In mid-May, Keith Morris was driving Highway 4 in northeast Louisiana, between Winnsboro and St. Joseph. On the phone with his wife, Morris — who did his graduate work at Purdue in Indiana — had a sudden realization.
“It just hit me. I told her, ‘If I didn't know better, I'd promise I was in Indiana. This wall-to-wall corn is amazing.’”
And the task of harvesting such a large crop promises to be difficult. Both LSU AgCenter agricultural engineers, Morris and colleague Roberto Barbosa are helping prepare producers.
“There are a lot of inexperienced corn farmers this year,” says Barbosa. “Some haven't even been around a corn harvest. It would be a tragedy for anyone to take good care of his corn and then not harvest it well.”
Morris says it's hard to recommend long-term solutions because “we don't know how long this corn acreage spurt will last here. Does a farmer really want to buy bins based on the current situation?”
For anyone planning to buy a combine, “the main focus should be to set it up correctly to harvest corn. The set up isn't necessarily difficult, but it isn't something that takes two minutes and no prep, either. No one wants to leave any of the corn crop on the ground or falling out the back of the machine.”
Up front and proper maintenance of any machine is also crucial. “I assume most farmers looking at a corn combine will probably be looking at used machines first. That's what I've seen in the last year — lots of formerly leased machines are coming down here from the Midwest.”
Midwest farmers often lease combines for a year or two before turning them back in.
“Those combines are usually sold and some are ending up in the Mid-South. The leased machines are usually fairly well maintained. But they do need a maintenance going-over before harvest season.”
Louisiana's mid-June, dryland corn crop is “really beginning to concern me,” says David Lanclos, LSU AgCenter corn specialist. “We're not in nearly as bad a situation as Mississippi's dryland corn is in. But our dryland acres are headed south in a rapid manner.”
Until a week into June, most of Louisiana had adequate moisture. In some areas of the state, “producers haven't had to roll pipe or irrigate as much as they usually do. The last two weeks, though, that's changed and there will be yield ramifications.”
Louisiana corn is approaching dent and so water and food is still going into the kernels. That means, roughly, the crop needs 1 inch to 1.5 inches of water per week.
“Water makes grain and without grain the combines won't fill up as fast,” says Lanclos. “Dryland corn certainly isn't getting what it needs.
“Fortunately, most of our irrigated corn is getting close to enough moisture — although not 1.5 inches of water. There are plenty of producers irrigating every day to keep up.”
Any ramifications for the harvest?
“Not except for pushing the harvest up even more. There's plenty of speculation that combines could be running as early as July 15. Folks are saying this 105-day corn could be cut as early as then. Although those situations may be isolated, I don't doubt it could happen.”
Coming into harvest, storage is chief among front-burner issues.
“Everyone is worried about what will happen if the crop comes in all at once,” says Barbosa. “Where will it go?”
“Obviously, growers won't be putting it all in grain bins,” says Morris. “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. In the South, though, 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.”
Both engineers agree with Lanclos' prediction of an early harvest.
“There's no doubt this crop will come off early,” says Morris. “And if this lack of rain continues, some parts of the state might as well come off now. It's extremely dry in some of the northeast, including around St. Joseph. It may not be as critical around Winnsboro.
“Regardless, some of our corn is suffering and will come out of the field early. But our planting season is so early, too. We can begin planting here in March or, in extreme cases, in late February.
Meanwhile, in the Midwest, farmers don't usually get their corn planted until late April or early May. Their crop is harvested in September/October.”
And a lot of times in Indiana, farmers wait for cold weather to dry corn down. Mid-South producers don't have that option.
“While our crop will likely come off early, it'll be at higher moisture. That's another issue that Mid-South producers have to deal with: how to get the moisture down enough to store the grain.”
The LSU AgCenter colleagues say there's much interest in large, in-field storage bags often used in South America.
“I can't say those bags are the right or wrong move,” says Lanclos. “I have no experience with them to draw on. My major concern with the on-farm storage bags is how they'll stand up to wild animals: feral hogs, deer, coons. And if moisture or oxygen get into the bags, that could be trouble too.”
The bags could be a “short-term solution or reprieve. But plenty of farmers are saying elevator space is too tight and these bags are their only option. There is rumbling that the elevators will have a tough time finding space for all this corn.”
Lanclos believes with the staggered maturity and planting dates, the Louisiana corn harvest season will be “very long. Normally, we won't have such a lengthy season. If that materializes, maybe it'll be a saving grace — things won't get backed up so quickly. Still, there'll be a two-week or three-week period when most corn comes off. That will be the most hectic during harvest.”
Last year, barge traffic had a difficult time in low rivers.
“Right now, the rivers are up. All you have to do is drive over the Mississippi or the Red to see that. Folks in northeast Louisiana say if barge traffic runs adequately and the rail traffic performs satisfactorily, they're confident most of the corn can be moved out in a timely fashion.”
No one wants a nightmare where we're dumping corn on the ground everywhere. That may be necessary temporarily at peak harvest but not for a long time.