U.S. corn  planting is off to the fastest start in six years and producers in the heart of the Corn Belt should continue to make good progress up to Friday when widespread rains are expected to move through the region.
Monday afternoon’s weekly crop update from USDA  pegged corn planting progress at 19% as of April 18, compared with last year’s pace of only 5% and a five-year average of 9%.
The progress was the most reported for the date since 2004, when 20 % of the crop was already in the ground by April 18.
A fast planting season would suggest strong yield potential for the 2010 crop. The 2004 planting season, which was one of the fastest on record, produced a then-record U.S. corn yield that stood until last year.
Of course, last year's record yield was produced despite one of the slower planting seasons in recent memory as unusually cool weather during the pollination period greatly benefited the crop.
Planting progress surged to 34% in the No. 2 corn state of Illinois up from only 1% a week earlier and 1% a year earlier. Some 1% of the Illinois crop was reported to have emerged, matching the five-year average.
Some Illinois producers reported finishing planting, while others found it too dry to plant, the state office of the National Agricultural Statistics Service  (NASS) said.
Illinois farmers had also planted 1% of their soybean  crop by Sunday, compared with a five-year average of zero.
In the top corn-producing state of Iowa, producers had planted 19% of their corn crop by Sunday, up from 1% a week earlier, 5% a year earlier and a five-year average of 5%.
Heavy rains early in the week limited planting progress in northern Iowa, but southern and central areas of the state made fast progress under warm, breezy conditions, the state office of NASS reported. Iowa’s central crop district was 31% planted, while the southeast district reached 30% planted as of Sunday.
Due to drier conditions this week, some areas of the state could use rain to help the newly planted crops emerge, NASS said.
Rains are expected to move into the western edge of the Corn Belt on Wednesday, but conditions are expected to stay dry across Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota until Friday.
Widespread rains ranging from roughly 0.5 in. to 1.5 in. are expected across most of the central and eastern Corn Belt from Friday through Sunday.
The moisture will limit weekend planting activity, but will provide a needed boost for topsoil moisture and corn germination. Temperatures are expected to cool below normal next week, however, and another storm system could move through the Corn Belt as soon as Tuesday, further slowing planting progress.