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Published December 08, 2009, 03:45 PM

Record acres of corn left in December N.D. fields

Never before have so many acres of corn been left unharvested this late in a season in North Dakota, according to estimates from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Only 53 percent of the state's corn crop was harvested by Sunday, far behind normal and leaving up to 92 million bushels of corn still in the field.

By: Stephen J. Lee, Grand Forks Herald

For the second consecutive year, the corn crop in North Dakota has outlasted the weekly schedule of crop progress reports from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

That’s a sign of a late season.

It’s so late, in fact, that record numbers of acres and bushels of corn remain in the field for this late in the year.

USDA promises to keep tabs on the corn harvest’s progress with a different report to be found each Monday online at www.nass.usda.gov/nd. It might be a while.

The progress promises to be slow, with nearly half the corn crop still in the field as December moves into its second week, too-wet corn won't dry much and snowfall begins to make navigating fields difficult.

During week ended Saturday, 13 percent of the corn in North Dakota was combined, bringing the total harvested to 53 percent of the crop. That’s far behind the five-year norm of 93 percent by Dec. 6, and well behind even last year, an historically late harvest.

Last year by Dec. 6, 79 percent of North Dakota’s corn was harvested.

Because of the sharp increase corn acreages in recent years – it doubled in the state from 2003 to 2008 - it means there never has been this much corn still standing this late in the year.

Here’s the math:

Earlier this fall, USDA estimated North Dakota farmers would combine 1.75 million acres of 2009 corn.

If 45 percent or so of that remains unharvested, (assuming a few acres were combined since the USDA’s weekly survey ended Saturday), that would mean there are about 785,000 acres of uncombined corn remaining.

That’s a significant number, equal to more than the entire state corn crop harvested any year before 2002, when the state’s farmers began increasing corn plantings as seed varieties were improved and prices stayed high.

Last year, the state’s farmers harvested about 2.3 million acres. But better harvest progress meant “only” about 480,000 acres of corn remained in the field as of Dec. 6 in 2008, and that was a record.

This year, the late, wet spring and lower prices made many farmers reduce corn acres.

Still, at the USDA’s most recent estimate of average yields this year of 117 bushels an acre (down 7 bushels from last year’s average yield), that means nearly 92 million bushels of potential corn remaining at risk in snowy fields filled with hungry deer, birds and subject to the depredations of weather.

Again, to belabor the point, North Dakota farmers never produced a total of 92 million bushels of corn in any year until 2002.

"That is a lot of corn," said Tom Lilja, executive director of the North Dakota Corn Growers Association on Tuesday.

“The challenging part is that what is out there is still high moisture, over 25 percent."

Corn can't be stored safely until it's below 14 percent moisture.

One hint learned this year by farmers and elevator managers, Lilja said, is that running propane-fueled grain dryers at lower temperatures, 180 degrees instead of 220, does a better, if slower, job with such wet corn.

But the cold, hard fact is, not all the corn will get into bins this year.

“Quite honestly, there are guys who are not going to fight it," Lilja said. “They are going to leave it, if it’s over 25 percent moisture, and let it dry down in the field.”

But only about 2 points of moisture come off per month now, he said, so lots of farmers may be combining this year’s corn next summer.

One bright spot is that last year many farmers learned how well corn can over-winter in North Dakota, Lilja said, losing moisture and even gaining some test weight, without losing too much to breakage and shrink.

Until about a foot of snow falls, farmers still can get out in the fields with combines, he said.

This fall, because of the late season, the corn didn’t mature entirely. So while the average yield of 117 bushels an acre is pretty good, the kernel quality isn’t so hot, Lilja said.

“The biggest issue right now is the lower test weight,” Lilja said. “A lot of those are coming in at that 48 to 52 pound range (per bushel), where typically, in a good year, you are getting 56 to 58 pound corn.”

That can mean price discounts to farmers.

The frigid, below-zero temperatures this week will make some wet fields more passable for combines, and might help dry down some of the still wet corn.

But the several inches of snow that fell last week, plus some over the weekend, have made some corn fields in northeast North Dakota difficult to drive in.

It’s even possible the state’s farmers will lose as many corn bushels from this year’s crop as were harvested, in total, in a typical year in the 1990s and earlier, when total state production was 50 million bushels or less.

Last year, farmers figured they lost not much more than 5 percent of the over-wintered corn, Lilja said. This year, some think the stalks are weaker, meaning more breakdown is possible over winter.

“They could lose more this winter if the stalk strength isn’t there or the weather conditions are a little different, Lilja said.

Minnesota’ corn crop was 87 percent combined by the end of Saturday, behind but closer to normal than North Dakota’s crop, USDA reported. The average corn moisture level remained at 21 percent last week in Minnesota, same as the week before and illustrating how much more difficult harvest gets this late in the year.

A few stray acres of soybeans remain to be combined, and 3 percent of North Dakota’s sun-flowers, and 6 percent of Minnesota’s sunflowers, remain in the field.

While the growing season was late and slow this year, the autumn turned out to be a long one, allowing farmers to get most of their field tillage and fertilizer application for next year completed. Soil moisture conditions remain well above average, but not as soaked as last fall’s conditions going into winter.

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

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