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Farmers weigh harvesting corn or drying in the field

The long run of warm, dry weather, and the forecast of even more to come, is giving Upper Midwest corn producers a difficult but not unpleasant decision: Harvest wet corn now and pay drying expenses? Or hold off combining for a few days and allow...

The long run of warm, dry weather, and the forecast of even more to come, is giving Upper Midwest corn producers a difficult but not unpleasant decision: Harvest wet corn now and pay drying expenses? Or hold off combining for a few days and allow corn to dry naturally in the field?

The latter can save farmers a few pennies per bushel, an important consideration when plunging corn prices make the crop less profitable. But holding off also runs the risk of major field loss, which easily could exceed savings in drying costs.

There's no easy or simple answer, says Ken Hellevang, grain drying specialist at North Dakota State University. He's been contacted by a number of farmers who are deciding whether to combine corn or hold off.

His best advice: Producers should weigh weather forecasts and the amount of corn they still need to harvest. If the forecast is promising and a relatively small amount of corn remains to be harvested, producers might do well to wait, he says.

South Dakota corn farmers are doing both: holding off on some fields and combining others, which allows them to save drying costs while also reducing their overall risk of field loss, says Bob Fanning, plant pathology and field specialist with the South Dakota State University Extension Service in Winner.

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Though some Minnesota farmers are holding off, most are taking advantage of the ideal harvest conditions, says Doug Holen, University of Minnesota Extension crops educator in Morris.

"We couldn't ask for better harvest weather, and most producers are making the most of it," he says. "Bottom line, it's October, and the risk of weather damage (to standing corn) keeps growing."

He says there's a correlation between a farm's size and its operator's willingness to hold off on harvest.

Big operators, who have many acres to harvest, generally are reluctant to wait. Smaller operators, who can finish corn harvest in a relatively short amount of time if the weather remains good, are more willing to let their corn dry in fields.

Moisture levels, costs

Corn has a moisture content of 32 percent when it reaches maturity. But it should dry down to at least 15 or 16 percent before it can be stored safely in the bin until spring; most of the unharvested corn in the Upper Midwest is well above that level.

The rule of thumb is, reducing the moisture content by 1 percent through mechanical drying costs about 3 cents per bushel.

A week to 10 days of dry, warm weather can reduce standing corn's moisture content by 3 percent, a savings of 9 cents per bushel in drying costs, Hellevang says.

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A few years ago, when corn prices were high, such savings might not have seemed particularly important. Falling corn prices, however, hurt profit margins and increase the incentive to cut drying costs.

The average per-bushel price of corn at area elevators surveyed weekly by Agweek has fallen from $6.70 two years ago to $2.60, a 60 percent decline.

Leaving wet corn in the field to dry increases the chances that some of it will be lost, or what's known as field loss.

Too much field loss would more than offset potential savings in drying costs. Some corn farmers put a priority on minimizing field loss, even if it means paying more in drying costs, Fanning says.

Corn expands its reach

Corn has been popular in most of Minnesota, eastern South Dakota and southeast North Dakota for decades. In recent years, new faster-maturing varieties have allowed the crop to expand north and west into northwest Minnesota and the western Dakotas.

Jayme Boeshans farms in Beulah, N.D., one of the areas into which corn has expanded.

He's holding off harvesting his corn because of the cooperative fall weather.

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In the past 10 days, the moisture on his corn has dropped from 22.5 percent to 18.5 percent, a decline of 4 percent.

"We would like to see the corn get to the 14.5 percent mark before we start to harvest. So if the weather pattern stays the same, we will be harvesting in about 10 days," he says.

That 8 percent decline in moisture content, if realized, would save him 24 cents per bushel in drying charges, using the standard 3-cents-per-bushel estimate.

Slow harvest

Minnesota, South Dakota and North Dakota corn farmers all had harvested far less of their crop than usual on Oct. 19, the last day for which harvest statistics are available from the National Agricultural Statistics Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The slow harvest pace reflects planting delays this spring, which resulted in the corn crop getting a later-than-usual start, and the unusually cool summer, which caused corn to mature more slowly than usual.

The combination of late planting and the cool summer made the warm, dry fall even more desirable, farmers say.

In Minnesota, only 16 percent of corn was harvested on Oct. 19, compared with the five-year average of 47 percent for that date.

In South Dakota, just 19 percent of corn was harvested on Oct. 19, compared with 45 percent for that date.

North Dakota farmers had harvested only 7 percent of their corn on Oct. 19, compared with the five-year average of 37 percent for that date.

The 2014 harvest rates will be much higher when the next NASS report is issued in the week of Oct. 27, but they're expected to still be considerably lower than their five-year averages.

Other crops

The beautiful fall harvest has allowed Upper Midwest farmers to make rapid progress with their soybean harvest.

As of Oct. 19, Minnesota, South Dakota and North Dakota farmers were all ahead of their five-year average soybean harvest pace. Even more progress was made during the week of Oct. 20, farmers say, and the Oct. 27 NASS report is expected to show that the region's soybean harvest is nearly wrapped up.

Sorghum farmers in South Dakota, where the crop is popular, are making good harvest progress, Fanning says.

Forty-eight percent of sorghum in the state was harvested on Oct. 19, compared with 19 percent a week earlier and the five-year average of 59 percent for Oct. 19, according to NASS.

Harvest of sunflowers, of which North Dakota and South Dakota are major producers, is beginning in earnest.

Farmers in both states had harvested just 11 percent of their sunflowers on Oct. 19, well below their respective five-year averages for that date, according to NASS.

But warm, dry weather during the week of Oct. 20 should help sunflower producers catch up, at least partially, farmers and others say.

Related Topics: CROPS
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