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Published October 25, 2013, 04:21 PM

ND corn farmers fear propane shortage

Farmers across much of southeast and central North Dakota are feeling the pain of an acute shortage of propane for drying corn, just when they need it most.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — Farmers across much of southeast and central North Dakota are feeling the pain of an acute shortage of propane for drying corn, just when they need it most.

Mark Becker, energy manager for Dakota Plains Cooperative of Valley City, N.D., says the big problem is that the Cochin Pipeline that feeds a terminal in Carrington, N.D., rarely ships product and when it does, it is “very minimal.”

“When the Carrington terminal was at full capacity, it would supply 125 to 150 loads a day,” he says. “When you take that out of the system, there’s no way we can keep up.”

The problem seemed to crop up about a week ago, just as soon as the dryer season started. Becker says the propane shortage this year will be significantly worse than the last propane shortage in 2009.

“For our co-op here, I need 15 semi-loads to keep up, and I’m getting five at the top,” he says. “I don’t see it getting any better through the harvest. There just isn’t enough supply.”

Carrington is supposed to start receiving product from Canada this weekend, but Becker expects the supply to be minimal. The pipeline is expected to be reversed, so it will no longer ship propane. He says that wasn’t supposed to happen until after the dryer season. That means the propane for next season would come via rail, which suppliers expect to be less dependable than the pipeline.

Becker says he’s had to acquire propane from as far away as Conway, Kan., Omaha, Neb., Tioga, N.D., Sidney, Mont., and Laramie, Wyo. He says normally he would pay 17 cents per gallon for the transportation but now pays 35 cents because of the doubling of the freight distance.

“Everybody’s in the same boat,” he says. “I’ve talked to other suppliers and it’s the same throughout southeast North Dakota and the center part of the state.”

Slowing corn harvest

Mike Prochnow, who farms with his family near Hankinson, N.D., says he started the year with an 8,000-gallon tank filled, but now says he has stopped his corn harvest until he gets more.

“We had 20 percent of the crop out and that’s all the gas we had so we had to quit,” he says.

On Oct. 25, the corn was coming out at 23 to 25 percent moisture “I think it was lower in moisture before we got this recent rain — maybe 2 to 3 percentage points,” he says.

Prochnow says he contracted propane in advance two years ago. Last year, he bought one load and didn’t need more. “I just dried the whole crop with one load,” he says. But that was a dry year.

He says some farmers last year had contracted propane and then were charged a restocking fee when they didn’t take all of the propane they’d contracted.

The prospect of restocking fees are “almost asking you to buy it off the rack” and pay the price as the spot price changes. This year, not many farmers contracted gas, he thinks, but none of the suppliers warned about any kind of shortage.

Quite a fix

Carrol Duerr, manager of Colfax (N.D.) Farmers Elevator, says he’s heard that some of his customers weren’t able to get timely replacement inventory. He says corn in his area is 20 to 23 percent moisture. If it gets to 18 percent moisture it can be put in an aeration bin, but to market it, the corn should be at 15 percent moisture.

Prochnow says his choices are to leave the corn standing in the field and wait for the ground to freeze, or take it in the spring.

“With any luck, it’ll get down to 20 percent (moisture) where you could keep it in an air bin until it dries, or move it quicker into a plant.” He says the ethanol plant in Hankinson is taking corn up to 20 percent moisture and that the Cargill wet mill that makes high-fructose corn sweetener is taking it up to 25 percent moisture.

He says drought conditions later in the summer and heavy winds have left some corn lying down.

“Waiting until spring is not an option for that corn,” he says. “We’ve gotten ourselves into quite a fix here.”