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Published November 09, 2009, 09:22 PM

Good weather picks up harvest pace

Everything but corn. Farm fields in Grand Forks and Polk counties are just about bare of crops, except for the acres of rustling stalks of tardy corn, tanned and rested but still not ready for harvest.

By: Stephen J. Lee, Grand Forks Herald

Everything but corn.

Farm fields in Grand Forks and Polk counties are just about bare of crops, except for the acres of rustling stalks of tardy corn, tanned and rested but still not ready for harvest.

The past seven days were the best week for harvest in more than a month and it was better Monday as combines gobbled up the much of the last of the dry edible beans and soybeans in the Red River Valley.

After Saturday, 64 percent of the soybeans in North Dakota and 77 percent in Minnesota were harvested, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s weekly crop progress report. After sunny, breezy, dry and unseasonably warm weather Sunday and Monday, there’s little doubt that North Dakota farmers have only about a quarter of their soybeans left, while Minnesota farmers likely are closer to 90 percent completed.

That’s still well behind normal: 96 percent in North Dakota and 98 percent in Minnesota by Nov. 8, based on the average of the previous five years.

Dry edible beans were 84 percent harvested by Sunday in North Dakota and 92 percent in Minnesota; normally those crops would pretty much be in the bin by now.

American Crystal Sugar Co. said its final beet harvest numbers show an average yield of 22 tons per acre. While that is at least the sixth-best on record, it’s considered below normal now after the new standard set the past three years of 25 tons an acre, company officials say. Sugar content this year was less than 17 percent, also not a prime number.

The growing season just didn’t cooperate as well as growers hoped.

But if last year’s corn harvest, in the wettest fall on record in the Red River Valley, seemed late, it’s a piker compared to this year. A late start because of spring flooding combined with a cool summer to end up with nearly all the crop still in the field in North Dakota in what may be a record start for harvest. Normally, the corn harvest begins by early October and is mostly completed by now.

By Sunday, only 3 percent of the state’s corn had been combined, compared with 21 percent a year ago and 65 percent in the five-year average.

It’s better in Minnesota, where 23 percent of the corn was harvested by Sunday, compared with 72 percent a year ago and 83 percent by the same date in the five-year norm.

Caramel corn

Although the corn crop in North Dakota mostly is mature, it’s very wet, with some of the first fields coming off at moisture contents reported at 30 percent, 17 points above where it’s got to be for binning. In Minnesota, the corn is coming in at an average moisture of 27 percent, USDA reported.

At moisture levels of 30 percent or more, it costs so much to dry the corn using propane-fueled heat that it’s a balancing act whether it pays better to leave the corn, even until spring, to let it dry down in the field. And if corn kernels are immature, they can “caramelize” under the heat of a grain dryer. It might sound like a value-added crop and a treat, but it’s a bummer for farmers; caramel-colored kernels don’t sell well.

Jay Nissen, president of the North Dakota Corn Growers Association, said he hopes to start combining corn late today or Wednesday on his farm northwest of Larimore, N.D. What he heard Monday at the grain elevator were reports of corn moisture levels up to 32 percent.

Last year, he experienced corn caramelization for the first time, with a wet crop.

“It does look just like caramel corn,” he said. “We just turned the heat down in the dryer and that took care of the problem. Of course, then it takes longer to dry.”

If winter comes before corn harvest is completed — which looks more and more likely — that’s not necessarily all bad.

Last year proved that North Dakota’s corn crop left in the field wintered surprisingly well, said Tom Lilja, executive director of the growers association. The stalks held up in the snow, test-weights increased as the kernels dried and moisture levels came down with no drying costs, Lilja said recently.

But it’s always a gamble trying to figure what the weather and corn prices will be like next week, much less through the winter and spring.

In his part of the country, with lots of cover for deer around the fields, Nissen said that’s a big reason to get corn harvested before winter.

“I’m not worried about losing crops to the weather over winter, I’m worried about losing them to the deer. Wildlife does way more damage during the winter than the weather ever would, especially in this part of the state.”

The good news is that the rest of this week is forecast to be mostly dry and warmer than normal in eastern North Dakota and northwest Minnesota, meaning harvest should go apace.

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

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