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Published October 01, 2012, 10:25 AM

A harvest to remember

Early, orderly harvest features better-than-expected yields, strong prices

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

This isn’t the first year David Iverson finished harvesting his soybeans in mid-September. The Astoria, S.D., farmer was done with his beans just as early in 1988.

The difference is, “In 1988 (a drought year) we hardly had a crop. This year, our crop wasn’t bad,” says Iverson, who normally is just beginning his soybean harvest in the middle of September.

Farmers across the Upper Midwest are enjoying an unusually early and orderly row crop harvest, with a pace two to three weeks ahead of normal in many areas. That reflects the corresponding early start to planting this past warm, dry spring.

“The harvest is really rolling along,” says Bob Zalenka, executive director of the Minnesota Grain and Feed Association in Eagan, Minn.

He says the supply of grain cars is adequate and the generally good quality of harvested crops means elevators don’t need to segregate, or keep separate, grain of widely differing quality.

Yields are surprisingly good, farmers and others say. Though the hot, dry summer hurt corn and soybeans overall, the crops held up better than expected thanks to generally good subsoil moisture and an occasional shower.

South Dakota corn and soybeans, however, were hurt more by drought than North Dakota and Minnesota soybeans and corn.

South Dakota will see a sizeable decline in corn and soybean yields from a year ago, while yields for the two crops will remain about the same in North Dakota and Minnesota, according to September predictions from the National Agricultural Statistics Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

This was a particularly important growing season for area corn. Attractive prices this spring caused corn acreage to soar to record highs, increasing the crop’s relative importance in the Upper Midwest. Though the drought hurt corn badly in some parts of the region, particularly in South Dakota, corn yields in the general area should be good, says Bart Schott, a Kulm, N.D., farmer and chairman of the National Corn Growers Association.

“Overall, I think farmers are surprised and very happy” with corn yields, he says.

Nationally, U.S. farmers planted about 4.5 million more acres of corn this spring than a year earlier. Combined, North Dakota, Minnesota and South Dakota accounted for about 2.6 million of the additional acres.

Corn acres in North Dakota soared from 2.2 million in 2011 to 3.4 million in 2012.

‘Exceptional year’

High crop prices combined with average or better yields will help many producers make strong profits, officials say.

“It should be an exceptional year (financially),” says Andy Swenson, farm management specialist with the North Dakota State University Extension Service.

“We’ve had a string of pretty good years starting with 2007. This year looks to be very strong. I would not be surprised if it surpasses the net farm income (in North Dakota) of even these recent years,” Swenson says.

Two examples of how higher crop prices — which reflect severe drought in the Corn Belt — benefit farmers in North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota:

Corn prices average about a dollar a bushel more than a year ago at area elevators surveyed weekly by Agweek. So a Minnesota farmer who averaged 150 bushels of corn per acre both this year and last year would gross $150 per acre more this year if he sold all 150 bushels for $1 more.

Soybean prices average $4 per bushel more this fall than a year ago at the elevators surveyed weekly by Agweek. So, a North Dakota farmer who averaged 30 bushels per acre both this year and last would gross $120 per acre more this year if he sold all 30 bushels for $4 more.

Corn: this year and next

Corn yields vary greatly across the region, but on balance look OK, officials say.

Larry Wagner, agronomy crops field specialist with South Dakota State University Extension in Brookings, says some corn fields in his area were hurt greatly by inadequate moisture, while others received a little rain and held up relatively well.

Overall, corn yields in his area should be better than some producers had feared, he says.

Thirty-six percent of corn was harvested by Sept. 24 in South Dakota, compared with the five-year average of 2 percent, according to NASS.

Thirty percent of Minnesota corn was harvested by Sept. 24, compared with the five-year average of 2 percent.

Twenty percent of North Dakota corn was harvested by Sept. 24, compared with the five-year average of no corn harvested.

The corn harvest was progressing rapidly in all three states during the last week of September.

A big question going forward is how many corn acres will be planted in the region next spring.

One possibility is that strong corn prices will encourage area farmers to plant even more of the crop in 2013. Another possibility is that dry conditions will discourage farmers from planting corn, which needs more moisture than many crops grown in the region.

Schott says he’s heard arguments both ways. In any case, he’s optimistic about corn’s long-term potential in the Upper Midwest.

Soybean harvest surges

A dozen area soybean producers will give a dozen different accounts about yields.

Farmers across the region are reporting soybean yields ranging from very good to poor. In many cases, yields vary considerably from field to field: one field received a timely rain during the growing season, while a nearby field did not.

Jody Horner, a farmer in Napoleon, N.D., says soybeans and other crops in his area generally look better than expected.

Iverson, the Astoria, S.D., soybean grower, says his bean yields are average or a bit below.

Forty-seven percent of the South Dakota soybean crop was harvested Sept. 24, compared with the five-year average of 2 percent.

In Minnesota, 45 percent of the bean crop was harvested, compared with the five-year average of 5 percent.

In North Dakota, 56 percent of bean crop was harvested, compared with the five-year average of 4 percent. In other words, more than half of the soybeans in the state were harvested at a time when the bean harvest normally is just beginning.

Rapid progress was made in harvesting soybeans in all three states during the last week of September.

‘Delicious potatoes’

The potato harvest in northwest Minnesota and northeast North Dakota also has been going well, officials say.

A lot of spud growers will be finished with their harvest by the end of September, says Justin Dagen, a Karlstad, Minn., potato grower.

Despite the dry summer, “The crop is good. It’s a good, average solid crop,” he says. “We’re thankful for what we have.”

Removing potatoes from dry soil, however, has been a challenge, he says. Harvesting potatoes is easier when rains in late August or early September soften the soil; such rains were rare this harvest.

Dagen, who’s active in the potato industry, says he’s hearing reports of “robust flavor” in newly harvested potatoes.

“I don’t know if it’s (because of) the drought. But from what we’re hearing, when consumers go the grocery store, they’re going to find delicious potatoes at a really affordable price,” he says.

The Red River Valley of western Minnesota and eastern North Dakota is the nation’s leading producer of red potatoes and the only region that produces in volume for the chip, fresh, seed and process markets.

Big start

with sugar beets

The sugar beet harvest at Moorhead, Minn.-based American Crystal Sugar Co. has been “pretty positive,” spokesman Jeff Schweitzer says.

The company began pre-lifting beets on Aug. 14, the earliest starting date in its history. Pre-lifting is harvesting a small portion of the crop so sugar beet factories can begin processing.

American Crystal was planning to pre-lift 15 percent of its crop, a higher-than-average percentage, by Oct. 1.

So far, digging conditions have been reasonably good and sugar content relatively high, Schweitzer says.

The crop is expected to yield about 25 tons per acre, a little less than the company would like, but not bad, given the dry summer, he says.

“Moisture has been a little hard to come by,” he says.

What about fall rains?

This year’s harvest has gone smoothly, in part, because the fall has been dry. The dearth of fall rains, however, is increasing the odds that the 2013 crop will struggle with inadequate moisture.

Area farmers say they’d be happy if early October rains slowed harvest.

“I’d be glad to shut down (harvest) for a few days for 2 inches of rain,” says Horner, the Napoleon, N.D., farmer.

Because fields are so dry, rain would be absorbed quickly into the ground, minimizing harvest downtime, he and other farmers say.

Even though the region is dry, agricultural producers need to be upbeat when planting winter wheat or otherwise preparing their fields for 2013, says Brian Eggebrecht, a Malta, Mont., farmer and president of the Montana Grain Growers Association.

“We have to be optimists,” he says.

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