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March Ethanol Exports Set Another Record; USDA Predicts Record Corn Crop

May 12, 2011


Two anxiously awaited bits of information—USDA's first estimate of 2011 corn supply and demand; and March ethanol export data—were released Wednesday. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on Wednesday made its first estimate of the 2011 corn crop, as well as 2011/12 demand. According to survey data gathered from farmers and historical yield trends, USDA is predicting 92.2 million acres of corn to be planted, 85.1 million harvested acres, and an average yield of 158.7 bushels per acre. This would produce a total crop of 13.5 billion bushels, an all-time record.

Once again, American farmers appear poised to respond to market signals and increase their productivity without needing to convert non-agricultural land to cropland. The dramatic increase in corn production over the last 80+ years on a flat or declining acreage base, as shown below, is truly remarkable.

Obviously, this is USDA's first bite at the apple and a lot can change between now and the fall that could make the crop larger or smaller. Nevertheless, by all indications, it appears that farmers are prepared to supply enough corn to meet demand and add to surplus levels. Wet weather has slowed corn planting early this spring. However, farmers have made great progress in the last week and a half. Further, the correlation between planting dates and final yields has been relatively weak historically. This year's planting pace is almost identical to the slow pace we saw in 2009, but we ended up with a record yield of 164.7 bushels/acre that year. And the 2010 crop was planted very early, but produced a final yield that was well below trend. Additionally, USDA increased its estimate for carry-out stocks of corn for 2010/11 to 730 million bushels, based on slightly lower export demand. After all demands are met, USDA expects 2011/12 carry-out to be 900 million bushels, up nearly 25% from the current marketing year. Ethanol Exports Continue to Climb In separate government data also released today, ethanol exports set another record in March, as 84 million gallons of product (denatured and undenatured, non-beverage) were shipped to destinations around the world. These shipments did not qualify for the ethanol blender's tax credit (VEETC) because they were not blended with gasoline prior to exportation.

Through the first three months of the year, the U.S. has exported 201 million gallons of ethanol, equivalent to half of the amount exported in all of 2010 and almost twice the amount exported in 2009. Year-to-date exports have been equivalent to about 6% of total U.S. production.

Artificially constrained markets in the U.S. and fears of instability in the policies that impact domestic ethanol production and use are forcing ethanol producers to seek other markets. As a recent academic report noted, ethanol kept gasoline prices $0.89/gallon less than they otherwise would have been in 2010. It makes little sense that we are exporting our best cure for higher gas prices while Americans pay $4 for gasoline at the pump. Yet, until we eliminate artificial barriers to greater ethanol use domestically, export markets present real demand opportunities that our industry will continue to explore. Denatured ethanol exports totaled a record 58.6 million gallons in March, up 55% from February. Brazil was the top destination for denatured product, receiving 18.9 million gallons. Canada followed with 18 million gallons, while the United Kingdom, United Arab Emirates and the Netherlands rounded out the top five. As for undenatured (non-beverage) product, the U.S. exported 25.4 million gallons in March, up 17% from February. The Netherlands was the top destination with 6.9 million gallons, while Brazil (5.7 million gallons) was second. Finland, Nigeria and Mexico, respectively, were other leading importers. March was also a strong month for distillers grains exports, with shipments of 686,098 metric tons being recorded. That's up 11% from February, but down 2% from March 2010 levels. Mexico was again the top customer, receiving 180,468 metric tons, while China imported 82,960 metric tons. After importing virtually no DDGS in January and February, South Korea took in 60,225 metric tons in March. Canada and Vietnam were other top destinations. This week, the RFA released an in depth report on the value of distillers grains for both domestic and international markets.