November 3, 2015 / 11:08 PM / 2 years ago

Dry harvest presses harder on some U.S. farmer incomes

CHICAGO, Nov 3 (Reuters) - For Cory Ritter, a farmer in central Illinois, this year's corn and soybean harvest was the driest he has ever seen in 11 years of farming.

"It was nice to get it out (of the fields) as quick as we could, because we were losing so much moisture," Ritter said.

Dry harvest reduces total yield and grain weight from lost moisture. Both can mean lower revenue for farmers, who already face sharp income declines this year as grain prices hover around five-year lows.

With Ritter's harvested corn coming in with moisture content as low as 13 percent - far down from his ideal 22-24 percent - he has lost 5-6 bushels per acre (bpa) because drier corn dropped kernels in the fields instead of the combine. A typical corn yield is 168 bpa, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates.

Ritter's soybeans were harvested mostly at 8-9 percent moisture. This hypothetically trims about 50 cents from the $9 he might get from selling a bushel of soybeans, according to Charles Hurburgh, director of Iowa State University's Grain Quality Initiative.

While farmers are penalized for delivering grains with excess moisture, they are usually not compensated for grains that are drier than the market standard, which is 15.5 percent for corn and 13 percent for soybeans.

"For soybeans, dryness represents weight loss, and there's nothing you can do about it, unfortunately," Hurburgh said. Although soybeans can readily gain and lose moisture, spoilage and swelling issues make humidifying them a risky proposition, he added.

Because dry soybeans split more easily, careful handling is required for preventing yield loss, said Seth Naeve, a soybean agronomist at the University of Minnesota. Also, processors report problems with using heat and steam to remove hulls from very dry soybeans.

According to a grain quality survey that Naeve conducted, the average moisture level for this year's soybeans across the United States is close to 12 percent, about 1 percentage point lower than last year.

Dry grains also hit elevator cooperatives that profit from commercial drying. For instance, Tom Traen, general manager of Glacial Plains Cooperative, estimated his drying revenue was cut in half from a typical $2 million.

However, for corn, dryness can be a benefit when farmers improve grain quality and save propane gas costs by drying naturally instead of in high-temperature commercial dryers, Hurburgh said.

Nevertheless, lost weight and yield remains a revenue concern for producers like Ritter who harvested both dry corn and soybeans.

"When margins are tight, we hate to give it away," he said. (Editing by Jo Winterbottom and Matthew Lewis)

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