The record U.S. corn crop offers cattle and hog producers a prospect of something they haven’t had in a while: profits.

American farmers reaped a 13.15-billion-bushel corn harvest in 2009, up 2 percent from a November projection and up 8.8 percent from 2008, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said in a report Jan. 12. The 2009 estimate topped the previous record of 13.04 billion bushels in 2007. Despite an unusually wet spring that delayed planting, corn yields averaged a record 165.2 bushels per acre in 2009, up 7.3 percent from the 2008 average of 153.9 bushels, the USDA said.

The unexpectedly large crop sent corn futures on the Chicago Board of Trade plunging, with the March contract tumbling 30 cents, the maximum daily trading limit, to $3.92 ½ a bushel. Further corn price declines would bring welcome relief for cattle and pig producers squeezed by high feed costs in recent years, analysts said.

“As corn gets cheaper, it costs less to feed cattle to market weight,” said Bob Short, senior livestock analyst in Chicago with broker PFG Best. “No one’s made any money raising hogs in the past 28 months and no one’s made any money raising cattle in the past 18 to 20 months.”

Livestock feeder profits will return “if corn goes down and stays down,” Short said. “There’s no guarantee these guys will get back into the black. But at least it gives them hope they haven’t seen in the past couple years.”

The report helped send CME Group feeder cattle futures higher, with the March contract reaching 98.2 cents per pound, the highest price since last fall. Near midday, March feeder cattle futures were up 1.25 cents, or 1.3 percent, at 97.65 cents a pound, while August was up .925 cent at $1.005.

Corn on cash markets in the Midwest is currently about $3.70 a bushel, Short said. If prices fall to $3.20 to $3.30, livestock feeders’ futures’ “will brighten,” Short said. “They probably will turn profitable.”

Still, cheaper corn may encourage livestock producers to place more animals into feedlots, and the increased supply may pressure cattle and hog prices in the second half of 2010, Short said.

October live cattle futures, which reflect slaughter-ready animals, fell 0.175 cent to 89.8 cents a pound around midday, on the CME. June lean hog futures fell 0.75 cents to 78.6 cents a pound.

Additionally, futures traders continue to expect high corn prices throughout the year. Corn for December delivery traded at $4.17 ½ a bushel at midday today on the CBOT, down the 30-cent limit but still up more than 30 cents over the past three months.