To say that the 2019 growing season has been challenging is likely the biggest understatement you’ve read in some time.

Too much rainfall in many parts of farm country made it hard to get crops in on time this spring. Because of that, farmers are looking at a strong possibility of running their grain dryers this fall more than in previous years.

“There is certainly that potential,” said Dr. Ken Hellevang, interim chair of the North Dakota State University Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering Department. “While the wet spring delayed crop planting in the spring, we can do some catching up through the summer. However, as we look through Nebraska, the corn and soybean crops will likely behave a little differently.”

Soybeans are more “photosensitive” than corn is, so Hellevang said beans will reach maturity at least partly based on day length, rather than just on heat units.

“The potential is as the days get shorter, the beans will decide it’s time to finish growing and reach maturity,” he added. “It’ll depend on what the rest of the year looks like, but we would anticipate soybeans would have the potential to dry down and be harvested pretty normally.”

However, he said that scenario isn’t likely going to happen with this year’s corn crop. As farmers know well, corn is much more heat sensitive. Warm temperatures in the Midwest have helped the crop develop, but that development is still behind a normal pace. There is still the potential for Nebraska corn to reach maturity, unlike fields in the northern regions that may not reach maturity before the first killing frost.

“If and when it does reach maturity,” Hellevang said, “we’re still looking at a moisture content that could potentially be as high as 35 percent. Getting corn to dry out in the field before it’s harvested depends on temperature. The last forecast we’ve seen shows September to be cooler than average through a lot of the corn-growing region.

“Even if the corn does manage to get to maturity, it’s still going to be very wet. Typically, we like to start harvesting corn with moisture content in the low 20-percent range. This year, it will take a long time to reach that moisture level. What I typically recommend is, if we get to mid-to-late October, the rate of drying in the field drops quite a bit. That’s when you need to start thinking about running it through a high-temperature dryer.”

Quite a bit of corn will go through a grain dryer in most years. What won’t be typical is the amount of time needed to dry the crop. The atypical moisture content means a longer drying period than normal and will require more dryer management.

“We recommend drying the corn at the highest possible temperature that won’t damage the corn,” Hellevang said. “What that temperature is will depend on what drying system each farmer uses. For many of the systems, it means drying at temps between 220 and 230 degrees.”

As corn moisture increases, the potential for damage grows as the corn sits in the dryer for a longer period of time. Farmers need to spend more time monitoring the corn as it sits in the dryer. Damage can show up in the form of cracks in the kernels, or it may show up as discoloration.

“They really need to be managing it much more closely than they would in a typical year,” he added. “You may need to reduce the temperatures on your grain dryers if you see these problems showing up. Farmers may have to take it down from 220-230 degrees back to 200. Unfortunately, that will mean drying speed drops as the temperature does. When we are trying to take 10 points of moisture off the corn instead of five points, drying speed is going to be quite a bit slower than they might like.”

While there is less potential for very wet soybeans, Hellevang said farmers need to pay attention as it doesn’t take a lot of extra moisture to cause problems for soybeans in the fall. Hellevang had a lot of calls from frustrated Nebraska farmers last year as soybeans in the field at 17-18 percent moisture weren’t drying down quickly enough. On the off chance that farmers have to dry at least some of their beans, Hellevang said watch out for fire risk.

“Harvesting wet soybeans means typically winding up with what farmers refer to as ‘trash,’ which may include the stalks and pods,” he said. “They can get hung up within the dryer and get dried out to the point at which the trash may become combustible. That’s how farmers can end up with a fire in their grain dryer.

“With soybeans, we recommend that farmers monitor their dryers pretty much continuously. Soybeans are much more fragile than corn, so it’s important to limit the dryer temperature. I tell people to start with whatever the dryer manufacturer recommends because there are a lot of differences in unit designs. We typically run soybeans at 130-140 degrees, but if you start seeing a lot of cracks occurring, back down on that temperature to help stop the damage from continuing.”

Chad Smith can be reached at editorial@midwestmessenger.com.

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