In a dozen years of farming, Joe Nichols has never seen such a fast start for his corn crop in western Kentucky.

He hopes that portends a bumper harvest for his 4,000-acre crop in few months, since he estimates nearly a third of yield potential stems from timely planting and early plant development.

“It’s the quickest emergence that I’ve ever had on a corn crop,” Nichols, who farms in Trigg, Caldwell and Christian counties, said by telephone after walking a muddy corn field on Tuesday.

Nichols and other corn growers need to squeeze every possible bushel out of this year’s harvest to offset soaring production costs. Fuel costs are up almost 45 percent and anhydrous ammonia nearly 25 percent from a year ago, he said.

“It’s getting rather ugly,” he said.

Kentucky growers are wrapping up corn planting, with 85 percent complete as of Sunday, ahead of last year’s pace and the five-year average, according to the Kentucky field office of the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Seventy percent of the crop had emerged, and 87 percent was rated good or excellent, the Monday report said. Kentucky farmers intended to plant 1.07 million acres of corn, down 180,000 acres from the 2005 crop, according to a projection on March 31 by the NASS’s Kentucky field office.

Todd Barlow, executive director of the Kentucky Corn Growers Association, said some farmers lowered corn production in favor of other crops they thought had a better chance to make a profit. Soybeans, for instance, don’t require as much fertilizer costs as corn, he said.

“Production costs are at record highs,” Barlow said, making it “hard for a farmer to recoup his costs.”

Mike Ellis, who farms in Henry and Shelby counties, said his nitrogen fertilizer costs have tripled in the past four years. He has no choice but to pay the price since “you don’t get corn without nitrogen.”

As a result, Ellis cut his corn production. He planted a little over 2,000 acres in corn this spring and will put out another 4,000 acres in soybean production. Usually, half his acreage is planted with corn.

Ellis said conditions have been ideal this spring for corn, unlike a year ago when late freezes forced him to replant about one-tenth of his corn acreage.

“We’ve started off with an excellent crop,” he said. “We’ve been blessed.”

With his corn in the fields, Ellis has moved headlong into soybean planting, and expected to have about 500 of 4,000 acres of beans planted by Tuesday.

Statewide, 12 percent of soybean plant-ing was completed as of Sunday, slightly behind last year and the five-year average, the crop report said. Soybean production in Kentucky was pegged at 1.43 million acres, up 170,000 acres from last year, the reporting service said in its March 31 release.

Nichols intends to plant about 3,400 acres of soybeans, including double-crop beans once he harvests his wheat crop. The western Kentucky farmer said recent rains have stalled soybean planting in his area.

“It’s the first time I remember in this area, ever, that no beans were planted in April,” he said.

Ellis said corn prices are strong. Low soybean prices prompted Nichols to make a last-minute production change, converting 1,000 acres into corn that he intended to plant with soybeans.

“The market told us they wanted corn,” he said.

One place where farmers hope more corn ends up is in vehicle fuel tanks as ethanol, an alternative fuel that can be used an additive blended with gasoline.

“Clearly ethanol is the bright spot in the future right now,” Barlow said.

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