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Crop Condition and Storage Notes for Wet, Late 2019

Northern Corn Belt farmers face decisions with storing or harvesting wet crops.

The 2019 agriculture cycle restricted farmers across the Midwest from start to finish. 

Farmers across the Corn Belt battled spring flooding and overall wetness, creating a later planting date for most. The effects of the wet spring trickled into fall when corn and soybeans failed to reach maturity around the typical calendar dates and pushed farmers out of the fields until later in the season.

October came and further wrath of precipitation spread across the Midwest throughout the month – specifically, the western and northern portions of the Corn Belt. Areas in North Dakota tacked on snow as another obstacle to pair with the excess rain.

When November arrived, dryness set in for most of the Midwest and temperatures briefly plummeted, freezing the ground and providing a window for farmers to access their fields, but also generating issues with propane and grain drying. In the second half of the month, temperatures switched to a little warmer than average, allowing more moisture to seep into the ground in the northern Corn Belt with snow melting and the ground softening.

With the herky-jerky weather patterns Mother Nature’s thrown at farmers in the Midwest, how resilient has the corn and soybean crop been and what kind of condition does it check in at with 2020 approaching? 

“When we plant corn late, we have to harvest late,” says Taralan Crop Consulting field agronomist Lane Peterson, located in southeast Minnesota. “We don’t get the best of drydowns, so one thing that we’ll battle is a wetter corn that we have to dry ourselves and then with us fighting natural gas tie-ups, propane tie-ups, stuff like that, it’s been a little bit slower for guys to get corn dried down.”

Peterson estimates harvest progress in the area sits around 80% to 85% complete for corn and almost completely finished for soybeans, as of November 25.

The National Weather Service reports that Rochester, Minnesota, has received a total of 52.78 inches of precipitation since January 1 – over 20 inches more than normal, and surrounding states tell a similar story.

Spring Harvest

While seeing crops standing in fields this late in the season is less than ideal, as long as the Midwest can dodge heavy snow and strong winds, corn holds up pretty well, according to Iowa State University Agriculture and Biosystems Professor Charles Hurburgh. 

“From previous years when we’ve had late harvests and rain in the field and has stayed there for a long time, our previous experience has been, that as long as the corn is not falling down – in other words, root lodging or stalk breakage – or as long as we don’t have a large snow that basically covers it in water, as long as it’s just standing in the field, the quality is maintained reasonably well,” says Hurburgh. “If you leave corn over winter, and just come back in the spring, typically the corn moisture will be 18% to 19%, somewhere in that area.

“But that’s the natural equilibrium moisture for winter conditioned air. Assuming the winter is cold, [corn won’t be] excessively moldy. The longer you leave it in the warm spring, the more problems obviously are going to occur. So, it’s not a total disaster if it has to stay there, but then the risk is wind and snow.”

While waiting until spring could be the right call for some northern Corn Belt farmers, the decision triggers losses in yield potential. 

The decision could be impacted by the weather patterns during Thanksgiving week with 6 or more inches of snow projected for parts of Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Nebraska this week, according to AccuWeather.

“I’d say that if we’re going to start getting a bunch of pounding rains or big, heavy snows here in the next couple weeks and we still have corn sitting in the ground, I wouldn’t necessarily be nervous about waiting until spring [for it], but we’re going to lose quite a bit – upwards of 30% to 40% of what’s there now if we wait until spring to harvest that,” Peterson says.

Soybean Status

The soybean crop faced the same challenges as corn with downpours covering the Midwest at times this year.

Over 90% of the soybeans have been harvested, according to the USDA Crop Progress Report, but for the bean fields that still have yet to be harvested, the concern is more focused on temperatures rather than moisture.

“Soybeans will end up somewhere around 17% to 18% moisture if you leave them, but they’re much more prone to the pods splitting open and the beans falling on the ground – particularly during freeze-thaw cycles, which are inevitable. We’re getting them now,” Hurburgh says. “I would say the field loss is probably a lot worse with soybeans. From a mold perspective, a deterioration perspective, as long as it stays cold, probably not a whole lot worse than corn, but we’re going to find a lot more beans on the ground.”

Peterson says a later planting date lends itself to an uptick in damage from disease and/or insects that can chomp away at yield results.

“If we have still some pretty green beans out there, we can see white mold come in and take out maybe 10% of the bushels and we can also see shorter beans with less pod fill and a little bit lower test weight,” Peterson says.

Storage

The soggy weather deterred a timely planting season and harvest season, but it also harms the postharvest situation for farmers.

The late planting, resulting in late maturity, generated softer corn with less filled out kernels, lower protein, and lower test weight than normal. The grain also breaks up easier, causing it to be more difficult to store, according to Hurburgh.

For farmers that managed to harvest their crop, there’s a good chance it’s wetter than normal. Hurburgh says ideally farmers should run the grain through a dryer and knock the moisture down to 15% or 16%. Hurburgh never suggests putting grain wetter than that in a bin if drying is an option, but if it can’t be avoided, it is an option.

“If there isn’t drying capacity, if there isn’t [liquid propane] or whatever, then the key to keeping wetter grain is keeping it cold, running the aeration fan, when the temperatures – particularly the dew point temperatures – are in the 20s or below. That will buy a lot of time and prevent mold loss, at least through the winter,” Hurburgh says. “But it won’t keep it once we get into spring, say February, and the temperatures start to warm up and then get cold again and warm up and get cold again. 

“There will be a high potential for spoilage in the bin and anyone with grain in that situation needs to move it out, park it, get it to a dryer, something, but move it out and get it dry.”

Outdoor Storage Piles

With harvest happening all at once in some areas, storage spots could fill up quickly or be nearing capacity for farmers from earlier in the season.

Some elevators may be forced to use outdoor storage for short periods of time, but Hurburgh says he hopes farms aren’t using outdoor storage piles because of the difficulty of managing them and maintaining them.

If an elevator does have to use this method, airflow is still key for storing it. 

“It’s more challenging because a pile is not uniform and therefore the airflow through the pile is not uniform,” Hurburgh says. “Grain elevators with piles, if they have to pile wet grain, I’m sure, are planning to pick the pile up and move it back through a grain dryer as quickly as possible, preferably in December or January. 

“Piling wet grain is temporary at best because you just can’t keep the uniformity of temperatures in the pile, even with a tarp on it. Then you still have nonuniformity of temperature and moisture, so most elevators will pick it up and dry it rather than leave the pile there.”

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