Soggy fall slows wheat harvest

Gordon Stoner began harvesting July 31. Since then, persistent rains have allowed him to run his combine about 120 hours, an average of 20 hours per week.

The Upper Midwest small grain harvest has been slowed by frequent rains, leaving plenty of wheat in the fields when the harvest should be halfway done. The region's row crops, including the soybeans shown here, are up next to harvest, but likely will have to wait.

Gordon Stoner began harvesting July 31. Since then, persistent rains have allowed him to run his combine about 120 hours, an average of 20 hours per week.

"Twenty hours a week just doesn't put the crop in the bin," says the Outlook, Mont., farmer. At that rate, he won't finish until well into October.

Stoner isn't alone. A soggy fall has slowed harvest in the Upper Midwest and on the Canadian prairie, putting many farmers, especially ones who raise wheat, far behind where they should be. By now, producers are supposed to be halfway through harvest -- finishing up, or nearly so, on wheat and other small grains and beginning on soybeans and other row crops. But with October inching nearer, too much wheat remains in fields and row crop harvest is still weeks away for many producers.

Ten to 15 days of warm, dry weather wouldn't solve all the problems, but it would be a good start, farmers say.

"We need some heat units. That would make farmers happy," says David Karki, agronomy field specialist with South Dakota State University Extension in Brookings.For now, the biggest focus is on wheat. Many wheat producers report excellent yields, and overall yields should be good. That makes harvest delays even more frustrating.


In North Dakota, 65 percent of spring wheat was harvested on Sept. 14, compared with the five-year average of 84 percent for that date, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Minnesota farmers had harvested 74 percent of their wheat by Sept. 14, compared with the five-year average of 93 percent.

Brian Lacey, a Wendell, Minn., farmer, is finished with his small grains.

"But it was a struggle," he says.

Wheat yields were good. Barley yields suffered from excess moisture, he says.

South Dakota wheat farmers could be close to wrapping up by Sept. 22, especially if the week of Sept. 15 brings good weather, says Reid Christopherson, executive director of the South Dakota Wheat Commission.

Even so, there are pockets in the state where wet weather has delayed and complicated wheat harvest, he says.

Weather delays are widespread in Montana and on the Canadian prairie.


"We're behind, no question," says Blair Rutter, executive director of the Saskatoon, Saskatchewan-based Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association.

He doesn't expect Canadian wheat farmers to finish harvesting for another month.

Rutter says forecasts for the week of Sept. 15 were encouraging. Favorable weather would allow both U.S. and Canadian wheat farmers to catch up partially.

Delays so far, however, already have hurt the quality of some wheat, leading to discounts in the price that farmers receive for it. Overall, wheat prices have plunged in the past year, and weather-related discounts for poor quality make it even harder for farmers to turn a profit.

Row crops need to mature

Warm, dry weather also would help row crops, which need more time to mature fully.

In South Dakota, for instance, only 10 percent of corn was mature in mid-September. The five-year average was 26 percent.

And only 12 percent of Minnesota soybeans had dropped leaves by mid-September. The five-year average is 37 percent.


Though a brief mid-September cold snap hit some fields and limited their growth potential, many fields would produce more bushels if the weather begins to cooperate.

"We need heat," says Anthony Bly, soil fields specialist with South Dakota State University Extension in Sioux Falls.

Corn, traditionally the last of the region's three major crops (wheat and soybeans are the others) to be harvested, would benefit the most from favorable weather.

"The corn needs more time," says Duane Dows, a Page, N.D., farmer.

But soybeans would benefit, as well.

"A week or week and a half of warm weather would help the soybeans. It would help a bunch," says Mark Birdsall, a Berthold, N.D., farmer.

His immediate concern is his wheat harvest. He'd harvested only 30 percent of his small grains by mid-September.

"The bushels are there. But with the rain we've had, the crop is lodged, tangled up. It's very slow-going," he says.


'Very unique' season

No two growing seasons in this part of the country are ever the same. Even so, this one stands out.

"It's been a very unique growing season," says John Woodbury, Ross, N.D., location manager for Dakota Quality Grain Cooperative.

The spring was unusually wet and late, delaying planting and increasing the importance of a warm, dry fall.

Then, summer brought a rare combination of favorable temperatures that generally bolstered both row crops and small grains. Often, weather that helps one works against the other.

But the weather took a turn for the worse this fall, with the persistent rains that have interrupted wheat harvest.

Potatoes, sugar beets

Farmers in the Upper Midwest and Canadian prairies raise many crops. Sugar beets and potatoes are important in eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota.


Like other crops, sugar beets would benefit from warm, dry weather.

"We need nice, dry sunny days to push maturation along. The sugar content is lower than we would like," which reflects late planting, says Brian Ingulsrud, director of agriculture for Moorhead, Minn.-based American Crystal Sugar.

Area potato growers generally are optimistic of a good crop, says Andy Robinson, Minnesota and North Dakota extension potato specialist.

Both Minnesota and North Dakota will harvest better potato crops than predicted earlier, says Bruce Huffaker, publisher of the North American Potato Market News. His forecast was published in the electronic newsletter of the Northern Plains Potato Growers Association, based in East Grand Forks, Minn.

Canadian struggles

Canadian farmers had harvested only about 20 percent of their wheat by the middle of September. Normally, Canadian producers have harvested half their wheat by then.

Some farmers, including ones in the northernmost growing areas, have harvested all their wheat, says Bruce Burnett, crop and weather specialist with the CWB, formerly known as the Canadian Wheat board.

But many farmers have only just begun harvesting wheat, he says.


Bill Toews, who farms in the Red River Valley near Kane, Manitoba, a few miles north of the North Dakota border, is among the farmers who have struggled with rain delays.

"We've just had so many showers," he says.

Farmers harvest when they can, though the grain sometimes is wetter than it should be, he says.

"What else can you do? You take it off when you can and hope for the best," Toews says.

Shorter days

Rutter, with the Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association, says wheat harvest unavoidably slows as the days shorten and temperatures cool in late September and October.

Earlier in harvest, farmers could combine many hours every day if the weather cooperated. But shorter days and lower temperatures typically prevent farmers from starting to combine until noon and force them to quit at dusk, he says.

Stoner, the Montana durum farmer, also says shorter days lengthen harvest.

He's confident he'll finishing harvest eventually, though.

"We'll be able to salvage most of it. The quality won't be what we'd like, but we'll get it," he says.

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