By Fred Nichols
Chief Marketing Officer,
Labor Day signals the end of summer and ushers in the frolics of fall: football, pumpkin spice, UGG boots (well, maybe not in Arizona), hoodies, weenie roasts, and of course, harvest. When do farmers start harvest?
For commodity crops, this is largely dependent upon the crop, the variety, geography, and the size of the farmer. And just like with planting, much strategy and detailed planning is involved. The driving factor for grain is moisture content. To store or sell grain, it must be dried to a set level. For corn, the kernels must contain no more than 15% moisture; soybeans are 13%, wheat is 13.5%. If the grain tests above these levels, you must either wait for Mother Nature to dry it down in the field or use artificial driers.
In the South, where we have high heat levels that extend well into the fall, most crops dry naturally. Corn usually dries fastest, often followed by rice, soybeans and cotton. Farmers throughout the South are already busy harvesting corn as much of it is already dry. But in the Midwest, artificial drying is usually required for corn. Large heating units, connected to on-farm grain bins and commercial elevators, are used to dry down grain. Driers can operate off natural gas or propane. And unfortunately, drying can be an expensive process. Based on the rates at a western Illinois grain elevator that I used to deal with, they charge 5 cents per point starting at 15.1% and then 3 cents per point above 17.0%. So, let’s say a farmer delivers corn at 20% moisture (which is very common in the Midwest), he would be charged 19 cents per bushel to dry his corn. If he brings in corn at 24% (which is when many large farmers begin harvest), he gets charged 31 cents per bushel. At the current cash price at $4.60, that removes 7% of your gross profit. The larger the farmer, the earlier they start harvest.
Farmers will often start harvesting corn at around 24% to manage workload and labor, and so they don’t risk ear droppage or wind from downing the crop. You also want to avoid harvesting your crop when it’s too dry. While elevators add drying charges for grain that’s too wet, they don’t compensate you for grain that’s too dry. That’s just additional weight – and bushels and profit – that you lose. Midwest farmers often start harvesting corn first, then switch to soybeans when they are ready. Unlike corn – where a black layer prohibits the flow of water to and from the kernels – soybeans continue to absorb or release moisture even when they are ripe. These are finicky legumes. If there’s dew on the pods, they can be difficult to harvest. That means you seldom combine soybeans late at night, and usually must wait until late morning to cut them. Or if they get too dry, they can shatter from the pods and not make it in the combine’s grain hopper. Dry soybeans can bounce from the grain platform and hit the window of the combine, sounding like BBs when they hit the glass. Farmers hate that sound, as they know those soybeans are not going into the grain tank. In dry conditions, soybeans often dry down to 9% moisture, which means the farmer is losing lots of weight and yield. For all these reasons, when soybeans are ready, farmers do their best to get them harvested as soon as possible. To extend their harvest windows, farmers often plant a wide range of varieties for each crop – with varying maturity dates – to avoid having all their crops ready at the same time.
For specialty crops, many of the same factors apply, with a major difference: is the crop headed to the more profitable fresh produce section, or is it being processed. For many fresh strawberry markets, appearance and shelf life are paramount, so timing is key. And for growers like my friend in middle Tennessee, George McDonald, who commands premiums for incredible taste, timing is of even greater essence, as his berries are produced for peak flavor, thus sacrificing shelf life. My cousin in Illinois raises fresh sweet corn, which only keeps its ultra-sweet fresh flavor for a matter of days. To extend his market window – and maintain the premier taste that the Nichols Corn Crib is known for – he plants his corn at different times in the spring, so it’s not all ready at once. Taking shipping time and shelf life into consideration, most commercially grown tomatoes are harvested about a week before they are ready to eat. This winter, I spoke to a Washington potato grower. She told me they contract all their potatoes with McCain Foods. Harvest can run from July through October. They harvest when McCain tells them to. McCain will inform them when they want a delivery, so they have their diggers and trucks ready. Once a truckload of potatoes is delivered to the plant, McCain processes them that very day, then ships them to McDonalds, other restaurants, and grocers.
When will my corn get harvested? Likely next week. It’s not unusual for corn to dry down 0.75-1.0 points per day, depending on heat and wind. And we are expecting temperatures in the 90s all week. I have a very narrow window for optimum yield. Our local elevators won’t even accept corn much over 16.5%. For the NCGA contest, corn yield is calculated based on 15.5% moisture, and they make no adjustments for anything under. So, if I haul my corn to the elevator, and it tests 15.0% moisture, I basically sacrifice 0.5% in weight. That hurt me in 2021. Due to harvest complications, and extreme September heat, my corn got combined when it was at 13.8% moisture. That essentially cost me first place in the state contest. Over the next week, I’ll be doing frequent moisture checks with a hand-held tester to ensure we harvest at the optimum time.
September also marks the new marketing year for major commodity crops. Based on the 2022/2023 year, and for only the second time in history, the USA no longer reigns as the top global exporter of corn. That distinction now belongs to Brazil, which controls 32% of all exports, while the USA has 23%. How’s that possible, you say? Especially when the USA nearly doubles the Brazilians when it comes to average yield (172 bu/A vs. 90 bu/A) and total corn acres (94 million vs. 55 million). For starters, the vast majority of home-grown USA corn remains at home, over 90%. Brazil exports about 40% of its corn crop. The climate in Brazil allows for two crops, with the second crop famously known as the safrinha. In some regions, Brazilian growers are even raising three crops. And recently, Brazil gained a major trading partner in China, the world’s largest corn importer.