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To harvest or not to harvest puts farmers in a corn conundrum

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Jim Durkin (l) and Tim Nelson (r) share a laugh Tuesday morning. Durkin is helping Nelson with the 2019 corn harvest.
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JOHNSTOWN, N.D. — After weeks of waiting, Tim Nelson was in the driver’s seat of his combine Tuesday steering the John Deere 9770 through a corn field.

Rain, snow and a combination of both during September and October delayed Nelson’s corn harvest for several weeks, so he was glad to finally be in the field.

“I just started yesterday,” Nelson said Tuesday, Nov. 19. “I’ve never started this late.”

Nelson has a lot of company across North Dakota. Only 23% of the 3.5 million acres of corn North Dakota farmers planted had been harvested as of Nov. 17, the National Agricultural Statistics Service said. Last year, 70% of the state’s corn had been harvested by that date, and on average, 85% of the corn is in the bin.

This spring, wet weather delayed corn planting, and heavy rain and snow this fall delayed harvest. In early November, though, temperatures dipped below freezing, firming fields enough to support combines, trucks and tractors pulling grain carts.

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But even after a couple of weeks of daily high temperatures below 32 degrees and nighttime lows in the teens, Nelson’s field still was boot-clinging muddy when he got out of the combine Tuesday to talk to a visitor from the newspaper.

The slimy mud beneath the wheels of Nelson’s combine wasn’t a problem because his machine was equipped with large tires to handle it. Nelson's bigger concern was the moisture content of the corn kernels. On Tuesday, the moisture was 21% to 22%. That’s higher than optimal for on-farm storage, but Nelson has dealt with high-moisture corn before by turning on fans that keep the air circulating in his grain bins.

“Most years, we get it dried down by the first of the year,” he said.

However, the other years that he air-dried the corn, it was harvested earlier in the season and warm outside temperatures helped dry it, he noted.

This year, Nelson is banking on frigid temperatures to help preserve the binned corn.

“We can keep it frozen until spring and flip the fans on,” Nelson said. “I think we’ll probably freeze the bins solid."

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Nelson acknowledged that storing the corn and hoping that it freezes and stays that way is a gamble, but he believes the alternative is worse.

“The risk is greater leaving the corn in the field,” Nelson said.

John Swanson, a Mentor, Minn., corn grower is taking that risk. After drying about half of his corn acres, he decided Tuesday to quit combining and wait for colder temperatures to freeze-dry the crop in the field.

“It’s getting pretty expensive drying,” Swanson said. “It was costing more than the corn was worth.”

Not only has Swanson had to dry corn, but also his wheat, soybeans and sunflower crops. So far this fall, he has used 15,000 gallons of propane.

“Usually we don’t go through nearly that much,” he said.

Meanwhile, since the beginning of harvest, the price of propane has risen by about 50 cents a gallon or 46 percent to $1.39, Swanson said.

Leaving the corn in the field also can be costly, though, he noted.

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“The risk is, if you have a big snowstorm or snow and rain,” said Swanson, noting the frozen precipitation can break down the corn ears or knock them off of the stalk, reducing yields.

“Another risk is deer and other animals eating out there, and there will be some of that,” Swanson said.

“This is the most challenging year I’ve ever had. We were challenged in the spring with wet conditions and late planting. As soon as we started the small grain harvest, it was wet," he said. “It’s been continuous from one thing to another with wet conditions.”

The weather conditions in north-central Grand Forks County where Nelson farms were drier this growing season, so he was pretty pleased on Tuesday with the way his corn in the field near Johnstown was yielding.

“Above average,” he said.

And Nelson was happy that the corn harvest was under way and, barring adverse weather, the end was in sight.

“We’re going to be done here by Thanksgiving,” he said. “That’s a bonus.”

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Corn flows from Tim Nelson's combine into his grain cart Tuesday morning.

Ann is a journalism veteran with nearly 40 years of reporting and editing experiences on a variety of topics including agriculture and business. Story ideas or questions can be sent to Ann by email at: abailey@agweek.com or phone at: 218-779-8093.
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