Focus on Ag: Early snowfall slows harvest season in late October

Kent Thiesse
Farm Management Analyst and Vice President, MinnStar Bank

The 2020 fall harvest had been progressing at a fairly nice pace across most of the upper Midwest from late September until mid-October.

However, since that point, many areas have experienced rain, snow and cold temperatures, which have greatly slowed harvest progress.

Fortunately, most of the soybeans and a significant amount of corn had been harvested by mid-October at many locations, which is two weeks or more ahead of normal. Overall, the yields and quality of this year’s crop has been favorable for most producers.

Based on the United States Department of Agriculture crop progress report from Oct. 19, it was estimated that 75% of U.S. soybeans had been harvested, which compares to only 40% harvested by the same time in 2019 and a 5-year average of 58% harvested.

In the upper Midwest, Minnesota lead the way with 96% of soybeans harvested by Oct. 19, followed by North Dakota and Nebraska at 92%, with Iowa and South Dakota at 90%.

Other soybean harvest figures included Illinois at 81%, followed by Indiana and Wisconsin, both at 72%. By comparison, soybean harvest figures by this date in 2019 included Minnesota at 35%, Iowa at 39%, North Dakota at 19%, and both South Dakota and Wisconsin at 27%.

It was estimated that 60% of the corn in the U.S. was harvested by Oct. 19, compared to 28% in 2019 and a 5-year average of 43%.

Illinois was the leader in harvested corn acres at 66%, followed closely by Iowa at 65%, South Dakota at 64%, and Minnesota at 63%. Nebraska was at 58% of harvested corn acres on Oct. 19, with North Dakota at 55%, Indiana at 48%, and Wisconsin at only 27%.

By comparison, on Oct.19 in 2019, corn harvest was at only 9% in Minnesota, 13% in Iowa, 8% in South Dakota, 6% in Wisconsin, and 3% in North Dakota. The 2019 corn harvest in portions of North Dakota and northwest Minnesota was not completed until the spring of 2020.

Corn harvest has progressed more rapidly in the southwest and west central parts of Minnesota, with many farmers completing harvest for 2020. Corn harvest in the eastern half of Minnesota, especially in southeast Minnesota, has been somewhat slower due to wetter field conditions and late-maturing crops.

The unexpected and early snowfall has greatly slowed corn harvest in many areas during the last half of October. Earlier than normal planting dates in 2020, together with above normal growing degree units in the summer months, allowed most corn and soybeans to reach full maturity by the time of the first killing frost.

Overall, the reported soybean yields across southern and western Minnesota have been above average, with exceptional yields reported in areas that had more favorable growing conditions. There were reduced soybean yields reported in portions of the region that were impacted by excess rainfall or by hail and severe storms.

It has not been unusual to hear of yield monitor and weigh wagon yields in some portions of the region that were well above 70 bushels per acre; however, once whole field yields were calculated, dividing the total bushels harvested by the total acres planted, most “whole-farm” soybean yields in southern Minnesota are more likely to be in the mid-50s to low 60s. For farmers in southwest and south central Minnesota, the 2020 soybean yields are 20-30% or more above 2019 yields, which were greatly reduced by late planting and excess moisture.

2020 corn yields in many areas have also been above average, due to earlier than normal planting dates and favorable growing conditions throughout much of the growing season. However, just as with the soybeans, corn yields in some portions of the region have also been highly variable, depending on excessive rainfall during the growing season and impacts from late season dry weather.

There have been several “whole field” yield reports of 200 bushels per acre or higher in southern Minnesota, with somewhat lower yields further north in Minnesota and in areas that were more severely impacted by the adverse weather situations. Farmers in some portions of the region are reporting their best corn yields in the past three or four years.

Another piece of good news for producers regarding the 2020 corn harvest has been the harvest moisture of the corn coming out of the field.

Most of the corn harvested this fall has been under 20% moisture, which has resulted in a reduced amount of additional drying before the corn is placed in on-farm bins for storage. Corn should be dried to about 15-16% moisture before going into the grain bin for safe storage. In fact, some corn has been harvested at that level or lower and has been placed in grain bins without additional drying. In 2019, much of the corn was harvested at moisture contents of 24-30%, resulting in very high drying costs, in addition to already poor yields.

The test weight of corn has also been a pleasant surprise this year, with most corn having a test weight of 56-59 pounds per bushel. The standard test weight when selling corn to market is 56 pounds per bushel. In 2019, much of the corn was harvested at a test weight of 50-54 pounds per bushel.

Except for areas that were impacted by severe storms in the summer months, the stalk strength of corn has been fairly good this fall. Harvest conditions in Iowa and surrounding states that were impacted by the mid-August derecho storm have been very difficult with very poor yields.

Fall tillage and manure applications have been occurring as soon as harvest is completed; however, those operations could be more challenging in many locations going forward following the wet snowfall and saturated topsoil conditions. This type of soil situation can make it difficult for quality tillage and may require leaving portions of fields without fall tillage or manure application.

Producers in some areas of the region typically apply nitrogen fertilizer for the following year’s corn crop, once the current year’s harvest is completed. It is recommended to wait until soil temperatures are 50 degrees Fahrenheit or lower to apply nitrogen to avoid significant losses; however, this should not be a concern this fall.

Farm operators are reminded to follow the new statewide restrictions for fall nitrogen fertilizer application in their area of Minnesota and for the soil types on their farms. These restrictions are being enacted in 2020 as part of the “Minnesota Groundwater Protection Rule”. The nitrogen application restrictions are available on the Minnesota Department of Agriculture website.

Kent Thiesse