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Published November 04, 2013, 09:49 AM

Harvest slows after good start

Farmers across much of the Upper Midwest had harvest delays this past October, when long stretches of wet weather hit the area.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

Like many area farmers, John Brainard struggled to harvest his crops in 2009. Weeks of wet weather in the fall of that year made fields a muddy mess, causing long harvest delays and producer stress.

“This year reminds me of 2009,” says Brainard, an Ada, Minn., farmer whose crops include sugar beets.

Farmers across much of the Upper Midwest had harvest delays this past October, when long stretches of wet weather hit the area. But producers made the best of limited harvest opportunities, and by the end of October, most of the region’s soybeans, sugar beets and potatoes were harvested.

There are pockets, however, where farmers have made far less progress than they’d like.

In the Devils Lake, N.D., area, for instance, “There’s still a lot of crop out there. We just can’t get any good drying conditions,” says Bill Hodous, Ramsey County extension agent.

Farmers in parts of his county still haven’t finished harvesting wheat and canola, which normally are in the bin in August or September.

Most of the regional focus now is on corn, the last of the region’s major crops to be harvested.

“A few weeks of dry weather would really help,” says Paul Johnson, agronomy field specialist with the South Dakota State University Extension’s regional center in Watertown.

Normally, farmers in his area hope to be finished with corn by the third week of November. Unless the weather turns dry quickly, however, they’re unlikely to reach that goal.

As Johnson and others note, a lot of standing corn is wet, and drying it would be costly, especially since propane is in short supply. So, many farmers are waiting to harvest corn in hopes it will dry down in the field.

That may not happen right away. Cool, wet weather is likely across the region in early November, according to the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center.

Ag officials and farmers say some area corn fields, especially ones in North Dakota, may not be harvested until next spring. Harvest conditions in the next few weeks will help determine how many corn acres will be left until spring.

Yields across the region vary greatly, even within the same field, a reflection of heavy spring rains, farmers and others say.

“The crop varies a lot,” says Joe Neaton, who farms at Watertown, Minn., near Minneapolis-St. Paul. “We were combining one (corn) field. The yield monitor said 200 bushels, a little bit above. Then we go down the field and hit a drown-out spot and it’s zero.”

That reflects heavy rains this spring, which hurt low spots in fields, he says.

Corn harvest is just beginning in the Rapid City, S.D., area, says Rutendo Nyamusamba, agronomy-crop field specialist with the South Dakota State University Extension center there.

“It’s a challenge,” she says.

The early October blizzard, followed by several rains, has pushed up standing corn’s moisture content and made many fields soggy, she says.

Corn is increasingly common in southwest North Dakota, and many farmers there are expecting excellent yields.

“This will be the best corn crop we’ve ever had,” says Duaine Marxen, Hettinger County extension agent in Mott, N.D.

Heavy snows in parts of the region, however, will complicate harvest, he says.

As of late October, 59 percent of the U.S. corn crop was harvested, compared with the five-year average of 62 percent, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In Minnesota, 48 percent of corn was harvested, compared with the five-year average of 61 percent.

South Dakota farmers had harvested 49 percent of their corn. The five-year average in the state is 55 percent.

In North Dakota, 33 percent of corn was harvested. The five-year average in the state is 48 percent.

The region’s soybean harvest was close to wrapping up, except for a few problem areas, in late October.

Soybean yields vary greatly, often within the field, but on balance were average or better, farmers and others say.

In north-central South Dakota, soybean yields “were good. Average or better,” though late-season drought hurt crops on lighter soil, Johnson says.

Attention on sunflowers

There’s also more attention than usual on sunflowers, another late-harvested crop. Sunflowers are popular in the western Dakotas, where a record early October blizzard flattened fields and raised concern about potential losses.

Officials with the National Sunflower Association, based in Mandan, N.D., say it’s too early to estimate how many acres can be harvested or how yields might be affected.

Marxen says he’s seen sunflower fields in which 60 to 80 percent of the crop was flattened by the blizzard.

“It’s really bad,” he says.

Farmers should be able to harvest at least parts of the flattened fields, but combining them will require much more time and effort than usual, he says.

The flattened crops aren’t the only problem facing farmers in his area. Many fields are so wet that machinery won’t be able to operate on them until the ground freezes hard.

“About all we can do is wait for the fall freeze-up,” he says.

As of late October, only 12 percent of sunflowers in North Dakota, the nation’s leading producer of the crop, were harvested. The five-year average is 43 percent.

In South Dakota, the nation’s second leading producer, 27 percent of sunflowers were harvested. The five-year average is 50 percent.

Hail in Mont.

Small grains still dominate in Montana, but corn is becoming more common.

This spring, farmers planted 120,000 acres of corn and 5.56 million acres of wheat, according to NASS.

Many Montana corn farmers were waiting for standing corn to dry down in the fields before harvest, says Justin Downs, a farmer whose family owns and operates Montana Feed and Seed in Billings.

Montana also raises sugar beets. Farmers in the state planted 46,000 acres of the crop this spring, ranking sixth in the country, according to NASS.

Sugar beet harvest was wrapping up in late October, Downs says.

Many wheat fields were planted unusually late in Montana this spring, so the small grains harvest was late, too.

Wheat yields were good, except in areas hit by hail, Downs says.

“If you didn’t get hail, crops were good. There were happy farmers, the ones who didn’t get hail,” he says.

Hail struck often and in wide swathes, officials say.

“It was a terrible year, the worst year we ever had,” says Bill Herbolich, program specialist with the Montana Department of Agriculture’s Hail Insurance Program.

The program, for which all commonly grown crops in the state are eligible, insured 1.89 million acres this past growing season. The acres it insures typically are at the greatest risk of hail damage.

Herbolich doesn’t have any statewide statistics yet on how much damage hail did this year. But he says crops across the state were hurt by a number of storms throughout the growing season.

Potatoes, sugar beets

Wet weather slowed potato harvest in the Red River Valley of eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota. But most potato producers were finished, or nearly so, with harvest by late October.

Yields vary greatly, with some fields doing well and others not so well, says Ted Kreis, marketing and communications director for the Northern Plains Potato Growers Association in East Grand Forks, Minn.

Quality was good, thanks in part to early fall precipitation that made fields easier to dig, reducing bruising to potatoes, he says.

Parts of the Red River Valley were hit by a hard freeze on Oct. 27.

It wasn’t immediately clear how much damage was done to spuds, most of them reds, still in the ground, Kreis says.

But growers hope to harvest at least some of the remaining potatoes, he says.

American Crystal Sugar Co. had harvested nearly all of its sugar beet crop by late October, says Dan Gowan, director of agriculture for the Moorhead, Minn.-based cooperative.

Growers in a few areas, particularly south of Hillsboro, N.D., were hit hard by wet weather and still had beets to harvest, he says.

Hillsboro, in east-central North Dakota near the Minnesota border, is halfway between Grand Forks, N.D., and Fargo, N.D.

Overall, the cooperative expects average yields of 24 to 26 tons per acre, which Gowan calls a “strong average” crop.

Dry conditions in August led to concern that sugar beet yields would suffer.

“It’s quite amazing. If we had taken bets early, we never would have expected a 25-ton average,” Gowan says.

Beets were planted deep enough in the ground to find moisture, and improved genetics also helped, he says.

Brainard, the Ada, Minn., sugar beet producer, thanks his seasonal harvest crews for their commitment, especially in years such as this one.

“We couldn’t do it without them.”

Yet another twist

The wet October was another twist in a growing season marked by extreme variations.

For instance, Moorhead, in west-central Minnesota on the North Dakota border, was hit by heavy, repeated rains this growing season. Overall, it received 8.9 more inches more than normal from April 1 through the end of October, according to the Minnesota NASS office.

Like much of the region, the Moorhead area began the growing season extremely dry, then received substantial late-spring rains. Dryness became an issue again by late summer, with excess moisture a problem recently.

“We were dry. Then wet,” says Randy Nelson, Moorhead-based University of Minnesota Extension agent.

“Then conditions turned dry. Now we’re wet again.”

Johnson, the SDSU Extension agronomy field specialist in Watertown, notes that the 2012 harvest began early and generally went smoothly.

“Harvest last year was just about perfect. Producers were saying it was the earliest they could remember finishing,” he says.

“We’re not quite so fortunate this year.”

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