Flooding on the farm poses crop drying challenges

August 26, 2019 By    

Unremitting rainfall throughout wide swaths of the nation’s midsection has delayed – or in some cases canceled altogether – the planting season and put this fall’s crop drying load at risk.

Sapp Brothers, based in Omaha, Nebraska, was not spared from the severe flooding that hit the region. Photo by Pat Athen/Sapp Brothers

Sapp Brothers, based in Omaha, Nebraska, was not spared from the severe flooding that hit the region. Photo by Pat Athen/Sapp Brothers

“It is likely that propane or other crop-drying fuel markets will be strained across much of the U.S.,” says Bryon Parman, agricultural finance specialist at North Dakota State University (NDSU) Extension.

In March, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) had projected nearly 93 million acres of corn would be planted nationally, with a state-record 4.05 million acres in North Dakota. However, persistent cold, rain and flooding across the Midwest has led to many acres being planted late, or not planted at all. In some regions, the issue will impact soybean planting as well.

The June 10 USDA crop progress report showed only 83 percent of corn planted nationally, compared to the 99 percent typical by this date, and 93 percent in North Dakota compared to 98 percent on average. Some states are much further behind – with Illinois at 73 percent planted, compared to 100 percent on average, and South Dakota 64 percent planted compared to 99 percent on average.

“This year it is estimated that more than half of the U.S. corn crop will have gone in the ground after May 25,” Parman says.

Along with the typical “yield drag” that comes with planting after the optimal window, late-planted crops also run the risk of not drying down adequately by the time the crop is harvested. This is exacerbated when the late summer and early fall are particularly cold and wet.

In some regions of the Corn Belt, crops can be remain in the field longer, often with warmer periods in November and December allowing for corn and soybeans to continue drying, pushing the date that those crops are harvested out.

However, Northern states such as North Dakota may not see such opportunities immediately after planting, where a dry-down is possible in the field farther south in November and December.

“Therefore, North Dakota farmers may face the decision to leave the crop in the field for possibly several more months into March or April, or utilize rapid heat-drying systems,” Parman says. “While leaving the crop in the field can lead to losses from wind, snow and ice, attempting to harvest high-moisture crops leads to storage issues and severe discounts for selling wet crops, if they can be sold at all.”

NDSU Extension experts estimate that drying corn could cost as much as 3 to 4 cents per bushel, per point of moisture reduced, at propane prices between $1.50 and $2 per gallon. In that case, drying corn down from 26 percent to 16 percent could cost as much as 30 to 40 cents per bushel, so it is properly conditioned for long-term storage.

“Seasonal price patterns for wholesale and retail propane in North Dakota show that price is typically highest beginning in October through January, and falls considerably to a low from April to June,” says David Ripplinger, NDSU Extension bioenergy economics specialist. “In fact, propane prices are often one-third the cost in late spring and early summer versus fall and winter during harvest season. Current market prices are 90 cents to $1.10 for summer or fall delivery with flexible spot delivery occasionally falling to half that.”

One strategy farmers can employ is pre-pricing propane or buying and taking delivery if they have ample on-farm storage, Ripplinger says.

“This could save a farmer drying 100,000 bushels of corn $30,000 to $40,000 in years where harvested corn moisture levels are 10 percent above those needed for storage,” he says. “This approach also eliminates the risk of delays or shortages if high demand overwhelms distribution.”

“I think it will be good for crop drying – if they have a crop,” observes Gordon Cunningham, director of sales and marketing at Georgia Gas Distributors and also manager of sister company Arkansas Gas.

“Everything is going to be harvested late this year, and moisture rates will be at a high level,” he explains. “Their corn is behind by about a month and a lot of rice wasn’t planted at all.”

Becoming whole again

The vast devastation of this year’s flooding has caused much distress for many Americans along with rendering dire consequences across the economy.

“The water was 12 feet deep at one point. A lot of people have lost their homes,” says Randy Benson, general manager at Sapp Brothers Petroleum Inc., a full-service fuels and lubricants distributor based in Omaha, Nebraska.

“The water came in with no warning, and we had several tanks that floated away because we didn’t have time to tie them down,” Benson recounts. “A lot of our residential customers were displaced by the floods. Some of them are back, some of them are not. We have several customers that aren’t going to be allowed to rebuild, so that’s a permanent loss for us” in terms of propane sales.

Brian “Chubby” Waggoner, manager of Bendena, Kansas-based Consumer Oil & Propane Inc., describes the situation as devastating.

“It destroyed some towns” and severely disrupted the region’s agricultural operations, he says. “There’s still water standing in their fields, and some of them haven’t been able to get back in there; the problems could still exist for a couple more years because of the broken levees.”

Agricultural operations will burn less propane in the fall for crop drying because the ground has been too wet for planting, Waggoner estimates.

“It’s a pretty big impact on us. There’s a lot of guys in the area who dry corn,” says Waggoner, a board member at the Propane Marketers Association of Kansas.

With the Missouri River cresting at 31 ft., up from the normal 12- to 14-ft. elevation, Waggoner describes an industry colleague who “has to boat back and forth to his house and shop.”

Formulating recovery plans

“We will be using less LP this year because we have less corn planted,” says grower Steve Cain of Indiana, who farms 100 acres with his sister following his retirement as the extension disaster specialist at Purdue University. “On the date when we would be planting most of the corn, there were fields that weren’t even touched yet.”

Under the flooded conditions, “you can’t even get in to work in the field when it’s wet or you’ll ruin it,” Cain says. “There are a number of things that can go wrong.”

One big negative result is “cloddy soil,” which prevents adequate seed-to-soil contact.

“I think it’s going to have a huge impact on the Midwest economy,” says Cain, who cites the country’s agricultural trade war with China as an even greater hindrance to a suitable growing season.

Usually the region’s planting ratio is 70 percent corn and 30 percent soybeans, yet this year due to the flooding the ratio is reversed to a 30-70 soybean-corn tally.

“There’s a lot more wiggle room with soybeans,” Cain says. “Corn takes longer to mature; if it’s too late, it frosts out,” damaging the yield and making propane-fueled crop drying a rather moot endeavor.

“Nebraska has never flooded like it did in February,” Cain adds, “so I came out of retirement to go out to the University of Nebraska and help them formulate their flood recovery plan.”

The Propane Education & Research Council was offering double funding to impacted farmers through its Propane Farm Incentive Program.

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