If a short crop has a long tail, so does a wet one. Farmers fought the effects of this past fall’s nightmare harvest conditions well into spring, as they struggled to keep combine-damaged, high-moisture corn from going out of condition in the bin.
“We are still suffering the consequences of a wet harvest,” says Jack Trainor of Trainor Grain in Forrest, Ill. “Grain that entered the bin in poor condition came out the same way.”
Fortunately, thanks to balmy planting weather, the 2010 harvest is shaping up to be an early one. But memories of fall 2009 may tempt you to jump-start harvest to make sure you don’t get blindsided by the weather.
Experts offer this advice: First, if the forecast calls for normal fall weather don’t let memories of this past fall’s muddy harvest push you into rushing this year’s harvest; the risk of low-quality grain is just too great. Second, this year and every year, plan ahead so things run smoothly once you begin.
Here are 10 tips to help make your harvest season smooth and profitable.
1. Put fall 2009 behind you. “Every year is different,” says Mark Baer of Sun Ag Supply in Tremont, Ill. “You can’t assume this harvest season will be like the last one.”
“This past year probably was an anomaly,” agrees Steve Burrow of Soy Capital Ag Services, a farm management firm in Peoria, Ill. “Base each harvest on experience and realistic forecasts.”
2. Let Mother Nature help. “If weather permits, let corn dry in the field as much as possible,” Trainor says. “Harvesting wet corn puts in cracks that don’t show up until drying. Contrary to popular belief, elevators don’t make money drying wet corn. In fact, we don’t like to receive it. It causes us as many problems as it does farmers, maybe even more because we dry at higher heat, which makes any damage show up more.”
“If you’re drying corn on-farm, let it dry in the field until it reaches 25% moisture,” Burrow advises. “If you’re going to the elevator, try to wait until it dries to 20% to 22%.”
Grain moisture above 20% invites quality loss when you dry it, Trainor says. Besides
increasing drying cost, the grain will be more difficult to maintain in the bin.
3. Evaluate the crop. “We scout our fields every week, so we know what’s out there,” says Fletcher, Ohio, farmer Jim Fiebiger. “Last year, we knew we had a big, heavy, wet crop that we couldn’t store. We started harvesting when corn was 25% moisture and sold that corn to an early market.
“This year, it’s different,” Fiebiger continues. “We’re borderline dry, and our area may have a short crop. In that case, we’ll harvest as we usually do, starting at 22% or 23% moisture.”
4. Check stalk quality. While you’re scouting, give stalks the push test. Then plan which fields to harvest first.
“Stalk quality is worse than last year,” Burrow says. “The problem was accentuated by nitrogen losses caused by heavy rains. Add anthracnose and common and Southern rust on top of that, and it’s bad for standability.”
5. Put machines and people in place. The first step to a timely harvest, says Farm Journal Field Agronomist Ken Ferrie, is calculating how many days you need to get the work accomplished. Allow for tillage and weather delays.
If your combine isn’t large enough to harvest in a timely fashion, add a second machine or hire more people to run longer shifts. “If you run longer shifts, you will need an elevator that’s open late or an employee at your bin site,” Ferrie notes.
Keeping the combine moving requires plenty of trucks on hand to haul away grain. Adding a grain cart and unloading on the go helps, too.
6. Prep bins and dryers. After two late wet harvest seasons, grain dryer manufacturers are having one of their best years ever, reports Jim Ratliff of Shivvers Manufacturing in Corydon, Iowa. If you have a new dryer, familiarize yourself with it now to avoid delays later.
After reading the operator’s manual, turn on the dryer and make sure everything is hooked up and running correctly, Ratliff says.
You can test most features (augers, fans, heaters, and gas and electrical connections) without actually running corn through the dryer.
If you have an older dryer, perform preseason maintenance, as you do with any piece of equipment, Ratliff adds.
7. Make tillage a priority. “We have one employee who does nothing but tillage, and he starts the day we begin to harvest corn,” says Mike McLaughlin, who farms near Leroy, Ill.
“Tillage is more important this year than ever,” says Sun Ag Supply’s Baer. “Because of the past two wet seasons, there’s a tremendous amount of compaction that needs to be corrected. Even if you no-till or strip-till, consider tilling fields where you destroyed the soil structure by harvesting when the ground was wet. Do what it takes to get the soil back into shape.”
Vertical-tillage tools, such as in-line rippers, chisel plows, disk chisels and disk rippers, work best for breaking up compacted layers and eliminating the density changes created by horizontal tillage, Ferrie says. Set the tools to provide uniform shattering across the width of the implement. Plan to follow with a leveling harrow.
Besides soil conditioning, there’s another important reason for timely tillage. “In continuous corn situations, getting tillage done this fall will start residue decomposition,” Baer says. “That will help prevent nitrogen tie-up issues like we had this spring.”
Nitrogen problems result when high volumes of crop residue are incorporated in the spring, Ferrie explains. With a large food source available, soil microbe populations surge. The microbes immobilize soil nitrogen, so it is not available to the young corn plants.
Applying 50 lb. to 100 lb. of nitrogen per acre, shallowly incorporated and split between fall and spring, feeds the microbes and helps speed decomposition while leaving some nitrogen for the plants. Nitrogen also can be added through the planter to ensure nitrate is available for the young corn plants. “We’re not talking about increasing the rate per acre—just timing and placement,” Ferrie emphasizes.
8. Don’t wait too long. Although patience is a virtue, you don’t want to wait too long to start harvesting your corn fields because it can cost you money.
“Some farmers like to wait until corn moisture falls to 17% or 18%,” says Soy Capital’s Burrow. “But the field loss may defeat the purpose of waiting.”
9. Storage starts at the dryer. In an average year, most farmers do a good job of drying grain, Trainor says. So keep your fingers crossed for normal weather. “Don’t overdry this year’s crop just because you dealt with wet corn last year,” Trainor cautions. “Drying corn to 13% moisture costs you money, in shrink and wasted fuel.”
Even if your corn enters the bin in good condition that doesn’t mean you can forget about it. “Never take quality for granted,” Trainor says. “Even in the absence of excess moisture and
mechanical damage, some hybrids dry easier and store better than others. If you planted a new one, it may behave differently from what you’re used to.”
Of course, if you have wetter, lower-quality grain, you will have to watch grain quality during storage more closely. “In 2009, some farmers turned off their dryers too soon,” Trainor says. “We saw grain stored at 16% come out of the bin at 17%, instead of falling to 15%. We don’t know what happened; 2009 was a year like we never had experienced before.”
10. Plan for long-term storage. Corn can enter the bin at 15%, but you need to dry it below that level if you plan to hold it until spring or summer, Trainor points out. The required moisture level for safe, long-term storage varies somewhat by latitude, so follow the advice of your Extension adviser or elevator operator. “If you have any worries at all about the quality of corn in one of your bins, plan to move it out early,” Trainor advises.
If you know quality is poor at harvest, and you expect the price to rise, Trainor suggests selling the grain and replacing it with a futures contract. Meeting margin calls on a rising market could be a small price to pay for fighting a losing battle in an attempt to keep poor corn in condition.