From an Easter freeze that forced them to replant thousands of acres to a drought that left them with high diesel bills and/or shorter-than-usual stalks, the Mid-South's newest corn producers have had an interesting season.
Now comes the fun part: harvesting large acreages of high-volume grain in the summer heat and fighting what are expected to be long lines at the elevators or finding temporary storage facilities that will help them keep their corn in good condition until it can be delivered.
Corn specialists in the Mid-South states — where farmers doubled or nearly tripled their corn acreage last spring — are holding their breath and hoping that farmers will finish out the year on a good note.
“There are a lot of inexperienced corn farmers this year,” says Roberto Barbosa, an agricultural engineer with the Louisiana State University AgCenter. “Some haven't even been around a corn harvest. It would be a tragedy for anyone to take good care of their corn and then not harvest it well.”
Barbosa and other Mid-South harvesting specialists are concerned about a number of issues. The first: the sheer volume of grain that can be produced from even an average corn crop.
“Many new corn farmers don't realize how quickly corn comes out of the field,” says Dennis Gardisser, Extension agricultural engineer with the University of Arkansas. “If you have 200 bushels per acre, the grain piles up quickly.
“One of the issues is having enough trucks and buggies to keep the harvest flow even. We don't want the harvest to be throttled by an inability to get the grain out of the combine. I hope everyone has that planned out, whether using on-farm storage or another option.”
At the risk of sounding simplistic, Gardisser says he hopes corn growers remember the combine should be set a bit differently for corn than for rice. And that the combine needs a corn header, if at all possible.
“We have seen situations where farmers have tried to cut corn with a flat-table header. But that's very difficult to do — harder on the combine, harder to keep grain loss minimized, and it's slower.”
Anyone new to corn headers needs to “study set-up recommendations. The headers aren't hard to set. But if they're not working properly, the efficiency and grain losses can drop off dramatically.”
Growers also need to try to match the row spacings in the field with those on the corn header. “My impression is that a lot of farmers in the Bootheel and South are on 38-inch rows,” says Bill Wiebold, Extension corn agronomist with the University of Missouri. “Most corn producers in the Midwest are on 30-inch row spacings and so are the corn headers.”
Farmers could be harvesting corn in Louisiana by mid-July, says David Lanclos, LSU AgCenter corn specialist. That's because of the drought conditions that have persisted in some areas.
Extension specialists say the replanting that occurred in areas hit by the Easter freeze could mean a prolonged harvest. That could push corn gathering back into the time frame normally reserved for rice and early soybeans.
Another issue involves the optimum moisture level for harvesting. Corn can be allowed to dry down more in the field. But doing that can lead to losses — how much largely depends on the variety. Regardless, Gardisser says harvest should begin around the 20 percent moisture level.
“With that in mind, there has to be a way to dry it,” he said. “If they let it stand in the field, the risk is wind blowing the crop over and extra losses during picking.”
On-farm storage and drying of corn doesn't have to involve corn-centric equipment. Unless the moisture levels are extremely high, “standard rice bins do a fine job in most cases.”
Not drying corn means a stiff penalty. Anyone not doing so “will be sorry when they take high-moisture corn to the elevator. I'd try to get the moisture down somehow.”
The optimum moisture content for corn is 15.5 percent. To reach that percentage, how much does corn shrinkage matter? “I've heard things like, ‘Well, corn weighs more when I sell it at 18 percent moisture. That should override any dockage.’ But, no, I guarantee that isn't the case. The dockage cost is much more than the 2 or 3 extra pounds of water moisture. The farmer won't win in that game.”
Regardless, 15.5 percent moisture is prime. And farmers don't want to get below that percentage because “there's no premium for moistures below 15.5. That's another way farmers can lose money.”
In storage, Gardisser likes to keep corn at 14 percent moisture, or below. “Put some air on it, get it dried.”
Farmers make a mistake when binned corn is subjected to both heat and fans. “The thought is adding heat will speed the drying process. So they may set the air at 9 percent equilibrium, and they're wasting money,” he notes.
“The best thing to do is get a psychrometer and measure the air quality. If the corn is going to market, turn the fans on and get the moisture to 15.5 percent. Then quit.”
Another issue: That another hot, dry summer may promote the development of aspergillus flavis, the organism that produces aflatoxin.
Often, irrigation water won't cover a field equally. Drier areas often include corners, sandy soils, and high spots. “The problem is any time corn is stressed the potential for aflatoxin goes up,” says Gardisser. “So if there are any suspect spots in the field — corners, ends, whatever — pick them separately, perhaps last to reduce the chance of equipment being contaminated by any aflatoxin that may be present.”
It doesn't take much aflatoxin to ruin someone's day, warns Gardisser. “And if a crop is infected with aflatoxin, it can't be used for cattle feed nor for ethanol. I've heard, ‘Well, if it's infected, I'll just send it off to produce ethanol.’ But the renewable fuel industry won't take it either.” (In fact, the crop can't cross state lines with aflatoxin at more than 25 parts per million.)
Also, avoid letting corn sit in a hopper belly or truck bottom for more than 12 hours. “The first load of the morning is often the dampest. Dew is on the crop when it is combined, and it goes right to the hopper belly bottom. It sits there until the truck is full and then it may sit at the elevator for a few more hours. In that situation, the potential for the growth of unwelcome disease increases.”
With so much more corn planted in the Mid-South, storage is expected to be at a premium. Farmers frequently ask Gardisser about the large, in-field storage bags often used outside the United States.
“These bags must be sealed — no air. If the bag is breached, the grain can turn to mush. Whatever happens, at this point we have no data to dispute — good, bad or indifferent — the claims about how these bags work. But since our storage capacity is limited, a bunch of those bags will be utilized. I suspect the mistakes with these bags will come where there's not a good seal or the deer or rodents find it.”
Data on the storage bags out of Israel and South America “looks fine. But no one — and I've asked some knowledgeable people about this — including the companies selling the bags, has data on what happens to corn in these bags in our temperature and humidity environment. That data doesn't exist yet. We'll have it next year.”
“Everyone is worried about what will happen if the crop comes in all at once,” says the LSU AgCenter's Barbosa. “Where will it go?”
“Obviously, growers won't be putting it all in grain bins,” says Keith Morris, an AgCenter engineer. “We just don't have the storage space. And it isn't easing up. According to reports and folks I've spoken with, several grain bin companies are several months behind on delivery.”
In the past, when storage ran out in the Midwest, elevators would pile grain on a concrete slab beside the mill.
“That works okay there because the weather gets cold relatively early,” says Morris. “In the South, piling the grain on the ground isn't a good option. Unfortunately, I'm not sure there are many good options. But if we do that down here, it will surely mean the corn will be damaged.”
Gardisser believes elevators will be “very critical on the quality of corn they'll take. They may not want high-moisture corn because that'll slow them down too — and energy costs are high. So they'll be selective and, in some cases, farmers will have a hard time finding a place to take their corn.”
Depending on the weather, if there are any suspicions of aflatoxin “they'll also be extremely selective. They don't want to contaminate a whole barge with one mistake. And that's fine, they should be.
“What all this means is farmers need to be speaking with their elevators and have a good, clear understanding in writing about the elevators' parameters in taking corn.”