Dry weather boosts corn harvest progress

NORTHWOOD, N.D. -- It's a gorgeous mid-October afternoon -- clear and warm and dry. Dennis McCoy is combining his final field of corn. "We'll be done by evening," a week sooner than usual, the Northwood, N.D., farmer says. What's happening on the...

Harvested corn is transferred from a grain truck to a silo at the farm of Dennis McCoy near Northwood, N.D. (Nick Nelson, Agweek)

NORTHWOOD, N.D. - It’s a gorgeous mid-October afternoon - clear and warm and dry. Dennis McCoy is combining his final field of corn.

“We’ll be done by evening,” a week sooner than usual, the Northwood, N.D., farmer says.

What’s happening on the McCoy farm is happening, albeit to a lesser degree, across the Upper Midwest. Unusually favorable conditions are allowing producers to make rapid progress in harvesting a corn crop featuring both good yields and quality.

“We’re doing pretty well this year,” says Laura Edwards, climate field specialist with South Dakota State University Extension.

Mid-October statistics from the National Agricultural Statistics Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, make that clear:


North Dakota farmers had harvested 15 percent of their corn, up from the five-year average of 2 percent.

Minnesota producers had combined 29 percent of the crop, compared with the five-year average of 7 percent.

In South Dakota, farmers were 21 percent finished with corn harvest, up from the five-year average of 11 percent.

But this year’s healthy harvest doesn’t negate an important long-term trend: Upper Midwest falls had been getting wetter - and farmers in the region are planting more corn, which is harvested during the fall and susceptible to rain delays.

McCoy remembers, all too well, soggy falls that prevented him from finishing his corn until December.


Spreading out harvest



Once, especially in the extreme northern end of the Great Plains, wheat and other small grains - which are harvested in late summer and early fall - were dominant. Small grains remain important, but changing economics and agronomics have caused farmers to plant less of them and more corn.

In South Dakota, for instance, corn acres rose from 2.8 million in 1995 to 5.4 million this year, wheat acres in the state fell from 2.8 million in 1995 to 2.7 million this year, with barley acres falling from 180,000 to 37,000 in the 20-year period.

In general, wheat and barley harvest is wrapped up before corn harvest even begins, as the folllowing USDA statistics on average harvest dates show.


Corn harvest


  • Minnesota - Begins Sept. 27 and ends Nov. 23, with the most active period Oct. 8 to Nov. 8.

  • South Dakota - Begins Sept. 24 and ends Dec. 3, with the most active period  Oct. 6 to Nov. 6.

  • North Dakota - Begins Sept. 28 and ends Dec. 6, with the most active period Oct. 8 to Nov. 19.

Spring wheat harvest



  • Minnesota - Begins July 30 and ends Sept. 22, with the most active period Aug. 5 to Sept. 9.

  • South Dakota - Begins July 20 and ends Aug. 24, with the most active period July 27 to Aug. 10.

  • North Dakota - Begins Aug. 1 and ends Sept. 25, with the most active period Aug. 8 to Sept. 13.

Spreading out harvest has its advantages, including reducing the harm done by too much precipitation during wheat harvest. But pushing back harvest into October and November to combine corn also means more stress and delay for farmers when the fall is wet, experts say.

‘No easy answers’


The Upper Midwest generally received more precipitation in the 1990s and 2000s than it had before, according to information on the National Centers for Environmental Information website. The NCEI was created by the merger of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s three data centers.

The past few years, particularly 2011, have brought dry falls, however, says Pete Boulay, climatologist with the Minnesota State Climatology Office.

Whether that will continue is difficult to say, he says.

“There are no easy answers with weather,” he says. “I wish we could (predict whether Upper Midwest falls will be wet or dry). Yes, for that 20-year span (in the 1990s and 2000s) it was wetter. But we don’t know if that will continue.”

Dry weather this fall is at least partly the result of the absence of the polar jet stream, which has kept most storms in Canada and out of the Upper Midwest, Boulay says.

One thing is certain, however. What happens this fall isn’t a gauge of what will happen in the future.

“You can’t predict next year from the year before,” he says.

Fall rains can be both a blessing and a curse to Upper Midwest producers.

Precipitation in September and October recharges soil moisture after dry summers, increasing the prospects for the next year’s crop. But the fall rains also can hamper corn harvest, Edwards says.

As Boulay puts it, “Drier conditions (in the fall) are good for harvest, bad if you want recharge for next year. So there’s a give and take, winners and losers.”


Home stretch


McCoy knows as well as anyone that wet falls can be a mixed bag for corn farmers.

The fourth-generation farmer grew up with wheat, oats and barley, but over time has switched to a rotation of wheat, soybeans and corn. He began farming in 1978 and planted corn for the first time in 1984.

McCoy likes the crop for a number of reasons, including its relatively attractive profit potential and its ability to put organic matter into the soil. And as a long-time seed dealer, growing the crop himself helps him relate to customers who raise it, he says.

He appreciates that dry conditions this fall allow him to finish harvesting it so quickly, especially since yields and quality generally are good.

But his fields need moisture after receiving very little pre

cipitation in late summer, and the absent-so-far fall rains would help rectify that.

He shakes his head and smiles.

“Ideally, we’d finish corn harvest and other field work, and then get enough moisture to recharge the soil just before freeze-up,” he says. “But that’s something we hardly ever see.”


Related Topics: CROPSCORN
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