then. But we’ve already seen the trend for early planting. It’s going to keep trending in that direction for summer annuals.”

Those drier, hotter summers are likely to change farming practices too, particularly in southern Illinois.   

“Drought periods will intensify in mid- to late-summer under all the climate scenarios. If farmers decide to plant later to avoid the wet period in April and May, they’re going to run into drought that will hit yield during the anthesis-silking interval, leading to a lot of kernel abortion. That second planting window is probably pretty risky,” Davis says.

Risk is the key word. If farmers bet on the early planting window and get hit with a frost or more March precipitation than expected, are they out of luck? Davis says they will have to choose to mud the seed in, plant a different hybrid, or even scrap corn and go for winter wheat later in the season. But given that many farmers choose hybrids and purchase seeds the previous fall, they’re unlikely to have that kind of flexibility come spring. Any miscalculation will be incredibly costly.

“It will come down to whether crop insurers will move planting dates earlier in the spring. They’re going to need enough years of empirical evidence that this early window exists before they are likely to make that change,” Davis notes.

The researcher suggests three strategies to cope with the changes. Farmers could plant early with long-season cultivars to maximize yield potential, betting on a pollination window to open up before the drought kicks in. Or farmers could choose shorter-season cultivars, planting early and then harvesting before the drought, possibly sacrificing yield.

The last strategy will require a more radical shift.

“Create cropping systems that can deal with increased volatility by conserving soil moisture. Most of the effort in yield stability and resilience focuses on genetic improvement of crops. That’s good, but I think we’ve fallen behind in the cropping system management side. If you’ve got an elite cultivar that’s drought resistant in the same old cropping system that’s not shifting with environmental changes, then we’re not doing full justice to that cultivar,” Davis says.

Given the weather in Illinois this late winter/early spring, this work seems particularly timely.

“All this weird weather? It’s part of a trend,” Davis says. “Now is the time to prepare, because the future is here.”

The article, “Changes in field workability and drought risk from projected climate change drive spatially variable risks in Illinois cropping systems,” is published in PLOS One. Lead author Bradley Tomasek is at Duke University. Marty Williams and Adam Davis are research ecologists with the USDA Agricultural Research Service, and faculty members in the U of I crop sciences department. Funding was provided by the USDA Agricultural Research Service.

News Source:

Adam Davis, 217-333-9654

Make nutrition labels work for you

Published March 24, 2017

News writer: Lauren Quinn, 217-300-2435,

Make nutrition labels work for you

URBANA, Ill. – Whether you are trying to lose weight, reduce sodium, or increase your vitamin D intake, you are probably accustomed to studying the nutrition facts labels on the foods you buy. Soon, however, the label will have a new look, as mandated by the Food and Drug Administration. Three nutrition experts from the University of Illinois gathered recently to discuss the changes.

“Many of the changes with the new nutrition facts panel are driven by aesthetics and design,” says assistant professor of agricultural and consumer economics Brenna Ellison. She explains that larger and bolder fonts will be used to place greater emphasis on number of calories per serving and servings per container.

Another big change will be the way that serving sizes are calculated. “In the past, serving sizes were much smaller than what a person would normally eat,” Ellison notes. For example, there are actually four servings in that tiny pint of ice cream in your freezer, according to current labeling standards. Anna Arthur, assistant professor of food science and human nutrition, says the new label will reflect more realistic serving sizes.

The new label will also specify the amount of added sugar, whereas current labels lump naturally occurring sugars together with added sugars. “Ice cream contains natural sugar called lactose. In addition, there will be added sugars to enhance the flavor,” Arthur says. 

The discussion was captured in a podcast and a Twitter chat, as part of the #askACES series hosted once a month by the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at U of I. During the chat, participants asked the experts a wide range of questions about the new label, and about nutrition labeling in general.

Jennifer McCaffrey, assistant dean of family and consumer science for U of I Extension, fielded a question about teaching kids to pay attention to food labels. McCaffrey suggested getting kids to compare similar products side by side, such as flavored versus unflavored milk.

New labels will roll out by July, 2018, so there is plenty of time to do your research on the new design. For starters, listen to the podcast and search #askACES on Twitter.


Anticipating the March 1 soybean stocks estimate

Published March 20, 2017

URBANA, Ill. – On March 31, the USDA will release the quarterly Grain Stocks report, with estimates of crop inventories as of March 1, and the annual Prospective Plantings report. According to a University of Illinois agricultural economist, for soybeans, the stocks estimate is typically overshadowed by the estimate of planting intentions.

“Usually, the quarterly stocks estimates for corn garners more interest because these reports reveal the pace of feed and residual use, which is a large component of total corn consumption,” says Todd Hubbs. “The March 1 soybean stocks estimate this year may not provide much new information despite recent growth in marketing year-ending stocks and concerns about the size of the South American crop.”

Anticipating the size of the March 1 stocks estimate begins with the USDA estimate of stocks held on Dec. 1, 2016. Hubbs says by including an estimate of soybean imports during the quarter, an estimate of the total supply available during the quarter can be calculated. An estimate of consumption from December through February is subtracted from that total to estimate stocks on March 1. Soybean crush, exports and seed, and feed and residual use comprise the three consumption categories. Estimates of soybean stocks on December 1 equaled 2.895 billion bushels.

“Census Bureau estimates of imports in December and January totaled 4.4 million bushels, so the total for the quarter may be about 7 million bushels, resulting in a total supply of 2.902 billion bushels,” Hubbs says.

The expected level of soybean crush on March 1 is calculated based on estimates of the domestic crush during the second quarter of the marketing year. The USDA's Oilseed Crushings, Production, Consumption and Stocks report provides estimates of the domestic crush for December 2016 and January 2017. The estimate for February will be released on April 3. The National Oilseed Processors Association (NOPA) estimate of the February soybean crush by its members can be used to estimate the total February crush.

“For the current marketing year, the USDA monthly crush estimates exceeded the NOPA crush estimates by 6.4 percent,” Hubbs says. “A continuation of the margin for USDA monthly crush estimates above the NOPA February crush estimate indicates a second quarter crush of 491 million bushels of soybeans. The total crush for the first half of the marketing year sums to 976 million bushels.”

Soybean export calculations for the second quarter are inferred from USDA weekly export inspection reports and Census Bureau export estimates. The USDA's weekly export inspections report shows that cumulative 2016-17 marketing-year inspections attained 1.619 billion bushels by the end of the second quarter. Through the first five months of the year, cumulative Census export estimates exceeded inspections by 30 million bushels. If that margin persisted through February, cumulative exports reached 1.654 billion bushels by mid-year. Exports during the first quarter totaled 932.5 million bushels, putting second quarter exports at 721.5 million bushels.

“Calculating the level of seed, feed, and residual use of soybeans during the second quarter of the year is difficult,” Hubbs says. “Due to the Census Bureau ending monthly estimates of domestic soybean crush in July 2011 and the USDA not resuming the monthly crush estimate until May 2015, a gap occurred in calculating seed, feed, and residual use that relied on monthly NOPA estimates. These historical estimates could deviate from complete monthly crush estimates.

“Despite this issue, the seasonal pattern of seed, feed, and residual use is noticeable,” Hubbs continues. “Use is positive in the first half of the year and negative in the last half of the year, but the quarterly distribution varies from year to year. Use in the first quarter this year was estimated at 196.4 million bushels based on the December 1, 2016, stocks estimate. In the five years preceding this marketing year, disappearance in this category during the first half of the year averaged about 171 percent of the marketing-year total. If the pattern continues this year and the USDA's projection of 128 million bushels for the year is correct, second quarter disappearance would be 22.5 million bushels.”

Total consumption of soybeans during the second quarter of the marketing year is calculated to be near 1.235 billion bushels. With stocks at the start of the quarter of 2.895 billion bushels and imports during the quarter of 7.4 million bushels, March 1 stocks are calculated to total about 1.68 billion bushels. “Given the uncertainty of the magnitude of feed, seed, and residual use during the quarter, the stocks estimate would be expected to be within a relatively narrow range,” Hubbs says.

If year ending stocks remain at the current USDA estimate of 435 million bushels and the estimate of March 1 stocks is near the calculation presented here, Hubbs says consumption of U.S. soybeans during the last half of the marketing year would be around 1.23 billion bushels.

“The USDA's estimate of March 1 stocks will provide the basis for evaluating the pace of consumption over the next few months,” Hubbs says. “That estimate, along with the estimate of planting intentions to be released on the same day will set the tone for soybean prices into the planting and growing season.”


Nutrition, the microbiome, and Autism Spectrum Disorder: Review article looks at current evidence, outlines research needs

Published March 16, 2017

URBANA, Ill. – Over the last decade, research has revealed more about the human gut microbiome—the environment within the gastrointestinal tract—where microbes, especially bacteria, reside. Recently, more has become known about the function of those microbes and the microbiome’s connection with health and disease.

Sharon Donovan, a professor of nutrition at the University of Illinois explains that researchers have started to look at more specific disease states and the microbiome. “We are starting to see links with autism, obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and almost every disease that is looked at.

“The gut-brain axis, is a hot area right now. We’ve known for a long time, for example, if you get nervous, the communication comes through the vagus nerve, from your brain to your gut. Oftentimes, people who have a lot of stress feel it in their guts. Now we have findings from animal model studies that show that the microbes themselves are able to signal the brain in part through the vagus nerve.”

Donovan and her graduate student Kirsten Berding are interested in the interaction between diet and the gut microbiome and are hoping to provide further evidence of nutrition’s impact on the microbiome and its association with ASD. This information could allow the effectiveness of some suggested dietary interventions to be tested.

There is evidence of abnormalities in gut microbiota composition in children with ASD, but Donovan explains that it has not been established whether it is those abnormalities that contribute to ASD symptoms or if it is the diet and medication use by a child with ASD that leads to the imbalance in gut microbes. 

“Autism is multi-factorial, it’s not just nutrition, it’s not just microbiome,” she says.

Parents of children with ASD often find information on the internet showing an association between diet and ASD as well as the microbiome and ASD, and they have been willing to try an array of dietary inventions and probiotics to help alleviate some of the ASD, as well as gastrointestinal symptoms, their children experience, Berding explains.  

But often, parents are acting on anecdotal evidence, the hope that “if it worked for someone else’s child, it’ll work for mine.”

“Diets such as gluten-free or casein-free diets for children with autism, as well as other alternative interventions parents have tried, may not provide the hoped for results for every child,” Donovan says.

Therefore, the goal is to better understand to what degree the gut microbiota of children with ASD differs from non-affected children and to conduct studies that systematically evaluate the most effective interventions.  As a first step, Berding and Donovan reviewed the current research on the microbiome and the nutritional status of autistic children, as well as what is known about the underlying mechanisms of the microbiota-gut-brain axis—the way the gut and brain communicate with each other. The review was published in the journal Nutrition Reviews

In their review, they found studies linking microbiome changes and ASD and differences in dietary intake in ASD, however, few studies link how nutrition may affect ASD symptoms via changing the gut microbiota.

“Many kids with autism are picky eaters and will often get stuck on certain foods. Some literature shows that those foods tend to be more simple sugars and not as nutritious. Some of the studies on food intake of kids with autism show that their fruit and vegetable consumption is low, and have low sources of dietary fiber. We know fiber is important for the microbiome. If they are picky eaters and they have a poor diet that’s one aspect,” Berding says.

Tracing not only nutrition’s influence, but also the influence of dietary supplements and medications on the microbiome will help the researchers understand correlations between diet, microbiome, and ASD and to establish new possible therapies to mitigate the severity of autism symptoms.

This is what Donovan and Berding hope to continue studying.

The researchers are now recruiting children aged 2-7 diagnosed with ASD who have not had any sort of probiotic or nutritional intervention, as well as non-affected siblings, to take part in a pilot study to look at common abnormalities in the microbiome and to eventually understand more about modulating the microbiome through the use of diet or supplements. Data such as fecal samples, daily food intake, and GI symptoms will be collected throughout the study.

“There may be ways to use diet or specific probiotics to help,” Donovan says. “They’re not necessarily going to replace medications but they may be able to do things that many medications aren’t successful in.”

To learn more about the study, contact Berding at Participants in the study will receive an incentive for participation, information on their child’s diet, and can take part in a nutrition education session.

“Microbiome and nutrition in autism spectrum disorder: Current knowledge and research needs,” is published in Nutrition Reviews and is available online at Co-authors include Kirsten Berding and Sharon M. Donovan. Berding is a doctoral student in the Division of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Illinois and Donovan is a professor of nutrition in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois, as well as in the Division of Nutritional Sciences.

News Source:

Sharon Donovan, 333-2289

Soybean farmers can earn reward for helping UI researcher

Published March 16, 2017

URBANA, Ill. – In January, the University of Illinois leader of a multi-state soybean research project put out a call to farmers to help gather data for the project. Few participants have signed on, so he is putting the call out again.

“We only need two or three producers in each soybean-growing county in Illinois to get the job done,” says U of I crop sciences professor Emerson Nafziger.

Nafziger and his team are asking producers to provide information for up to four soybean fields on a simple form (one per crop year, 2014 to 2016), located at The form requests about 20 pieces of information for each field, including field location, planting date, variety, and seeding rate. Most farmers will be able to record information for a field in 10 or 15 minutes.

To provide an incentive, anyone who fills out information forms and returns a gift card request form along with the information sheets will receive a $50 gift card.

“This project can be described as a search to find what we should work on next with regard to soybean research. The goal is to have thousands of fields in a large database, then to see how soil, weather, and management interact to produce yield,” Nafziger explains.

Nafziger encourages FFA and college students to participate, giving them experience with scientific studies and a reward for their efforts.

“The more fields we’re able to get information on, the more useful this effort will be,” Nafziger explains. “As the largest and best state for soybean production, we are hoping to produce the largest and best set of information of all states involved in this effort.”

Farmers who want to participate can fill out the form posted at the link given above, or can contact Nafziger at or to have forms sent by email. The project is also described on the Bulletin.