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Paynesville Press - November 3, 2004

Area farmers waiting to harvest wet corn crops

By Bonnie Jo Hanson

Cool, wet weather has kept corn from drying in the fields for the last several weeks, and recent heavy rains may make it difficult or impossible for farmers to get in their fields and harvest standing corn.

The corn crop matured late this year, continuing to grow during the warm weather of September. While September was a great growing month for corn, and helped boost yields, it meant the harvest was delayed. Then corn was slow to dry.

The area has still not had a true killing frost, which would normally hasten the drying of corn, according to Dan Martens of the Stearns County Extension Office. Alfalfa is still growing, he noted. A hard freeze would help the corn to dry, added Martens.

The ideal moisture level for storing corn is 15 percent or lower. Currently, farmers are reporting corn moisture in the mid-20 percent range, with some corn as high as 35 percent moisture, said Martens.

Most farmers use liquid propane to dry corn, but with high fuel costs drying corn is very expensive.

On average, said Martens, it can cost up to 5 per bushel per point of moisture to dry corn for storage (based on current fuel prices). For example, a bushel of corn at 25 percent moisture would cost about 50 (5 times 10 percentage points) per bushel to dry.

wet crop At the current corn price, just over $2 per bushel, that's about 25 percent of the growers' income for their corn. Most farmers have less than a 25 percent profit margin on their corn crops, said Martens.

Corn is still standing in area fields, much of it still being too wet to harvest and now many fields being too wet for harvest equipment.

Robert Orbeck, who farms with his family west of St. Martin, estimated that he would spend up to one third of his corn income on drying if they were to harvest now. Still, Orbeck would like to get into his fields, but most are too wet.

Unfortunately, November generally isn't a good month for drying corn, said Dave Schwartz of the Kandiyohi County Extension Office. The days are too short, and the temperatures are too cool. What farmers need is a hard freeze and then several weeks of warm, sunny, breezy weather.

Since corn can stand in the field for weeks, a late snow would also help farmers with crops still in the field. A heavy snow before crops are harvested could cause its own problems, though, making it impossible to get machinery in the fields and knocking corn to the ground.

Don Lieser, who grows corn in several fields near Roscoe, can't afford to spend money drying corn. Already this year he lost some corn to an August frost, and he lost more when an October freeze hit fields that weren't mature enough to harvest. Lieser has decided to wait for a freeze to lower his corn's moisture levels before finishing his harvest. And whatever he doesn't harvest this year, he will wait to get next spring. This should eliminate virtually all drying costs, he figured.

Waiting until a freeze will also help Lieser with the muddy fields that are keeping area farners from finishing their harvest.

Soils were already saturated before several additional inches of rain fell throughout central Minnesota last week, said Martens. The addition of nearly three inches in the Paynesville area virtually halted the corn harvest in low-lying areas with heavy soils.

Orbeck has corn on high, sandy ground as well as on low, heavy ground. He was able to get around on some of the high ground and harvested a portion of the crop, he said, but the low ground is still waiting.

Farmers with sandy soils in high areas may be able to harvest in the mud, said Schwartz. But farmers with heavy soils may be better off waiting to harvest after the ground has frozen. Both of these options have drawbacks, though, said John VanderBeek of the Paynesville Farmer's Union Co-op.

Taking harvest equipment into wet fields can cause soil compaction, and compacted soil makes poor seedbeds in the spring because plants have difficulty emerging and roots can't spread out easily, said VanderBeek.

In addition, farmers depend on fall tillage to prevent compaction in the spring, but tilling in mud does no good and can actually make compaction worse. Tilling in spring is an option, but when farmers have a thousand things to do during planting season, spring tillage can be difficult to find time for, said VanderBeek. In addition, because spring soils tend to be wet, spring tillage isn't as effective as fall tillage at combating compaction in heavy soil, he added.

Lieser's decision to wait for a freeze instead of "mudding out" corn in the remaining fields, which would cause compaction and ruts in the fields, will also help protect his soil from compaction. And while he knows he will have to spend more time preparing soil in the spring, he will simply have to plan for it, he said.

Fortunately for Lieser and other farmers who choose to wait until a freeze to harvest their crops, corn can wait to be harvested, said Schwartz. And it will only get drier, since corn does not absorb moisture once the stalk has died.

VanderBeek likes to look on the positive side regarding harvest. Not only could November have nice weather for farmers, but everyone needs to remember that without September's weather miracle, which provided precious growing time for crops that weren't mature, many area farmers wouldn't have much of a crop to harvest.

While the heavy rains have ended - for now at least - with damp weather and temperatures in the 40s predicted for much of this week, no immediate relief is in sight, said Martens. The damp, cool weather won't do a lot to help dry corn or soil, said Schwartz, and the immediate outlook isn't much better.

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