Has grain market reached its peak?

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URBANA, Ill. — Although there is considerable uncertainty about acreage, yield, and production for the 2008 corn crop, favorable weather conditions through September could still result in a “respectable” crop.

At least that’s what University of Illinois Extension marketing specialist Darrel Good predicts.

“There is an interesting dynamic in livestock prices,” Good added. “As the market expects liquidation and lower production, futures prices have moved sharply higher.”

Cattle futures prices range from $105 to $118 for the period from August 2008 through October 2009. Lean hog futures, in live weight equivalents, range from $56.50 to $71.50 for that same period.

“As feed prices moderate somewhat, will these high futures prices actually encourage continued production rather than liquidation similar to the experience of 1995-96?”

Up, up and away

Corn prices moved sharply higher in the first half of June as excessive precipitation threatened both acreage and yield. July 2008 futures rallied from about $6 to a high of $7.60, while December 2008 futures moved from $6.25 to a high of $7.915.

Since last week, prices have moderated slightly from those highs as weather conditions have improved, Good said.

What’s out there

Following a more comprehensive USDA survey in July, most believe planted acreage will be below that indicated in the March Prospective Plantings report. Others believe that planted acreage will exceed March intentions, as producers responded to the sharp price rise following the intentions report in March.

Acreage harvested for grain will be difficult to anticipate prior to the USDA’s August crop report, he added.

Corn feeding drops

Good said there are also indications that the rate of corn feeding may be on the decline. In May, the number of cattle placed into feedlots with a capacity of 1,000 head or more was 12 percent smaller than placements during May 2007.

“The number of cattle on feed in those lots on June 1 was 4 percent smaller than the number a year earlier,” he said. “There also has been discussion that the last leg up in corn prices will result in renewed liquidation in the hog sector.”

In addition, wheat has become attractively priced relative to corn for feeding this summer.

Exports slowing

The rate of corn exports also has slowed. USDA reports cumulative marketing year export inspections through June 19 at 1.95 billion bushels. To reach the projection of 2.45 billion for the year, inspections need to average 47.8 million bushels per week for the last 10.4 weeks of the marketing year.

Inspections have averaged only 39.2 million per week for the last five weeks, with a high of 42.1 million.

Ethanol slowdown

Good is also hearing numerous reports of a slowdown in ethanol production.

These reports range from a slowdown in construction of new plants to the closing of existing plants.

“These reports appear to be at odds with general indicators of ethanol profitability,” Good said. “Spot prices of ethanol have increased nearly 50 cents per gallon over the past two weeks, spot prices of distillers grains jumped significantly last week, and calculated spot processing margins are solidly in the black even with higher natural gas prices.

“There is obviously a disconnect between profitability indicated by spot prices and actual net margins at some plants.”

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