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Published December 03, 2009, 05:54 AM

Farmers battle domino effect started by wet spring

By: Matt Bewley, Agweek

THOMPSON, N.D. — It’s one of those vicious cycles that make farmers in the Red River Valley tilt a suspicious eye up at the sky.

A too-wet spring last year pushed planting dates back, so farmers had to put in lower-yielding, early-maturing crops. Then a too-wet fall prevented some from getting their crops off and many from getting their fields prepped for this spring. Then this spring was soggy, too, and everybody scrambled to get planted again, often in fields that were holding last year’s crop, untilled and short on fertilizer.

Early-maturing varieties were counted on again to get farmers to harvest in time, but again, the weather intervened, forcing them to wait at the edge of muddy fields while their crops sat unharvested, low in protein and fat with moisture.

THE FOURTH DOMINO

Farmers in the Red River Valley are crossing their fingers that the dry weather holds so they can get break the domino effect and get back on schedule. But some are saying the situation this fall is worse than last year’s.

“When we received all the rain last year, at least we had the beans off and it was just the corn to go,” says Nathan Berseth, a producer near Colfax, N.D., in the southern portion of the Red River Valley. “This year, due to the late spring and the cooler weather for the beans to mature, it’s been more challenging because it put the beans out farther. At least last year, we had the beans off in early October and then we only had the corn to worry about. But this year, it’s been both crops.”

Corn growers in the northeast corner of South Dakota face the same challenges, but with added frustration. They had been on track for record yields and a new state record for bushels taken off.

“We have a crop we’ve never had,” says Lisa Richardson, executive director of the South Dakota Corn Growers association. “Mother Nature blessed us with substantial amounts of rain, and just didn’t quit this fall. So (the growers) have this larger-than-life crop staring at them, and they can’t get to it.”

WET CROPS

Those who are beginning to get at their corn are having to deal with high moisture content.

“It’s just very high,” says Dave Franzen, extension soil specialist at North Dakota State University in Fargo. “I checked some corn on the campus plots down in Fargo just a few days ago and it was around 30 percent, so I’m guessing there’s probably some corn that’s a little drier than that, but there’s probably some corn that’s around that moisture and maybe some that’s even higher.”

Wet corn is expensive to dry, expensive to handle and often dangerous to handle, Franzen says. NDSU has published information about how to handle and store wet corn (www.ag.ndsu.nodak.edu).

Some growers will wait until the corn dries. Unlike soybeans, corn can handle winter cold and snow.

“If this was last year and we’d never had to deal with this before, I think farmers would be tearing their hair out,” he says. “I’m sure there’s some frustration out there, but we’ve done this before.”

This year, he says growers are joking about being in a winter corn rotation, where they plant it one year and harvest it the next.

“The people know how to hook up the snowplow and go into those first 10 or 12 rows and then combine everything in the middle, leaving just the end rows until the spring.”

DRYING TIME

Those who do plan to dry their corn are seeing some helpful dry-down in the fields. Before the rains quit two weeks ago near Colfax, Berseth, who is on the board of directors of the North Dakota Corn Growers Association, was seeing some of his corn test out at more than 20 percent moisture.

“The moisture content has dropped now considerably,” he says. “It’s down to 14 percent or so.”

He thinks most growers in his region are planning to dry it. He will, too.

“I’ve got limited (storage) capability, so I’m bringing mine right to the elevator,” he says.

But elevators are going to be limited in their capabilities, too.

“We’ve got a 5,000-bushel-per-hour dryer, and then we’ve got another one that will do about 1,200 an hour,” says Mike Morgan, general manager of the Thompson (N.D.) Farmers Co-op Elevator. “Of course, you bring in real wet corn, your capacity just drops, probably to 2,500 (bushels) an hour.”

He says some of the corn in his area still is very wet.

“Then we’ve got other fields that are 23 (percent), 24 percent moisture,” he says.

Because of the large amounts of wet corn expected, the Thompson elevator is not accepting corn that is higher than 27 percent moisture this year.

“I think this year, a lot of guys are putting caps on the moisture they’re accepting just because of storage,” he says.

Morgan says growers with extremely wet corn are better off drying it down in the fields. He also is concerned that being forced to quick-dry corn could cause problems down the road, a lesson learned from last year.

“With the real wet corn, what happens is you try to dry it as fast as you can so that temperature is way up there,” he says. “What I actually think happens is, we dry that outside (of the kernel) and the inside part of the kernel isn’t mature and it’s still a little on the wet side.”

After a month or so in storage, that moisture begins to cause problems.

“We saw a lot of that in farm storage last year,” Morgan says. “It was just too much stuff put away wet.”

DISCOUNTS AND PROPANE

With drying, of course, come the discounts. Despite higher volumes going through the dryers, though, Morgan says the prices are no worse than last year.

“Actually, our drying charges are a little bit less this year, because of propane prices coming down.”

But there could be trouble brewing with liquid propane gas availability. People up and down the valley are hearing reports of limited supply in the Midwest, though not yet of shortages in the Red River Valley.

“I have heard rumors about shortages of propane, too, so we’re all a little on edge about that,” he says, adding that signs of it are just beginning to reach the valley.

“It’s just starting to show up. Our supplier’s got a semi down in Kansas and he’s in line, right now, for propane. He said there’s enough to load 48 trucks and there’s 53 in line, right now, so I’m not sure what’s going to happen.”

The Thompson elevator began taking corn Nov. 20. Whether it will have enough propane to dry everything remains to be seen.

“We’re just starting, so we’ll see in a couple weeks,” he says. “But we’re going to fight that corn for quite a while.”

MATCHING RESIDUE

Franzen says the biggest concern again will be crop residues left for next year.

“I think the people generally that were more successful with their spring tillage were either people that went into the stalks and just planted,” he says.

But if the spring is wet again, that changes the picture.

“Then what a lot of people do is light a match and burn the stalks off. There was a lot of that done this year. There were one or two people that weren’t happy with that, but for the most part, people were,” he says.

The benefit of burning off the residue was that it let the surface dry more quickly and growers then were able to plant into furrows that did not open up as they might have if the stalks still had been there.

“We don’t want to see that be a regular type of thing, but I can’t imagine that our winter corn rotation is going to be a regular thing either,” he says. “It’s just an odd couple of years.”

TALK OF TILING

Because of the increasing regularity of wet springs and falls, more farmers are looking into tiling as an option.

“Tiling is again gaining interest,” Franzen says. “Some folks don’t like to hear it, but there is lots and lots of interest in tile because, people who have tiled in the last several years, they’re definitely able to get out in the spring earlier and the crops are more vigorous because they are not saturated in water.”

He says that when farmers have this much water for this length of time, it’s “kind of crazy not to tile if the person has the money and owns the ground.”

Unfortunately, tiling brings with it a long permitting process and the potential to spark conflict with neighboring farmers over drainage.

But the benefits are persuasive.

“People that have tiled, they’re in better shape,” he says. “People that don’t have tile really have a lot more frustrating future ahead of them, especially if there is another wet spring.”

FERTILIZER

Thus far, fertilizer seems to be in good supply. The high prices seen until last year actually spurred some expansion in production. The trick is being able to get it on.

“Like anything else, if we defer most of our fertilizer from fall to spring, that means the logistics are just tougher,” Franzen says.

There is some fertilizer going into fields, particularly north of Fargo, N.D., where it has been drier than most of the southern Red River Valley.

“So that will take some of the pressure off,” he says. “But I still anticipate some side-dressing, some late applications and maybe not trying to plant when it’s timely and waiting for the fertilizer dealer to get out there and do something later on. Those kinds of things, especially in the wetter areas, will happen next spring.”

SOIL COMPACTION

Soil compaction is one thing valley farmers don’t have to worry much about this season. The Red River Valley valley is fortunate to have the type of clay soil that is very forgiving when it comes to deep compaction, Franzen says. He does, however, recommend keeping the number of passes through the fields to a minimum.

“With the ruts, of course, you’ve got to fill in the ruts, but generally, in the wet spring, what you don’t want to do is go very deep because then you bring up muddy, cloddy soil, and that makes a horrible seed bed,” he says.

Another lesson learned from last year is that soil preparation can safely be kept to a minimum.

“You just want to tickle the top. You want to till it just enough to get a seed bed, but no deeper than that,” he says. “The minute you start going into the mucky soil, you’re in trouble.”

He suggests light, fast operations over the top into 1 to 2 inches of relatively dry soil.

Dennis Feiken, chairman of the North Dakota Soybean Council, farms 110 miles southwest of Fargo. He says the soybeans are all off in his area and that the corn is starting to come off, though a lot of it still is wet.

Farmers there are making sure they don’t count on a normal spring again next year the way they did last year. They had bet on getting some extra time from Mother Nature to get their fields prepared, but instead, got bit with a second straight wet spring.

That’s not the case this year, however. Farmers are going hard at it, using the warm November days to get a jump on next spring.

“Soybean ground is getting worked left and right here after last year,” Feiken says. “Pretty much everything got worked because of the situation we dealt with this spring where we had a lot of moisture and unworked fields.”

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