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'The harvest from hell'

Dry conditions are returning to the parts of the nation's midsection where farmers need it most, but some say they're finding damage to their corn and soybean crops as this fall's harvest window starts to slowly close.

Reports from the western Corn Belt on Wednesday and Thursday indicate farmers are dusting off their combines that have been sitting for up to two weeks, delayed by as much as six inches of rain in Iowa. A mild, sunny forecast should allow farmers, who up to this week were behind in harvest progress, to catch up "in a hurry," a grain merchant said Wednesday in a Dow Jones Newswires report.

"Based on the weather that I see for the rest of this month and for the opening days of November, it looks like the 2007 U.S. harvest season will be one where we saw a very good start and a very good ending...sandwiched around some big wet weather problems in the middle," according to Thursday's Freese-Notis Weather, Inc., commentary. "I have heard a lot of reports of harvest quality and even quantity losses because of [the wet] weather."

But even though combines are running again in this home stretch of the 2007 fall harvest, not all is rosy. Farmers and Agriculture Online Marketing Talk members say, in the western corridor of the Corn Belt, they're finding an array of crop damage and moisture levels on the high end of what elevators will accept.

Marketing Talk member swia says earlier this week he discovered ear sprouting in his corn as he waited for the wind to dry his beans.

"Went to look at a field of corn and any ear that was still upright (not dropped down), the bottom kernels had all sprouted," he wrote earlier this week.

"With a lot of our modern hybrids, at maturity, the ear will be upright," says Iowa State University Extension corn agronomist Roger Elmore. "Water will collect in them, so you have the possibility of germinating seed."

The late-season "corn nightmare" of aflatoxin has reached fruition in some fields around Iowa. Marketing Talk member jolifarms says many corn loads in his area of northwestern Iowa are being rejected or docked because of the presence of the toxin.

It's not the worst year for aflatoxin, by far, especially considering how favorable conditions have been for diseases like it, Elmore says.

"After it's matured, corn doesn't enjoy [wet] conditions," he says. "A lot of ear molds and kernel molds -- fusarium-based issues do present feed and grain quality issues -- can come in."

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey this week called the recent discovery of aflatoxin's presence "not completely unexpected." But, this doesn't mean farmers and elevator operators can lower their guard just yet on this disease that can, even in tiny amounts, cause elevators to reject loads.

"The levels it's being found at are not especially high, and there is a lot of corn that it can be blended with to make sure it won't cause any problems when fed to livestock," Northey said in a statement this week. "I think it's important the public knows we're aware of the situation and taking the necessary steps to make sure it doesn't cause any health issues for animals or humans."

With the bean crop, the biggest culprit of crop quality and quantity isn't a specific disease, like aflatoxin in corn. Instead, it's lingering damage caused by heavy rains and intense moisture in the last three weeks from which many fields have still yet to dry out.

But, even though it's not a specific pathogen or disease that's inflicting the damage, the water-driven effects on the soybean crop are no less serious, at least in his area in Minnesota, says Marketing Talk member MNMan.

"Bean losses will shock many. I have inspected some fields within the last couple days, and what I found was shocking! Within the whole top third of the plant, nearly every bean was moldy," he wrote this week. "And these plants never saw standing water. The bottom was also showing early signs of pod decay. This all happened within the past week."

Mold isn't the issue, but popping soybean pods is in northwestern Iowa, jolifarms writes. "I haven't seen any moldy beans, but after a week of rain, the pods are popping," he wrote this week. "It looks like they were hit by hail."

With the weather extremes and times they've reared their heads, it has indeed been a challenging growing season for many Corn Belt farmers. Looking back on the year, Elmore says while much of what's challenged growers has been uncontrollable, both planting and harvest conditions have and could continue to cause problems.

"When you look at planting corn in wet, cool soils, then you will have problems all season with rooting, nutrition, rootless corn, poor ear fill, poor ear elongation and poor pollination," Elmore says. "It's been one thing after another this season because we pushed planting conditions because we had to. Now, we're getting poised to do the same thing with harvest."

The number-one concern with harvesting corn and soybeans on wet soils is compaction. Especially with today's larger, heavier equipment, compacted soils can have long-lasting ramifications.

"We have the big equipment that can take and handle wet corn with limited harvest losses, but when you think about moving that big equipment over those soils, you talk about compacting and damaging those soils next year and into the future," Elmore says.

Though many farmers have faced what Marketing Talk member Randy sks says has been "the harvest from hell," not all has been bad, Elmore says. While many lessons can be deduced from this year's crop, the education hasn't come completely at the expense of yields. There have been poor yields, but there have also been those some farmers "are humble about.

"There are people who are telling me their yields are excellent. The realists out there are saying that yields are across the board -- from unacceptable to something they're humbly very proud about," Elmore says. "You've got the whole range in Iowa because of these conditions we've had."

In the end, Elmore says as crop technology advances in the future, Mother Nature still holds a big-time trump card, as many farmers have learned this year.

"We can't control the weather. There's a lot we can do with hybrids, management like planting dates, planting depth, populations, fertilization and weed control. We can control most of that," he says. "But, the weather is the biggest player out there. We're certainly at the mercy of what's going to happen there."

Dry conditions are returning to the parts of the nation's midsection where farmers need it most, but some say they're finding damage to their corn and soybean crops as this fall's harvest window starts to slowly close.

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