Harvesting of grain maize is getting off to an early start in the European Union and analysts expect severe summer heat and drought to have hurt yields in countries like France and Germany, and contribute to record import demand.
Analyst firm Strategie Grains on Thursday cut its monthly forecast for the EU's grain maize (corn) harvest by nearly 5 percent, citing the effects of the torrid summer in France, Germany, Poland and central Europe.
Following a weather-hit wheat harvest and with grass and hay in short supply, a modest maize crop is expected to fuel record EU imports of what is a popular cereal for livestock feed.
Strategie Grains raised its projection of EU maize imports in 2018/19 to 21 million tonnes, well above what was already a record 18 million last season, while the U.S. Department of Agriculture in a widely followed world crop report this week increased its EU maize import forecast to 19.5 million tonnes.
In France, the EU's biggest maize producer, the farm ministry this week lowered its forecast for the 2018 crop to peg it nearly 13 percent below last year's level.
"It's not going to be a great maize year," Remi Haquin, head of the grains committee at farming agency FranceAgriMer, said. "Irrigated crops should see average results, if water was available to use, but rain-fed maize is going to struggle."
Most traders and analysts see the French harvest, which is in its early stages, falling short of the ministry's 12.4 million tonne estimate and reaching only 11-11.5 million tonnes.
A further drag on grain maize could be a greater shift towards fodder maize - in which crops are cut early for on-farm use as livestock feed rather than for sale as threshed grain - given a shortage of forage following the parched summer.
In Germany, the association of farm cooperatives estimates the grain maize crop will plunge by 49 percent to 2.3 million tonnes.
"Maize was seriously damaged by the drought and hot summer weather. The heatwave also damaged other feed grains, hay and straw," one analyst said.
"I estimate that over 30 percent of the German grain maize area was switched to on farm use or use in biogas production.”
In Poland, this year's maize crop could fall 2-3 percent to 4.2 million tonnes as the effect of drought and heatwaves on yields outweighs a sharp increase in the area planted, said Wojtek Sabaranski of analysts Sparks Polska.
The hot weather had also caused crops to mature quickly and should see harvesting start about three weeks early, he added.
However, Romania, the EU's largest maize grower by acreage, should help limit any decline in EU production, although the country may not match last year's bumper yields.
"Corn cobs moisture seems to be optimal, especially in south Romania where harvesting has just started," said Laurentiu Baciu, president of the farmers association LAPAR, adding that harvesting will only begin in early October further north.