“We’ve harvested lots of corn late in the past. We just haven’t done it in a while. It’ll be a good experience for some of these young guys.”
– Shawn McCutcheon
Until a few weeks ago Manitoba corn farmers were praying it wouldn’t freeze; now a hard, killing frost is exactly what they want to dry down a bumper crop and reduce grain-drying costs.
Local farmer Shawn McCutcheon’s corn was 33 to 35 per cent moisture a couple of weeks ago – a long way from 15.5 per cent, which is dry.
Corn that’s more than 30 per cent moisture is hard to handle because it doesn’t flow very well. It’s also hard to thresh, producing more fines and a poor sample. And the wetter the corn, the more costly it is to dry in dryers fuelled mainly by propane or natural gas.
“I think a lot of guys have resigned themselves to starting (to combine corn) around Nov. 1 and if it isn’t dry enough then guys will have to wait even longer, I guess,” he said in an interview Oct. 22. “Hopefully we have a nice November and December.”
Regular rains haven’t helped. Corn crops are so thick air movement is restricted. But that also means a potentially high yield. McCutcheon reckons Manitoba’s 180,000-acre corn crop will, on average, yield as much or better than last year’s record 110.9 bushels per acre, based on crop insurance data.
Theresa Bergsma, secretary-manager of the Manitoba Corn Growers Association, is also hearing from farmers who expect a bountiful harvest.
“I think we’re going to be fairly happy,” she said in an interview Oct. 22. “Now that it has made it this far we’re going to have a crop. Two weeks ago guys were still a bit worried. The guys who have nosed around with it think it will be a good, if not excellent, yield.”
In September Statistics Canada estimated Manitoba’s corn crop would average 100 bushels an acre, up from its estimate of 99.6 bushels last year. (Manitoba crop insurance yield estimates are considered more accurate.)
A heavy frost of -5 or -6C for three or four hours will help dry the corn, especially if followed by some sunny, warm and windy weather, said Bud McKnight, the local corn farmer and Pioneer Hi-Bred seed dealer.
This area, on average, gets a killing frost by the third week of September, but not this year. Forecasts were calling for it earlier this week. According to Environment Canada data the coldest it got up until Oct. 22 was -1.9C. For nine hours Oct. 21, temperatures ranged between -1and -1.7. That’s a long stretch, but barely below zero.
It has been a long fall and that’s exactly what the corn crop needed, McCutcheon said. The crop was 10 days to two weeks behind all year due to a cool spring and a cooler-than-normal summer. It’s not surprising harvesting will be delayed too, he said.
“We’ve harvested lots of corn late in the past,” McCutcheon said. “We just haven’t done it in a while. It’ll be a good experience for some of these young guys.”
According to Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives (MAFRI), Carman received 2,597 corn heat units between April 15 and Oct. 22 – 90 per cent of normal. A longer-than-usual frost-free period helped make up the shortfall.
Although there’s a big crop to harvest, every farmer knows it doesn’t count until it’s safely in the bin. And while a new record average yield could be set, McCutcheon, Bergsma and McKnight agree quality will likely not be quite as good as in 2007. They suspect the bushel weight, while adequate, will be lower. There’s also some mould present, which is expected to get worse the longer the crop stands. That’s why McKnight expects many corn growers will start harvesting when the moisture content falls to 30 per cent or below.
The longer the crop is in the field, the greater the risk snow will make harvesting more difficult or even impossible until spring. Corn that stands out all winter is prone to breaking down and is vulnerable to hungry deer. The longer harvest is delayed the less time there is to prepare the field for spring seeding.
Notwithstanding the weather risk, farmers must also weigh the costs of harvesting wetter corn early. Going early means a larger gap between wet and dry and therefore more drying. Waiting lets nature take care of some of the drying, but it also means finishing the drying when air temperatures are usually colder, which requires more fuel.
Propane is currently around 53 cents a litre. McKnight estimates it costs five to six cents to dry down a bushel of corn by one point, compared to around four cents a year ago. Dropping the moisture content in a bushel of corn 10 points will cost 60 cents. In a field that averaged 100 bushels an acre that’s a $60-an-acre cost.
Drying corn isn’t cheap, but it needs to be put into perspective, McKnight said. A farmer he knows needs to dry his corn by 14.4 points. At six cents a point that’s 86 cents a bushel. The crop is averaging 164 bushels an acre. While it will cost the farmer $141 an acre to dry his corn, he expects a gross return of almost $822 an acre. That’s based on an average selling price of around $5 a bushel.
According to MAFRI two weeks ago, corn in Manitoba was fetching just $4.26 a bushel, down 28 cents from the previous week. But this farmer had pre-sold a portion of the crop.
Although corn prices have slid, they were recently still higher than the same time last year and well above the depressed prices of two years ago. [email protected]