If you're a South Dakota farmer, the view from the combine doesn't look great this year

Dominik Dausch
Farm Forum

MITCHELL — Of all the different types of dust that combines kick up when running through dry crop fields, Frank Victor said sunflower dust is "probably the worst."

"Soybean dust is bad because it's like a thick, black smoke. Wheat dust is also hard to breathe in," Victor said. "But sunflowers are the worst because it produces the most dust and it feels oily."

Victor is a South African livestock farmer who recently earned his U.S. citizenship. For the past three years, he has bounced between his home country and the Midwest, where he works as a combine operator.

A combine harvest collects and unloads corn into a grain cart on Chet Edinger's farm neat Mitchell, South Dakota on Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022. Severe drought conditions in the state will likely reduce the annual corn yield, according to DaNita Murray, executive director of South Dakota Corn Growers Association.

On Oct. 20, his machine harvested corn from fields belonging to Chet Edinger, a farmer from the Mitchell area. As Victor's combine made one of its many passes through about 18 rows of corn stalks, a wall of shredded cob and kernel particulate hit the farmer.

Edinger was unfazed by the grit, but he did not like what he had just seen.

"Corn dust isn't that bad. But it's so dry, the dust is a little worse this year," he said.

It's a sign, he said, that this year's corn harvest will likely be down. The third year of an ongoing drought in South Dakota continues to take its toll on the landscape, with severely dry conditions contributing to smaller, fewer crops during the harvest.

This is a top-down observation in the state's industry. Victor notices the drought when sun-dried corn, too hardened to be gently pulled into the combine, bounces off the corn headers and is squashed underneath his machine. Edinger notices the drought when grain carts unload the collected kernels into containers, forming an even larger cloud of corn dust over his bounty. And DaNita Murray, executive director of South Dakota Corn Growers Association, notices the drought when fielding reports from corn producers across region.

"It's not a great harvest this year," she told Farm Forum last week.

USDA projects an average corn yield, farmers predict a below-average crop

When it comes to farming conditions, the eastern corners of the state are polar opposites. Based on previous reports, southeastern South Dakota is exceptionally dry, which is stunting corn growth and resulting in reduced crop yields on some farms.

Meanwhile, a wet spring oversaturated the state's northeastern fields. While the moisture was largely beneficial to growing crops, some farmers, especially those along the James River Valley, were prevented from planting in considerable portions of their rain-flooded fields.

Victor said when it comes to the middling lands between those two corners, your mileage may vary. He points to a farm 10 minutes north of where he works that has benefited from some timely rain showers, but other fields - such as Edinger's - remain dry pockets.

"There's some variability, but we're leaning heavier towards below-average. For a lot of producers, it varies on how much they got into the ground. You have some good yields," Murray said.

Victor's view from the combine offers a first-hand look at harvest losses in drought-stricken fields. While shrunken cobs bouncing off a dust-speckled windshield are spectacular examples, he said he has noticed some desiccated stalks are dropping their ears on the ground, which can prevent them from being harvested. Other stalks are severely lodged - ag vernacular for broken - which can lead to a decreased crop yield and grain quality, according to Purdue University.

Frank Victor, a South African-American farmhand, pilots a combine harvester on Mitchell farmer Chet Edinger's field Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022. Due to drought conditions, Victor has to drive slower in order to compensate for the fragility of the corn crop.

Because of the arid vegetation, Victor has to drive the combine slower to compensate. A digital speedometer clocks his machine at 5 mph in Edinger's field, which is a bit slower than his average 6 mph pace.

"Losing 1 mph doesn't seem like much, but it takes longer to get to the next field. It slows everything down," Victor said.

The struggles of farming on Edinger's lands aren't relegated to corn, however. The oily particulate from harvesting sunflowers is prone to catching fire, which can burn through fields and damage machinery.

Edinger has seen at least three fires this harvest season. One of those fires, however, started while planting his winter wheat crop, destroying one of his tractors.

"We have to come up with our own solutions," Edinger said. "We have a water tanker down the road, so, usually, the crew will hop out of their machines and take care of it themselves. We often get a handle on it, but we'll still call for firefighters."

Mitchell area fields might be dry, but that's better than too wet

When asked to compare this harvest with past seasons, Victor said it's not the worst he's ever seen. In previous years, the same lands he harvested last week were inundated with rain much like some northeastern South Dakota fields have been this year. That's worse, he said, because the machinery will get bogged down in mud and either slow down or get stuck, which either creates an incredibly time-consuming retrieval effort or prevents those acres from being planted or harvested. During a drought, on the other hand, farmers can at least salvage the season by harvesting what's available and recycling their grains into animal feed, or silage.

Corn and stalk particulates hang in the air while a grain cart unloads harvest kernels into a grain trailer Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022.

No matter how a harvest goes, however, Edinger looks at the glass as half full. A grain cart unloads hundreds of thousands of corn kernels into a much bigger grain trailer, forming a sandy yellow dust cloud around the truck - the sign of a harvest, no matter how reduced.

"We'll try again next season, but you always feel good after any project is wrapped up," Edinger said.