It’s a year of haves and have nots. Excessive rainfall in some areas kept planters out of fields and scarred young crops. Entire fields are barren. In places where Mother Nature cooperated, corn and soybeans fields are lush and bountiful with grain.
From southeast Kansas to the northwest corner of Ohio, corn yields are expected to take as much as a 50-bu.-per-acre hit compared to the rest of the country. Meanwhile, in northern Iowa and Minnesota, crop conditions are on track to be 50 bu. per acre above average.
As you prepare for harvest, use this guide to maximize efficiency and profitably. Learn how to prioritize fields at harvest, maximize your combine’s performance, manage on-farm grain storage, mitigate your risk of discounts at the elevator and market the potential of your stored grain.
Make a Harvest Schedule
It’s prime time to walk fields to check for any possible issues that could alter your harvest timeline. When you’ve battled Mother Nature all season to make sure you reap the highest yields possible, there’s nothing more disheartening than yield loss you could have prevented so close to the finish line. Make it a priority to check each field for standability issues.
“Corn reaches black layer about 55 to 60 days after silking,” says Jeff Coulter, Extension corn agronomist at the University of Minnesota. “Check stalks at black layer when the grain is about 32% moisture.”
When you scout, check stalks in different parts of the field to get a handle on stalk quality. Be on the lookout for weak stalks, perform push tests, split stalks and pinch the lower portions of stalks to determine stalk strength and if the stalks are hollow.
“Anytime I get more than 10% to 15% hollow stalks, I tag that field as an early harvest option,” says Troy Deutmeyer, Pioneer field agronomist in northeast Iowa. “Things that could lead me to want an early harvest are nutrient deficiencies like nitrogen or potassium, leaf disease pressure and corn rootworm feeding.”
This year, increased rainfall could mean there are more instances of nutrient deficiencies due to runoff and
leaf diseases because of favorable environments. In fields where any of these factors are present, it will be especially important to check conditions before harvest.
“With harvest, there are a lot of logistics. Prioritizing can help you line up fields so harvest goes more smoothly,” Coulter says.
Standability issues don’t only affect corn—soybeans can wind up on the ground too. The more pods and beans, the higher the soybean yield, but the weight can cause standability concerns and seed shattering.
“Shattering can be more environmentally caused by wetting and drying of the pod,” Deutmeyer says. “Harvest soybeans in the 14% to 14.5% range to avoid shattering.”
If you only have one or two combines, it can be challenging to harvest every soybean field at exactly 14%. Overcome the challenge by planting a variety of soybean maturities to stagger harvest.
Planting different soybean maturities can offer a bigger payback than just staggering harvest. Standability in soybeans is dependent on variety, so planting a diverse group might help you diminish some risk over a large number of acres. When choosing varieties talk to your seed provider and review previous years notes to see if a product will stand up at harvest.
Going into harvest with a plan in mind will maximize operational efficiency, reap higher yields and boost your bottom line. Use the following 10 questions to devise your harvest plan:
1 What maturity was the seed? When you know the maturity, you can make a plan for when it will reach physiological maturity. Corn generally reaches black layer 55 days to 60 days after silking. At black layer, the
grain is about 32% moisture. In soybeans, aim to harvest at 14% to 14.5% moisture to reduce drying costs and splitting.
2 When did you plant the field? The planting date will tell you if the crop had stress early in the season and if it will be mature sooner than other fields. Early stress can cause lodging and other problems late in the season.
3 When did the field pollinate? Was there insect, nutrient, heat or drought stress during pollination? The plant puts all of its energy into producing ears during pollination. If it needs more nutrients or is under stress, it will steal from the stalk to provide for the ear. This hollows the pith and makes a very weak stalk that can easily be blown over by strong wind or by being pushed by the combine.
4 How does your rotation affect field health? Corn-on-corn fields face different pressures than a field rotated between soybeans and corn. There are fungi and diseases that never dissipate because the field never gets a break. It is important to be aware of any additional risks your crops might experience.
5 How does rotation affect disease history? Watch for overwintering diseases. Sudden death syndrome and northern corn leaf blight are two diseases that can be detrimental on corn and soybeans. Both overwinter in soil and corn residue. Keep track of where you had these problems to see if you need to take action.
6 What diseases or fungi are present in the soil? Soilborne issues such as anthracnose, southern rust, common rust, smut, gray leaf spot, brown spot and other stalk rots are present in soils. Keep an accurate history of your field and any areas with problems to track where you might need to spray fungicide or harvest early.
7 Was the field under stress this year? What kind of stress? Did you have drought, too much water or nutrient leeching? Drought can bring out mold, such as aflatoxin, which can mean problems at the grain elevator and harvest. Too much water might encourage stalk rots and cause poor standability. Lacking nutrients means the plant will rob from the stalk to feed the ear, which makes it hollow and easy to knock over.
8 What disease or rots are present now? Use pocket guides to determine what kind of diseases or rots you are seeing in the field now. This can tell you the severity of what you are dealing with and if it will have a big effect on standability the rest of the season. Leaf rots can also rob from the stalk, so it will be important to identify those while planning harvest.
9 Are there ears or pods lying on the ground already? A weak ear shank can cause big losses as your money literally falls to the ground with each ear you lose. The same goes for soybeans—as they hit the ground less money goes into your pocket. Be vigilant as you check for ears and pods on the ground so you don’t harvest too late and lose it all.
10 Does the stalk pass the push test? As you walk the field, push stalks to test their strength. If more than 10% to 15% don’t bounce back because they break, make that field a priority. That is a potential 10% to 15% yield loss and could indicate the rest of the stalks are also weaker and could fall with a strong wind.
Be thorough during your end of season scouting. You don’t want to lose yield—especially in a tight year when every bushel counts.
Don’t Blame Your Combine for Every Harvest Hitch
If your combine is leaving beans in the field, throwing grain out the back or acting puny when going up hills while unloading on the go, don’t start kicking the tires in frustration. There’s only so much a combine can do, so knowing how to work as a team with the machine to maximize performance will alleviate harvest headaches.
- There’s a mechanical limit to how close a cutterbar can cut soybeans. “Most cutterbars and skid shoe assemblies are at least 1½" thick; to cut closer than 2" is tough,” says Jeff Gray, senior product specialist, Claas Lexion. That means it’s impossible to get every pod when harvesting varieties that set pods at ground level.
Soybean varieties that branch near the ground cause similar harvest losses. Branches that develop at ground level create a thickened stem joint that might not cut cleanly, especially with cutterbars that use 1½" knife sections rather than 3".
Soybeans that branch below cutting height also leave “stringers”—single, slender stems—waving in the field behind combines. Stringers result when main stems deflect as they’re cut, bending low branches so the cutterbar glides over them rather than cuts them.
There is no solution at harvest for soybeans with low pods or branches. Cut as low as possible, then make note to either avoid that variety next spring or plant at a higher population to create a heavier crop canopy. Thicker canopies reduce sunlight penetration and discourage low-branching.
- Don’t always blame sieve settings for dirty corn samples in the grain tank. Narrow cornhead deck plate clearances, high gathering chain speeds and slow ground speeds can feed excess leaves and trash into the combine. Excess trash traps grain as the material travels across the sieves and carries that grain out the back of the combine.
The less trash a combine takes in at the front, the better the grain sample in the grain tank. Adjust deck plate settings, gathering chain speeds and ground speed with a goal of seeing nothing but ears of corn entering the feederhouse.
- While it is possible to “blow” grain out the back of a combine with high cleaning fan speeds, it’s more common to lose grain off the sieves because of low cleaning fan speed. Without enough cleaning fan volume to “float” crop residues across the sieves, the mat of residue carries trapped grain out the back of the combine. More air is generally better than less air when harvesting corn or soybeans.
- Lugging combine engines until the low engine speed warning light comes on reduces threshing capacity and grain-cleaning quality. If you lug the engine below 2,000 rpm, you dramatically decrease cleaning fan speed, shake speed of the sieves, rotor speed and chopper speed.
Ease up on the hydro handle long before the low engine rpm warning light comes on because the entire threshing and separating process degrades rapidly as engine rpms fall below optimum.
- Few combines have enough horsepower to suit their owners. While a combine might have 400 hp available on the end rows, as soon as it pulls into a crop, at least 100 hp goes to power the cornhead. A 12-row cornhead can pull as much as 200 hp.
Heavy residues passing through a straw chopper can draw more than 100 hp. Grain tank extensions not only increase the weight of the combine but also horsepower demands as the grain tank’s fountain auger labors to push grain through once the end of that auger is buried.
Engaging the machine’s unloading auger to unload on the go also causes a horsepower deficit for
many combines. —Dan Anderson
While it would be nice to think the hard work is over once the crop is out of the field and you’ve shut the bin doors, that’s not the case.
“The fall and beyond are shaping up to be the toughest drying and storage challenge in decades,” says Gary Woodruff, conditioning applications manager, GSI. “Many farmers are going to have to get their crop out early or it’s going to be laying on the ground due to stalk issues from the unusual weather. Moisture variations in the same field might vary 20% to 40%, and kernel-to-kernel variation will be much higher than normal.”
Moisture levels that vary kernel by kernel on the front end will present challenges through drying and on the back end when it goes into the bin.
“A farmer really only has control over moisture and grain temperature in the storage process, and for the most part, Mother Nature controls grain temperature,” Woodruff adds. With the conditions most will see this fall, it is important to make sure extra care is taken from grain bin prep through the months of storage and management.
Before the bins start to fill up, there are several key steps to ensure they’re primed for another crop.
“The most important preharvest check I recommend is to make sure the area under the floor is clean and the floor is free of debris for proper air flow,” explains David Berry, southern district sales manager for OPI Systems. “Make sure fans and heaters (if available) are working properly, along with all electrical connections.”
It’s also valuable to know the airflow rate—cubic feet of air per minute (cfm) capacity—for every fan to help decide at what moisture to combine and how long it will take to cool grain, Berry adds. The higher the cfm, the more air flows through the grain, which is critical for higher moistures.
“The ideal cfm for natural air drying or natural air drying with heat is 1 cfm per bushel,” he says. “It’s best the farmer shares the bin specifications with a bin dealer and ask him/her to run an AirPic [bin airflow simulation program] to determine the cfm for the bin to get an idea when the air flow will stall out, leaving high moisture grain on top of lower moisture grain.”
As the crop continues to come out of the field, the moisture content of the grain already in the bin needs to be comparable with the grain coming in, Berry notes. Adding high-moisture grain to low-moisture grain creates problems, such as overdrying the lower depths or if the fans stall out, the higher grain won’t get enough air to dry down, causing hot spots and spoilage.
“While it’s never a good idea to store grain above 15% moisture, don’t try to cheat this year. It will create an absolute disaster,” Woodruff says.
As the grain pours in, top it off at the eve and level it out for optimal air flow. Core the center of the bin to remove foreign matter and make sure the air flows through the center of the bin to prevent spoilage, Berry suggests.
“Once bins are full and down to ambient temperature, run the aeration fans for 10 to 14 days to equalize kernel- to-kernel moisture,” Woodruff adds.
As fall turns to winter then spring and summer, continue to frequently monitor temperature, moisture and insects to maintain maximum postharvest grain quality.
Don’t Lose Money at the Elevator
What’s worse than low market prices? Low prices combined with discounts at the elevator. You might need to do additional blending, drying or other counteractive measures to get the most for your grain.
The biggest culprit when it comes to discounts is aflatoxins, says Brian Aust, director of grain marketing at Lansing Trade Group.
“At the elevator, we work closely with the farmer,” Aust says.“We monitor the grain and feel out the marketplace to see if it’s widespread or concentrated.”
There are stringent export regulations on aflatoxins—anything higher than 20 parts per billion can’t leave the U.S. If you have aflatoxins in your grain and it gets turned away at the elevator, there are alternative markets options. For example, some feedlots will buy the grain as long as toxin levels are below allowable feeding rates. Even if you find an alternative market, the grain will still be discounted as much as $1 per bushel, Aust says.
Since it was a wet year, moisture level or low test weights will likely be a bigger issue than aflatoxins.
“Low test weight is normally not rejected. It should be 56 lb. for yellow corn,” Aust explains. “Moisture can be rejected. Look for 18% or less.”
If your field has good standability, it might be worthwhile to let it stand in the field to dry or consider running it through a grain dryer. In the field, grain dries down 0.3 points of moisture per day in wet, cool weather and 1 point in hot, dry weather, according to Iowa State University Extension. If you have your own dryers, it might be cheaper than drying it at a local elevator. The biggest costs for on-farm drying are fuel and electricity. Be mindful of space limitations as some smaller elevators might not have capacity to dry large amounts of grain in wet years.
Study your crop as harvest nears to spot potential issues. Set expectations before the truck goes to the elevator, so you can act quickly if issues arise.
Market the Potential of Stored Grain
From an operational standpoint, on-farm storage helps keep combines rolling during harvest. The benefits should apply to marketing, as well, allowing farmers to hold onto their grain until they’re on the other side of harvest lows and wide basis.
“This year, basis is going to be even more important in the decision-making process,” says Farm Journal Economist Bob Utterback. “If you’ve made forward cash sales and are long the basis (forward sold flat price but haven’t locked in local cash price), your marketing plan should be to wait as long as possible to lock up basis against forward cash contracts when end users will have to narrow basis to buy inventory.”
For farmers putting unpriced grain in the bin, gambling on the basis to narrow, the risk is the deferred price falls to the nearby price due to ample supply resulting in a loss. Should you put grain in the bin or hold it on paper?
“I prefer to store corn and buy back soybeans on paper,” Utterback says. Don’t let on-farm storage become a crutch for bad marketing habits. “You can’t put grain in the bin and neglect to capture the market carry,” Utterback says. “If the market is paying you 35¢ to store grain from November to June, you have to forward contract, sell futures, buy put options, etc., to take advantage of the opportunity to store.”