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Published March 16, 2010, 11:11 AM

Winter-harvested corn looking worse for wear

COLFAX, N.D. — Troy Viland says he’s never seen an uglier corn crop than this year.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

COLFAX, N.D. — Troy Viland says he’s never seen an uglier corn crop than this year.

Usually, he says, the kernels are bright yellow.

This year, the corn just seems grayer, he says as he looks back through the window on the combine. Maybe it’s the dirty window, he wonders, but then says, no it’s gray — gray like a gray day in the second week of March.

Troy, 26, works for his father, Tim Viland, who farms with brother-in-law, Eldon Hermunslie for Hermunslie/Viland Farms near Wahpeton, N.D. The farm produces mostly corn and soybeans and a little wheat.

The particular field he was working was between Abercrombie and Colfax.

The Richland County, N.D., farmers harvested little corn in December and quit because the crop wasn’t mature. They left the rest until about March 1.

The crew had 10 percent completed by March 8 and were chewing away at it, making 75 to 100 acres a day.

“A good couple of weeks” might do it, Troy says, trying to be optimistic about the harvest. But the farm crew knows the weather forecast looks precarious.

“A year ago, we had a similar experience. We finished combining in February,” Troy says. “That was

by far the latest we’d ever combined before, so that helped us out because we knew a little more what to expect. Still, there’s a lot of uncertainty.”

Yield is really poor.

“The test weight is really low because we got a cold wet summer,” Tim says. “So the test weight is 45, 46, 47 pounds, which really drops the yield. The moisture content is in the mid-20s.”

So far, the majority of the corn has gone to the Cargill wet milling plant in Wahpeton. None of the Hermunslie/Viland Farms loads had been rejected so far, but it probably carries some mold.

“We thought about drying it ourselves, but what we’ve been hearing is that when you run it through your dryer, you lose so much quality that it’s best to take it in off the combine,” Troy says.

Harvesting the corn is something of a trick because the snow levels change and there is little tolerance for getting snow into the machine. It plugs up the sieves, but operators say they get tired of cleaning out the sieves. In places where the snow depth is over the cobs, Troy has to lift it up for small patches and leave the corn unharvested.

“We just have to wait for it to melt,” Troy says.

Bringing it in, down

Other crop watchers crossing their fingers and are waiting, too.

Carrol Duerr, general manager of the nearby Colfax Farmers Elevator, estimates that 20 percent to 30 percent of the 2009 corn crop in his immediate trade area still was in the field.

“They’re trying to get the combines through before it gets too soft,” Duerr says.

Duerr wonders if the ground ever got as frozen as solidly he and farmers thought. Tim Viland says it’s solid under.

Some also are concerned about getting the crop off before spring road restrictions kick in March 15.

“Some of the corn has dried some through the winter,” Duerr says. “Quality is pretty similar to what it was in the fall.”

Tim Viland says he checked moisture just before Christmas and it was 35 percent.

“It dropped about eightto 10 points over the winter,” he says.

Tom Lilja, executive director of the North Dakota Corn Growers Association, says he’s heard of corn being harvested “on and off all winter,” but more to the north where there was less snow earlier on.

In the first week of March, a farmer north of Portland, N.D., had said corn had dried to 20 percent moisture from 28 percent in December. A Minnesota farmer said moisture had declined by 10 points since December.

“There has not been a dramatic gain in test weight, although it has gained some,” Lilja wrote in a memo to board members. “It seems to depend on variety and area. There does not seem to be a correlation between short-season or long-season varieties and moisture content or test weight.”

He says he’s not hearing many reports of “cob drop,” but most farmers are telling him they think the greatest loss will be where snow was deepest.

“Farm-stored corn continues to be a challenge,” Lilja says. “I know of a few producers who have over 70 percent damage in some bins. There are lots of bin tops with spoilage. This is from the FM (foreign material) or just plain wet corn.”

Duerr says there is mold, but that it varies.

“If it was somewhat close to maturity, it isn’t so bad. If it was extremely light to start with and didn’t make it,” it might indeed be bad. Duerr says corn coming into the elevator is about the same as last fall — 42 to 50 pounds per bushel.

Duerr says insurance is another can of worms.

“It seems like from agent to agent they give you a different story — dates and times. The big issue is how can you get the ground prepped” for a 2010 crop. Sources say there are conflicting reports on whether companies will allow prevent-plant insurance on some of these spots.

Tim Viland says his operation farm will try to get as much corn off as it can, in part to comply with insurance needs, but in part for field prepping.

“We need to get our crop planted this year, too. And we have to do what we can to get it off,” he says.

As for edges of the fields that are heaviest with snow, they’ll have to be left until later, but that’s concern because of land out of production.

“There’s a lot of dollars out there that I know won’t get taken in until the snow is gone — probably May or even June,” Viland says. “And then it’s very questionable whether we’ll even get anything planted” in those spots.

The government’s permanent disaster program called SURE is another question mark.

“That we won’t know until a year after the fact, so who knows?” Tim says.

A few farmers in his area expect SURE payments from 2008 crop results, but don’t know for sure — a sore point for some farmers who are short of money.

“We’ve been in to the FSA office and we’ve applied for 2008, but they haven’t run any numbers on ours yet, so we don’t really know,” Tim Viland says.

Troy, who works as a cabinet maker but considers farming his primary occupation, says years like this don’t deter him from pursuing a career in farming.

“It’s what I’ve always wanted to do,” he says.

Nor is a couple of tough harvests likely to sour him on growing corn.

“It’s just something you put up with,” he says. “It’s unlike anything we’ve ever had. You can’t expect the worst.”