Grain harvest behind in more ways than one

x00113_9 Yields, quality may not be up to par in late, wet growing season
The grain harvest is late and not so hot, according to reports across North Dakota. The too-wet conditions delayed crops getting in the ground and plagued their growth most of the season.

The grain harvest is late and not so hot, according to reports across North Dakota.

The too-wet conditions delayed crops getting in the ground and plagued their growth most of the season.

The result, as most of the wheat and barley has been threshed and poured into trucks and bins, is that yields and quality are not up to par, crop watchers say.

Meanwhile, in what is probably a related deal, prices for the crops are at one of the highest levels ever for harvest-time, when typically prices drop as supply comes in to meet demand. All crop prices are above normal.

In fact, the average price for corn received by North Dakota farmers in August set a record, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics. Of course, no corn has been harvested yet in the state and won’t be for weeks. So all sales last month were of stored corn. And there probably isn’t a whole lot left.

On June 1, the corn binned in the state, on the farm and at grain elevators, totaled 59 million bushels, USDA said, which is equivalent to less than one-fourth of the crop produced last year. And no doubt some of that corn has been sold the past three months.

The prices North Dakota farmers received for the corn they sold last month averaged $6.40 a bushel, nearly twice year-ago prices and, apparently, a record monthly average price, based on USDA statistics for the state.

But what farmers in the region have been doing lately is threshing wheat and barley and some canola.

“We are probably 75 percent done,” said Scott Ostlie, of the spring wheat harvest around Northwood, N.D., where he is manager of the Northwood Equity Elevator. “The yields are well below average, 30 to 40 bushels an acre. The quality of some of it is OK, and some of the crop has got some issues. Overall, it’s below average.”

That’s what everyone says. On both sides of the Red River Valley, farmers have reported some wheat yields above 50 bushels or even 60 bushels an acre, but not many. And for Valley land, such yields can be below the average of recent years.

But wheat farmers across North Dakota say, on the whole, they are seeing disappointing spring wheat yields, which mostly are coming off the field at 30 to 40 bushels an acre, some as low as 20 bushels, according to the weekly report from the North Dakota Wheat Commission based in Bismarck. There are some higher, up to 60 bushel yields, but that’s not common.

The hard red spring wheat North Dakota is known for is known for having high protein content, higher than the soft red wheat grown in most of the Midwest, and it brings premiums in price. This week, average proteins reported to the Wheat Commission from 92 samples across the state came in at 15.2 percent. While down a little from last week, that is above normal.

“The yields have been lower but the protein is higher this year than the last couple years,” said Erica Olson, assistant marketing director for the North Dakota Wheat Commission in Bismarck.

Meanwhile, test weights have trended lower, and the percentage of shrunken or broken kernels is higher than normal, which was expected, Olson said.

Spring wheat is a cool weather crop, typically. This summer, because the wheat was planted later than normal, the crucial kernel-filling period came during the height of July heat, which isn’t helpful, Olson said. On the other hand, the stress from the heat also helps pump up the protein content in the kernels, adding value to the crop.

But Ostlie said around Northwood, protein content in the wheat has been coming in at about average for the area, at around 14.4 percent.

Harvest progress the past two weeks has been very good across Minnesota and North Dakota. By this past Sunday, 43 percent of North Dakota’s spring wheat was harvested, up from 21 percent a week earlier. But it was still well behind the five-year average pace of 68 percent harvested by Aug. 28, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s weekly survey by the National Agricultural Statistics Services. Minnesota’s spring wheat crop was 77 percent harvested by Sunday, actually ahead of the five-year average pace of harvest.

The durum crop, though, was only 13 percent harvested by Sunday in North Dakota. Usually half the crop is harvested by now. The state grows most of the nation’s durum, used to make pasta. But this year the extremely wet conditions in the central and northwest part of the state where most of the durum is grown meant many fields didn’t even get planted and others got damaged by rain and flooding.

“We will have the smallest durum crop in about 50 years,” Olson said. “With the sharp cut in acres (due to wet conditions), we are looking at less than half of what we normally have.”

That’s pushing pasta prices higher, according to news reports.

The lack of crop also has helped keep prices higher to the farmer. Last month, North Dakota farmers received an average of $11.40 per bushel for durum, both old crop still in the bin and new crop that just came off the field. That’s down 20 cents from the July average, which probably reflects the new crop coming in and pressuring prices. But that’s 160 percent higher than last year’s August average price, and second only to the $12.70 received in August 2008 by the state’s farmers.

North Dakota farmers received an average of $8.25 per bushel for hard red spring wheat last month, down from $8.60 last month when there was no new crop available yet, but up 51 percent from year-ago prices. It’s also two cents higher than the August 2008 price, the gonzo price year.

Barley prices received by North Dakota farmers in August averaged $5.25 a bushel, 70 percent higher than last August.

Like corn prices, sunflower prices are double what they were last year and farmers might do well with the crop if they got it planted and can get it harvested before winter.

The crushing plant in Enderlin, N.D., was offering $37.20 per hundred pounds for sun seeds this week, up $1.50 from last week and more than doubling year-ago bids of $15.55. The plant’s bid for new crop, which is a long way off, is $29.10.

Kurt Ridl, who grows sunflowers northwest of Dickinson, N.D., told the Dickinson Press recently that despite a poor planting season and if winter doesn’t come too early, the high prices will make up for less than great production.

“Whoever has sunflowers this year is going to have a profitable year if they have normal to above normal crops,” he said.

As of Sunday, 30 percent of North Dakota’s canola crop had been harvested, nearly all of it last week. In a normal year, 43 percent would have been harvested by Aug. 28. Last month, North Dakota canola growers received an average of $25 per hundred-weight, up from $17.20 last August, according to USDA.

It looks like a lot of farmers in the region are going to have a lot of time on their hands in September, which normally is a busy harvest month.

Ostlie said once the wheat and barley is harvested, which will take only a few more days, there’s going to be a long interval before the “row crops,” of beans, corn and sunflowers are ready to take.

“It will be a month,” he said.

Sugar beet “pre-pile” harvest begins Tuesday, but it means only a few acres each producers will dig until full-on harvest starts Oct. 1.

It might help convince more farmers to spend their September planting wheat, the winter variety, especially those who had to leave lots of fields unseeded this spring.

“There’s definitely the potential out there for that, just given the amount of prevented planting acres in the northwest and north-central part of the state,” Olson said. “Guys are going to be looking at winter wheat as an attractive option to get something in this fall.”

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