Midwest Farmer Commentary: Corn Harvest, Other Challenges in 2019 – DTN

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Corn harvest. Photo: University of Arkansas

As the calendar turned to 2020, corn harvest in the U.S. was not 100% complete. In the last weekly Crop Progress report for 2019, USDA reported that as of Dec. 8, 92% of the U.S. corn crop had been harvested. That was hardly obvious in North Dakota where only 43% of the crop had been harvested as of that date, while South Dakota was at 83% and Michigan and Wisconsin were 74% completed.

On Jan. 2, North and South Dakota updated their corn harvest as of Dec. 31 versus the Dec. 8 report with North Dakota reporting harvest 48% complete and South Dakota reporting 90% of its corn harvested.

Besides the late harvest in many states, the weather was unkind to the quality of the crop, with many farmers reporting low test weights, more broken kernels and other discountable grade factors. Perhaps one of the biggest challenges during the 2019 corn harvest was that the corn was wet and needed drying. Farmers faced drying charges, and in the Upper Midwest, propane shortages left farmers and some elevators unable to dry corn, causing a slowdown in harvest, on top of the major snowstorms that started as early as Oct. 1.

I spoke to farmers and elevators in a few different states and asked how their harvest went, extra costs they faced and what other challenges they faced in 2019.

Here were their comments:

Cory Tryan, grain department manager at Alton Grain Terminal LLC in Hillsboro, North Dakota, told me that the 90-plus-day corn varieties planted between May 10 and end of May mostly didn’t make black layer before the first hard freeze and remain at 50 pounds per bushel (lbs./bu) or less.

“The majority of this corn will likely be left in the field due to high moistures being stuck in mid- to upper-20s and poor quality. When dried mechanically, it generally loses some test weight, breaks up bad and likely will not store well. It is unclear if anything improves on immature corn if harvested next spring. Our experiences carrying corn to next spring successfully was mature black-layered corn that continued to field dry and add test weight.”

He noted that, at the end of December, there was about 60% of the corn left in the field until spring and much of it is immature.

“We have somewhere in the area of 40% of our corn left to harvest,” said Keith Brandt, general manager of Plains, Grain and Agronomy in Enderlin, North Dakota. “That corn was tested at 26% to 30% plus moisture in early to mid-November. Since then, some of that has field dried to 21% to 23% and possibly gained 2 lbs./bu of test weight. That puts that corn at over 50 lbs./bu, with some as high as 51.5. The 50 lbs. corn has a 20-cent discount and then 5 cents each 1/2 pound below 50 lbs.”

Brandt said their biggest challenge was trying to keep combining after the recent snowstorm, which increased the snow depth in the fields. “We might have a lot of cobs in snow now; we need that January thaw!” said Brandt. “In addition, the snow that came after Thanksgiving insulated the ground and it has now thawed out. So, we battle mud in the fields and roads in areas that aren’t regularly plowed out, so you have to plow the road.”

Matthew Krueger of K & D Krueger Farms & Sons in East Grand Forks, Minnesota, told me on Dec. 30, “Well, we are still doing corn harvest. We are about 48% complete, and when we hand-shelled out the next fields, it showed that it was close to 28% moisture! We also just got 16 inches of snow dumped on us, so 2019 isn’t done yet.

“Our first acres looked good, but after we got it combined, it ran 35% under projection. This wasn’t a planned hit. We also have had test weight be highly variable by variety. Our best field averaged 54 lbs./bu, but our worst has been 51 lbs. We suspect these last acres that are still wet are in probably worse shape (maybe 48 lbs./bu). What a year; we just want it to be done.”

Krueger said they can’t combine in the snow until the temperatures get colder. “If we can get 10 degrees and colder, we can combine with snow on the corn and have no issues. At this point, we figure it’s not going anywhere. The stalks seem to be in okay shape to support the plant a while longer. I don’t know if we are keen on leaving the corn out there until March/April, but sadly, we may just have to.”

Tin Dufault, Crookston, Minnesota, told me that as of Christmas, he estimated 66% of the corn in that area is harvested. “Growers will be waiting on the rest of the crop until late winter/early spring to finish; hoping the corn will dry down, but not breakdown.”

Josh Backstrom, Maddock, North Dakota, said that they experienced the third spring in a row that was extremely dry, with a lot of wheat and corn seed going into dry dirt, only to be saved at the last minute with a much-needed rain event in mid-late May.

“We had beautiful rains in June, and then shutting off again in July and August, hurting the later season row crops. The difference this year was record rains in September followed by 30 inches of wet snow from the Oct. 10 blizzard. Thankfully, the weather cooperated enough to melt most of the snow and then freeze hard enough to get the combines across the fields to get everything in except the areas that still had snow drifts and all the sloughs that were plumb full of water. After that hard battle, we thought the worst was over.

“Little did we know that a combination of not enough GDUs (growing degree units) in August and September and a very cold and humid October left a lot of our corn from reaching full maturity and drying down. We grow a range from 81- to 88-day corn. In November, the early stuff was low to mid-20% range while the later was 28% to 30% moisture. Test weights range from 44 to 52 lbs./bu wet, depending on hybrid. The FM (foreign material) is higher in general this year, but way worse in the really wet, immature stuff.

“So far to date we’ve combined about 25% of our corn crop, most of it being earlier maturities. The fields we have left are a lot of hybrid side-by-side trials of all different maturities scattered throughout the fields. We are going to have to blend all these together to bring up the average test weight; what better way to do it than right in the field as we combine. We are going to have to wait a bit longer to lower the average moisture, and to try and preserve the test weight as much as possible. We are still going out every couple weeks to sample and the really wet 28% to 30% is now down to 25% to 26%.”

Ryan Wagner, Wagner Farms, Roslyn, South Dakota, told me that they didn’t quite finish corn harvest before the late December weekend storm, but did get close. “Many in the area are either done or very close to done, but there still is quite a bit of corn standing in northeast South Dakota, especially north of highway 212. We have about 10% still standing in the field and hope to be able to get at that as soon as the snow gets off the plants or it gets cold enough to flow through; we will just have to take a loader tractor with us wherever we go.

“It’s been a tough weather year, but since the ground has been frozen we haven’t had much trouble getting around in fields and haven’t been stuck outside of the occasional truck needing a pull because we couldn’t get traction in the snow. Yields have been pretty good considering we didn’t quite make it to maturity, and if we would have had any heat at all in late August and September to finish it off, we could have had record yields.”

Wagner said that when they started corn harvest back on Nov. 2 the moisture was 26% to 28%, but it dropped down into the 20% to 22% range when they were last in the field Dec. 23 ahead of the storm. “Moisture discounts are pretty similar to what they have been in a “normal year,” with 5 cents per 1% of moisture pretty much covering it, with some locations bumping that up for very high moisture corn in addition to the typical shrink schedule. Of course, some locations do not have dryers or have limited drying capacity so it’s all subject to how much room they have for wet corn as well,” said Wagner.

“Test weights have been mostly in the 50 to 54 lbs./bu range dry here, with a few really late planted acres coming in around 48 lbs./bu. The test weight discounts are really all over the board; ethanol plant discounts of 1 cent per 1/2 lb. under 54 lbs. have been pretty typical, with a steeper discount of 2 cents per 1/2 lb. under 50 lbs. if they will take it. Shuttle loader terminals are more punitive with 3 cents to 5 cents per 1/2 lb. from 50 to 54 lbs. and are more likely to have zero wiggle room on rejecting sub 50 lb. corn.

“I have heard some pretty bad horror stories farther north, but around here, I haven’t heard of anyone who hasn’t been able to find a home for corn. I’m guessing it probably helps that we have a strong ethanol demand pull coming from our south due to all the prevented planting in southeast South Dakota,” added Wagner.

Tim Luken, manager Oahe Grain in Onida, South Dakota told me, “Corn harvest started the 24th of October and we dumped corn still on the 27th of December. I am sure we will be dumping new-crop corn every week until spring if they can get to it. We have dumped 1.7 million bushels and average moisture was 19.2%, with average test weight at 53.5 lbs./bu. Needless to say, I am very pleased with the test weight.” Luken said that they dried 100% of their new-crop corn and was glad they used natural gas and did not have to deal with the propane shortages.

“The early corn harvested late October through middle part of November was in the 52.5 to 56 lbs./bu range, but as the calendar clicked by, the test weight went down into the 48.5 to 50 lb. range. Fortunately, we have an outlet for light test weight corn to local and statewide ethanol plants. The recent major snowstorm that dumped 12 to 14 inches of snow, if not more, has shut things down for a while. Hats off to my employees who have done an outstanding job of dealing with Mother Nature,” added Luken.

“As far as harvest conditions go, we were very fortunate compared to some,” said Kenny Reinke, Neligh, Nebraska. “We are used to running in snow so that wasn’t anything more than an annoyance to us. One thing we are not used to having to deal with is wet soil conditions. I’m still fighting wet soil conditions in one field from spring that we couldn’t get all planted. Luckily, the combine didn’t get stuck, but we had a couple close calls.

“After wrapping up bean harvest, we started in on corn Oct. 16, which is a pretty average date for us, but the corn was easily 3 to 4 points wetter than we are used to. Our normal harvest moisture is 15% to 18%. Luckily, the delayed harvest meant there were opportunities out there also. The first field was taken out wet to take advantage of a drying incentive program for a local elevator so they could have enough non-GMO corn on hand to ship. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you also really had to shop around on the drying changes. Some were as high as 6 cents a point to a more normal rate of 3 cents per point.

“After delivering the wet corn the elevator wanted for the program, I sat for 7 to 10 days waiting and hoping the corn would still dry down some. Corn had a very long delayed black layer fill, which caused some of it to be damaged slightly from the frost. This definitely caused some of our dry down and test weight issues. We stayed consistently in the 20 to 17.5 moisture levels all the way through harvest.

“We are traditionally a field drying area, which makes years like this a challenge. Thankfully, the elevators really increased drying capacity since 2009. This doesn’t solve the problem of on-farm storage though. This delayed harvest left many area farmers waiting for corn to dry enough to be bin stored. The quality of the grain was very noticeable this year; in a bad way. Increased fines (material smaller than whole corn kernels) have been very noticeable this year in the stored grain. The later harvest also means less opportunity to capture quality fan drying days while the corn is bin stored.

“On average, our test weights are down 1.5 to 2 lbs./bu,” said Reinke. “They varied from 60 to 54 lbs./bu and no doubt this won’t help the stored corn. Our yields came in right in line with farm averages, which is good considering the year we went through. Year-over-year yields are down dramatically but 2018 was also an exceptional year. It’s going to be interesting to see how the higher moisture and lower test weight affect the disappearance of the crop.”

Randy Uhrmacher, Hastings, Nebraska, said his harvest started a little later than normal this year as the crops wouldn’t dry down as he would have liked them to. “We did get a hard-killing freeze followed by about a week of warmer windy weather that changed all of that. At that point, everything dried very well. We did have a couple of snow delays, but they were short lived and we finished the first part of November. Yields were off from the last couple of years, but about like expected after the challenging year we had. Just too many bad days for record crop yields.”

“We started corn on Oct. 23,” said Quentin Connealy, Tekamah, Nebraska. “When we started out, the corn was a touch wet, but not bad considering the year. It was 18.5% to 19% when we started and hauled most of it to the elevator since we don’t have a drying bin. Once the corn got under 18%, we started putting it in the bin.

“We got our corn planted fairly good on timing, so we didn’t have much drying issues like other areas. Test weights were all solid to ranging from 58 to 61 lbs. across the board. We are mostly irrigated so that helped keep our test weights up along with some late rains. Yields were pretty good but figuring down 5% to 10% from last year. Similar to beans, we were happy with all our corn that stayed above floodwaters.

“I lost 290 acres of my April 23 planted corn, so that was especially sad. We finished harvest Nov. 22 with some great help from our neighbor Tim Gregerson, who brought his combine over to run along with us. It felt like a long harvest, but overall went fairly smooth, and we were sure glad to be done before Thanksgiving.”

LATE HARVEST CAUSES DOMINO EFFECT

“Farmers who harvested wet corn and were unable to dry it down all the way before storing it will have to keep a sharp eye on their bins this winter. It was hard to weigh the risk of leaving the corn in the field against putting it in the bin too wet. It’s going to be interesting come next spring as temperatures start to warm up and then we see how well some of this grain keeps,” said Reinke.

Here is a link to SDSU extension discussing storing wet corn and late harvest options.

Backstrom noted that another issue from the late harvest they are going to be dealing with is fertilizer application, or lack thereof. “We always try to get as much nitrogen on in the fall for next year’s wheat and corn, which helps take a huge burden off us for the spring. Last year we only got half done, and this year we have zero done for spring 2020. We apply NH3 by either strip-till knife or coulter. Not only will this cause a logical challenge for us on our farm, that’s providing we have a decent early spring, (early to mid-April), but also since most of the country didn’t get much on we will most likely be waiting for days at a time for it to show up by truck.”

Here is a link to more info on strip-till from UNL.

“One caveat from 2019 is that there could potentially be a lot of prevented planting next year in parts of the country that were already fully saturated before the September rains and October snow,” added Backstrom. “In addition, some places in North Dakota have already had as much as their annual snowfall as well.”

Brandt agreed. “As wet as we are and lots of snow, (well over 40 inches for the season already) with lots of unharvested crop, every elevator and agronomy company fears we may see more prevented planting acres in 2020.”

“Prevented planting paid well in 2019,” according to Brandt. “You’re done harvesting and all your equipment is put away.”

Perhaps one of the worst things coming out of 2019 in parts of the Upper Midwest is that some farmers may have to stop farming in areas where nearly all their crops were affected by poor weather events in 2019. “We’ve had three farms in our area announce they were done,” said Krueger. “I suspect this number may increase as we get into renewal season and farmers start meeting with their lenders. It’s not a great environment to be in. Lenders are stressed. Farmers are stressed.”

Krueger added, “Salesman and companies for inputs in 2020 are trying to get growers to commit, but there’s so much in the air yet.”

Mary Kennedy can be reached at mary.kennedy@dtn.com

Follow her on Twitter @MaryCKenn

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