LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Western Kentucky farmer Brian Shouse has a thriving corn crop heading into the crucial push toward harvest season — a big turnaround from a year ago when a punishing stretch of triple-digit heat and drought led to stunted yields across the state.
Plenty of rain, combined with less-sweltering temperatures, have Kentucky corn farmers headed toward strong yields this year, barring late weather-related setbacks.
"I think everybody's hoping for at least an average crop at this point," Shouse, who farms in Union, Henderson and McLean counties, said by phone Friday. "The corn fields appear to be headed in that direction. We've got good color, pretty good stands."
Last year, Shouse's corn production amounted to only about half his normal output.
Corn and soybeans account for about one-third of Kentucky's overall agricultural cash receipts, which are hovering around $5 billion annually.
Both crops are flourishing statewide, a year after fields suffered from the excessive heat and dry conditions that sent 2012 corn yields plunging to a statewide average of 68 bushels an acre, down 71 bushels an acre from the 2011 crop.
Now, 85 percent of Kentucky's corn crop is rated good or excellent, according to the latest weekly report from the National Agricultural Statistics Service's field office in Kentucky. The statewide soybean crop is rated 84 percent good or excellent, it said. The Kentucky crops are faring better than the national averages for corn and soybeans.
It's a later-maturing corn crop this year in Kentucky, due to the wet spring that delayed some planting and forced some farmers to replant because of flooding.
Many corn fields are just reaching the key pollination stage and could use more soaking rain to help the crop reach its potential.
"It can still be hurt if we go through a dry period here for the next couple weeks," Shouse said. "We're at a pivotal point for sure on the corn crop right now."
Still, the outlook is much brighter this summer. A year ago, corn stalks were already drying up. Now fields are full of lush corn.
"We went from one of our worst corn crops in history last year to right now something that's beautiful — green, tall, growing," said Clint Hardy, the Daviess County agricultural extension agent in western Kentucky. "It looks great."
The outlook is also upbeat for grain farmers in north-central Kentucky.
"Everything looks good right now," said Philip McCoun, who farms in Shelby and Henry counties. "We could use another rain. We don't want it to shut off now."
One drawback is that his fields have some bare spots due to excessive spring rains, he said.
Kentucky farmers planted an estimated 1.6 million acres in corn, down slightly from a year ago, according to agriculture officials. Statewide soybean production also is pegged at 1.6 million acres, up slightly from last year.
While the state's crop conditions are considerably better this year, it might not produce a big bump in farm income, said Cory Walters, an assistant extension professor and grain marketing specialist at the University of Kentucky. Last year, crop insurance payments and higher grain prices helped cushion farmers from the lower yields, he said.
"What this means for 2013 when compared to 2012 is that numbers may not be that much different when including insurance payments and higher prices in 2012," Walters said. "Futures prices, especially for corn, are much less than they were this time last year."
The rainy spring and summer have helped cattle farmers as well. Pastures for grazing are mostly in good or excellent condition, a big improvement from a year ago when they were reduced to brown stubble by drought and heat.
But recent heavy rains inflicted damage on Kentucky's burley tobacco crop. Downpours caused some tobacco plants to wilt and collapse, and nearly 40 percent of the statewide burley crop was rated fair, poor or very poor. Kentucky is the nation's leading producer of burley, an ingredient in may cigarettes.
A year ago in Breckinridge County, the tobacco crop turned out to be especially good while the corn harvest was a flop.
"This year it's completely flip-flopped," said Carol Hinton, the county's extension agent. "We're going to have a super corn harvest and the tobacco leaves, unless something drastically changes, we're going to lose pounds because of heavy rains."