Corn stalks piled under 6 feet of snow. Brown, dried-out leaves on the plants, gently rustling in the breeze. Combines blasting through mounds of snow. It’s a surreal and eerie scene sitting in the fields just outside of Grand Forks, N.D.; an unusual scene glaring farmers in the face as they try to wrap up a year that's been anything but normal. The harvest of 2019 has now turned into the harvest of 2020, as area farmers are just weeks away from needing to plant their 2020 crops.
“This was the first for all of us,” says Ryan Johnson, a farmer in Cummings, N.D. “I don't think we've ever gone past the middle of December, and now we still have 1,000 acres left [to harvest]. It's just been a real tough one.”
North Dakota farmers aren’t the only ones still dealing with the remnants of 2019. Just to the east, farmers in Minnesota are also staring at unharvested fields.
“On the corn side of it, I have about two-thirds of my crop out there,” says Robert Johnson, a farmer in Clearbrook, Minn.
The last time either of those farmers harvested their fields was in December. That’s when Mother Nature forced each farmer to stop, and they haven’t been able to harvest their crops since.
“We just stopped; we pulled out and said, ‘It's not worth it to keep on trying and to break equipment,’” says Ryan. “We figured it's better to wait and then just let the snow melt, and hopefully it gets down past the point where we can actually get out there and get the crop out decently.”
While he’s hoping to start back up anywhere from a week to four weeks from now, other farmers are deciding to take the chance and begin harvesting again. That was the case just south of Grand Forks, N.D., when U.S. Farm Report visited. Nelson Farms was back in the field, not willing to stop for an interview, knowing at this point in the season, every minute counts.
For those in the haste of harvest, test weight has gone up a few pounds since December. Moisture in the corn fell slightly. Yields are hanging on. And harvesting the snowed under corn is going surprisingly smooth.
“We definitely expected the test weight to increase some just by drying down naturally and then the cold weather drawing the moisture out. But it hasn't happened quite as much as you can normally expect just because it was so late to begin with,” explains Ryan.
While the yield is worth saving in the middle of the snowed under fields, the rows on the outside were beat up by the weather this winter and won’t be harvested at all.
“The edges are just way too thick, and they're just going to get flattened down,” says Ryan. “There is nothing there, but in the interior of every field the quality should still be good enough. It might actually be better than it was before, because the test weight should have raised up a little bit. It’s going to be hard to harvest, but it will definitely be worth it to get out there and get the middle of these fields.”
While some fields are yielding high, with moisture content coming down and test weights actually seeing a bump, that’s not the case everywhere. Frayne Olson of North Dakota State University says the quality profile of North Dakota’s crop being harvested is all across the board.
“We've heard that some are getting good yields and good quality, as the crop was planted on time and they chose the right varieties,” he says. “But it’s everywhere from that down to some really, really tough stuff with high moisture. Probably the lowest test weight I've heard is in the low 40s. So there's some really highly damaged stuff out there.”
Olson says local elevators are being very particular about what they’ll receive, as those buyers have to then resell it to various outlets.
“The ethanol plants are taking some,” he says. “They're looking at the low 50s for test weight as kind of the minimum that they will accept. That’s because of the conversion factors they've got for corn into the ethanol. And once you get below about the 52 test weight range, all sudden those conversion factors drop off really low.”
He says the corn coming in at even lower test weight is traveling to feedyards. That corn is being sent to feedyards as far south as Kansas and Colorado, as buyers are looking for any market that will take the poor quality corn some farmers are faced with this year.
As harvest drags on, it’s hard to prepare for planting this year when the 2019 crop is still staring farmers in the face. But Ryan says that’s exactly what he and other area farmers are doing right now.
“You do the best you can,” he says. “We're planning on a full crop, but you just have to roll with the punches. If we don't get this off until the beginning to the middle of May, it might not get planted.”
As the outcome of the 2020 planting decisions rely on Mother Nature, area farmers like Ryan know prevent plant may be their only option on some acres this year.
“For how much crop is still out there, there is a very high chance that there will be a lot more prevent plant out there,” he says. “There will be a lot of farms that may be forced to maximize their prevent plant.”
While prevent plant may be the only option for some farmers, others are hopeful all their acres will be harvested and then immediately planted, saying prevent plant is a last resort.
“I thought I was going to have more prevent plant last year,” says Ryan. “I hope we don’t have prevent plant. We did the math on it, and prevent plant does not work out very well at all for you financially. No matter what it takes, I'm going to do my best to get every acre seeded.”
Farmers in the Northern Plains are facing the future while dealing with the wrath of Mother Nature. It’s a reminder that farming that far north isn’t for the faint of heart.
“In my young farming record, it’s definitely been the most stressful time of my life,” says Ryan, while still managing to have a smile on his face. “There's always a future. I mean, if you can't look ahead, you're not farming.”