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Published August 30, 2009, 11:40 PM

Wheat harvest gets swinging, finally

The harvest of spring wheat got under way finally Sunday for real with the first big blast of combines, grain carts and large trucks lining out across dusty golden fields in the Red River Valley.

By: Stephen J. Lee, Grand Forks Herald

HALSTAD, Minn. — The harvest of spring wheat got under way finally Sunday for real with the first big blast of combines, grain carts and large trucks lining out across dusty golden fields in the Red River Valley.

For the first time this summer, Robin Stene, manager of the Halstad (Minn.) Elevator Co., opened his doors on a Sunday to let farmers haul in newly threshed wheat.

Latest starts

It’s one of the latest starts to wheat harvest. In a typical year, most of the spring wheat would be in the bin by now. But the long spring of flooding got the growing year off to a late and wet start. The unseasonably cool summer hasn’t helped, although it’s been pretty perfect for small grains designed for cold climates.

Only about 10 percent of the wheat has been combined yet in the Halstad area, Stene estimated, but it looks very good.

“It varies from 65 to 85 bushels an acre,” he said of the wheat brought to him. That echoes other reports of wheat yields around the Valley.

But as tends to happen when yields are high, the protein content, for which hard red spring wheat is prized, is low, from 10 to 13.5 percent, Stene said.

Normally, prices are discounted for protein content under the standard of 14 percent.

The wheat is coming off fairly damp, too. “We started out at 17.1 percent (moisture) today, and I just had a load at 15.4 percent,” he said about 6 p.m. Sunday. Wheat needs to be drier, to 13.5 percent moisture, before it can be safely binned, so drying costs will cut into farmers’ net profits a little.

Average prices

Average prices for spring wheat at grain elevators in the region dropped 17 cents Friday, to $4.87 a bushel, based on an Agweek survey published in the Herald. Halstad Elevator was offering $4.83, according to its Web site.

There still are weeks left of wheat harvest, even as the sugar beet “pre-pile” begins this week in the valley, and some dry edible bean fields are within two or three weeks of harvest.

Some farmers just sprayed wheat fields with Roundup in the past day or two, a now nearly universal technique to kill off the plants and weeds to facilitate harvest. It takes about 12 days after such Roundup spraying before the fields can be combined, Stene said.

So, what has been a kind of lazy August in the fields waiting for harvest promises to change into a more frenetic farming pace, Stene said.

With a hot, dry week of weather expected, these days should be busy with harvest, including the first fruits of sugar beets, he said.

Sugar beet growers are ready for some extra headaches this year because instead of being done with grain harvest and mostly done with some other crops, such as beans, they will be juggling several harvests at once through September, said Jeff Schweitzer, spokesman for American Crystal.

Sugar beet growers, of course, raise wheat, beans, corn and other crops, too, but this year, the harvest schedule will be more “condensed,” Schweitzer said.

“It’s a situation where the weather has pushed everything back as far as harvest,” Schweitzer said Sunday. “It will be even busier than typical for producers around the region.”

American Crystal traditionally begins “pre-pile” Sept 1.

Each of the co-op’s 800 growers hauls in about 2.5 percent of his crop on a graduated schedule during September to get the five sugar-making factories geared up for the full “stockpile” harvest that usually begins Oct. 1.

Lower yields

This year’s crop appears to be good, but below the recent much-richer yields that American Crystal’s owner-growers have been digging. Instead of the 25 tons-per-acre yields that have become the norm the past three years, this year’s crop looks like it will be in the 22 to 23 tons-an-acre range, Schweitzer said. Just five years ago, such a yield would be considered a bumper crop.

But big strides in new seed varieties, better farming practices and pesticide-proof beets have increased expectations and norms.

Because of the bigger yields, Crystal had decided to lower planted acreage to 424,000 acres this year, down from nearly 500,000 acres in recent years. But when the spring planting season got so late, the Moorhead-based cooperative upped its planned plantings to 445,000 acres, he said.

A small percent of beet growers will begin some digging and hauling of beets Tuesday and the five factories will fire up on Thursday to begin working the kinks out for the long processing campaign that lasts into May.

Reach Lee at (701) 780-1237; (800) 477-6572, ext. 237; or send e-mail to