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Published October 08, 2012, 10:10 AM

Monster harvest

Drought dominates national headlines throughout the Midwest in 2012, but some areas of southeast North Dakota are seeing larger-than-expected corn and soybean yields — and transportation plans out of whack.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — Drought dominates national headlines throughout the Midwest in 2012, but some areas of southeast North Dakota are seeing larger-than-expected corn and soybean yields — and transportation plans out of whack.

Myron Jepson, manager of James Valley Grain in Oakes, N.D., says people are “shocked” by a yield that’s 20 percent greater than expected for either corn or soybeans. “Everybody’s pretty much amazed about what the production was,” he says.

Farmers and crop watchers in the area were predicting about 35 bushels per acre on average for the soybean crop in a 60-mile radius, but yields have come in at 40 to 42 bushels. Corn on nonirrigated land was projected at 138 bushels per acre, and farmers are seeing 150 to 152 bushels per acre on average.

Jepson thinks the soybean crop is 75 percent harvested, based on expected volume, but every day, the crew seems surprised at what’s left in the field. “We may be closer to 65 percent (harvested), but it feels like we should be at 75 percent based on volume,” he says. Corn harvest may be only 30 percent done, but the elevator is filling up fast.

Expanding for overflow

James Valley — a limited liability company, owned by South Dakota Wheat Growers of Aberdeen, S.D., and Norway Spur Farmers Cooperative of Oakes — can store 8.5 million bushels under-cover in bins or flat storage, Jepson says. Some 75 percent of that is already full. Some of the bins are reserved for corn, but the soybean space is full.

Further, they have ground piles or bunker space for another 4 million bushels. About 3 million of that is soybeans, and on a space that should have stored 2 million bushels normally.

“Someone here got the bright idea to put a couple of track-hoe excavators up there and have created another million bushels of storage on the soybeans,” Jepson says. “I don’t think anybody’s tried that before,” he adds, and jokes, “I don’t think anybody’s been so desperate.”

He says the beans should stay in good condition, unless a stretch of rainy weather moves in. Jepson says that, with soybeans at $16 a bushel, “That’s $48 million worth of beans lying out there.”

Timing and transportation

Besides getting bigger yields than expected, the timing has been off, too, because of dry weather and faster harvest.

“You plan your train transportation in April, May and June, and you order trains for the beginning of October,” Jepson says. “Well, we started harvesting Sept. 15 rather than Oct. 1, so we’re having to work with those issues, as well.”

Another looming issue is a potential Longshoreman union strike in the Pacific Northwest ports where corn and soybeans from this region must be loaded onto vessels for shipment to Asian customers. “The (union) contract expired at midnight, (Sept. 30),” he says. “I’ve heard they’ve extended the talks … and hopefully they’ll have a resolution. Most people expect the strike to happen.”

Consequently, elevator operators think railroads have slowed down in taking trains to the Upper Midwest, possibly because they don’t want to have 20 full trains they can’t unload.

Ron Knaust, manager of the Farmers Cooperative Elevator Co. in Lidgerwood, N.D., in Richland County, also says corn and soybean yields are 10 to 20 percent higher than what people expected. Some farmers have fields that average 175 to 200 bushels of corn per acre, he says, and a few talk about seeing 230 to 250 bushels, although that may be yield monitor readings on good spots in fields. “I don’t think any fields are doing that as a whole on dry land corn,” he says.

The timing is the biggest factor, Knaust says, because of the risk of keeping grain in outdoor piles. While farmers want rain for recharge, the effect of moisture on grain piles could be a big problem if it seals piles of warm grain.

“Warm grain, warm ground, warm air, that’s a recipe for disaster,” he says. “There’s going to be some bad piles out there unless freight starts coming in in a timely manner, so we can pick this up and get it moving.” His company’s soybeans are heading toward the Pacific Northwest, but the corn is heading east.

Strike outcome

Steve Strege, executive vice president of the North Dakota Grain Dealers Association, says the fate of the strike is an open question. “I think everybody’s happy to have a crop,” Strege says. “Small grains got in early and they had a good crop and weren’t overly affected by the heat. And then some people might be surprised we have as good a row crop as we do.”

U.S. soybean production could be dismal overall and the industry could essentially run out of product in March, Jepson says. He says other countries around the world realize they’re going to be short on protein and are trying to extract it from the U.S. now. “And here we are (in southeast North Dakota), lucky enough to have a crop and end customers,” with the threat of a transportation strike.

With the big yields and the higher prices, farmers are in a good mood.

“We have not met a sad farmer yet, both on volume and price. It’s astounding,” Jepson says, but adds he doesn’t have to look more than 50 or 100 miles to the south to see serious yield reductions caused by drought — Miller, Highmore, Redfield and Brookings in South Dakota, all have been affected.

Subsoil moisture going into the spring was “absolutely excess by any measurement,” Jepson says. There was adequate rain in late April through May, but from June 15 to Aug. 15, precipitation was virtually nonexistent. “Agronomics-wise, the plants made up for the deficiency, and (the roots) went looking for the subsoil moisture,” he says.

The picture for 2013 subsoil moisture?

“Hugely deficient,” he says.

Some agronomists have told Jepson there is “resistance” to applying fall fertilizer because of moisture shortages, and few fall purchases of it.