May 2012 corn futures have traded in a range of about $1 per bushel since last fall, according to University of Illinois agricultural economist Darrel Good. "Since late January, the trading range has been about 40 cents per bushel and the current price is near the top of that range," he said.

The narrowing of the trading range for old-crop corn prices may point to a breakout from the longstanding sideways trend. The question is whether consumption has slowed enough to ensure a minimum level of year-ending stocks.

The USDA currently projects 2011-12 marketing year-ending stocks of corn at 801 million bushels. A minimum carryover is about 650 million bushels, assuming normal timing of the new-crop harvest.

Contrary to some peoples' expectations, the USDA did not increase the projection of marketing year exports in last week's World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates (WASDE) report. There were also rumors late last week that China had purchased large quantities of U.S. corn, which had not been confirmed as of this writing.

"With the corn marketing year just passing the mid-point, export shipments need to average about 32.1 million bushels per week to reach the USDA projection of 1.7 billion bushels for the year," said Good. "That compares to the average pace to date of 32.9 million bushels and the average pace of 37.1 million bushels per week during the last half of the 2010-11 marketing year."

As of March 1, unshipped export sales of U.S. corn stood at 405 million bushels, 100 million less than on the same date a year earlier.

New sales need to average about 17 million bushels per week for export commitments to reach 1.7 billion bushels. It appears that exports could still exceed the current USDA projection by a small margin.

For the year, the USDA projects corn use for the production of ethanol and co-products at 5 billion bushels, just below the record 5.021 billion bushels of last year. Through the first half of the 2011-12 marketing year, ethanol production exceeded that of a year ago by about 3 percent.

To reach the USDA projection of corn use for the year, ethanol production during the last half of the marketing year needs to be 3.8 percent below the level of production during the last half of the 2010-11 marketing year. During the week ended March 2, ethanol production was 2.6 percent larger than in the same week last year.