DES MOINES, Iowa - Harvest is in full swing across the country, and farmers in many states are surprised at the abundance of corn they're getting from their fields.
Dairy farmer Ben Steffen, who also grows corn, soybeans and wheat on 1,900 acres near the southeastern Nebraska town of Humboldt, said his first corn field brought in 168 bushels an acre, above the average of 140.
"I'm surprised that what I'm hearing from my neighbors there are some really outstanding yields," he said. "I don't know if I would consider it a record crop at this point, but the numbers I'm hearing are going to be right up there."
The best crops in the U.S. are in areas that received adequate rain combined with cooler temperatures at the time corn pollinated, a welcome sight after last year's dismal harvest due to the drought withering corn and soybean fields and burning up pastures. Record harvests are likely this year in many states, including Alabama, Georgia, Indiana and Ohio.
All that corn will help refill bins that had been emptied after last year's drought-reduced harvest of 10.7 billion bushels, the lowest since 2006, said Chad Hart, an agriculture economist with Iowa State University.
"We now know how good it can get and how bad it can get in just two years," said Jerry Gulke, who farms near Rockford, Ill., and runs a farm management and market advisory business based in Chicago. Gulke says this harvest, when finished, will be the best he's ever had: More than 200 bushels per acre, twice last year's result.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has estimated the 2013 corn harvest at 13.8 billion bushels, beating the 2009 record of 13.1 billion bushels. Updated harvest estimates were to be released Friday, but the partial federal government shutdown has caused the USDA to suspend reports.
In northern Alabama, 50-year-old Jeff Webster farms 1,700 acres with a cousin. Those fields are producing between 160 and 200 bushels per acre, a significant improvement over the average of 130 to 140 bushels.
"It's an exceptional crop for most people," said Webster, a farmer for 30 years. He attributes it to a combination of a cool summer and significantly more rainfall than average.
It's a similar story for southern Illinois farmer Steven Niedbalski, 36, who works with his parents and a brother.
Last year, he cut down dying corn stalks to feed cattle because there was nothing to harvest; the best field delivered 40 bushels an acre. This year, he's seeing 150 to 170 bushels an acre on his farm near Nashville, Ill. He chalks it up to new hybrids withstanding the dry weather better than expected and cooler weather during pollination helping fill the ears with kernels.
But in the nation's leading corn-producing state, Iowa farmers are seeing more inconsistent results because of spring's rain-delayed planting followed by a dry summer.
Wayne Humphries, who raises hogs and grows corn and soybeans on about 1,000 acres 145 miles southeast of Des Moines, said some fields are producing as much as 200 bushels an acre while others with soil types that couldn't hold moisture are at half that.
"We've only had less than an inch of rain in the last two months. That wasn't conducive to finishing our crop," Humphries, of Columbus Junction, said.
Just 60 miles to the northeast, farmers on both sides of the Mississippi River around Davenport, Iowa, and Moline, Ill., are reporting eye-popping results - as many as 260 bushels an acre.
Corn prices are significantly lower than they were a year ago, when they reached more than $8 a bushel because of the drought. Corn has been trading in recent days at just under $4.50 a bushel, lower than for much of the summer. Prices have fallen as it became clear an abundant harvest was likely.
Hart said corn's current price will maintain profitability for pork, chicken, and turkey producers who rely on corn for animal feed, thus keeping consumer meat prices stable. It also helps the ethanol industry, which largely uses corn to make the fuel additive.
More corn will likely be exported to Japan and Mexico, Hart said. China also has recently entered the U.S. corn market and is expected to further increase exports.
Although demand will increase, it will not use up all this year's ample harvest.
"We will have more in storage as we go into next summer," Hart said.