On August 12 the USDA dumped a load of data regarding this year’s planted acres, estimated crop production, and prevented planting acres. For Nebraska, the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) estimated 10 million acres of corn were planted; the average yield was forecast at 186 bushels per acre; and total production was pegged at 1.795 billion bushels, roughly the same as last year.

Planted soybean acres were estimated at 5 million acres; yield was pegged at 58 bushels per acre; and total production estimated to be 314 million bushels, down 12 percent from last year. On the same day the Farm Service Agency (FSA) released its figures for the number of prevented planted acres. The total number of prevented planting acres in Nebraska was 407,000—332,000 corn acres and 70,000 soybean acres—obliterating the previous record of 155,000 acres in 2015.

The data dump raised questions over the reliability of USDA figures and whether agencies within the USDA communicate. The first shocker was the number of acres planted to corn nationwide, 90 million, far exceeding trade estimates. NASS uses producer survey data, FSA planted acreage data, and remote sensing data to arrive at its planted acreage estimates. This year, because of the excessive rainfall, planting delays, and uncertainties with its June estimates, NASS resurveyed producers in 14 states for the August estimates. Some economists argue the unexpectedly large number of planted corn acres could have been the result of farmers planting more acres to corn in June, instead of soybeans, in response to the price rally which occurred that month. Others suggest farmers mudded in corn acres to be sure to qualify for Market Facilitation Payments.

Another stunner was the combined total corn acres of 101.2 million for planted corn (90 million from the NASS) and prevented planted corn (11.2 million acres from the FAS). For context, Scott Irwin, an agricultural economist at the University of Illinois, says the highest acreage total of the last decade was 97.3 million acres in 2012. The two estimates, though, shouldn’t necessarily be tied together. First, according to NASS, estimates of planted area are always larger than the certified acres reported by FSA because of definitional differences and the fact that some producers do not participate in USDA programs. Second, Lance Honig, crops chief at the USDA-NASS told AgriTalk host Chip Flory last week, “You’ve got to be really careful about how you tie those prevent plant acres in with what's actually planted, especially when you start breaking them down by crop . . . intentions change constantly, and they change for a lot of reasons. So, if you want to tie the two together by crop, you're basically trying to pick up a certain point in time and applying those intentions to some premium plant.” Another factor is the rules for prevented planting which allow farmers to take prevented planting up to the maximum corn acres over the last four years. This can skew the numbers too.

In any case, the reports last week hit the crop markets with a thud. This year has not only been challenging for farmers and ranchers, but also for statisticians trying to put numbers to the decisions being made on the ground. The USDA methodologies for providing estimates are sound, but if this year has taught anything, never get too comfortable and always look for ways to improve.