Winter's here, yet Illinois corn harvest drags on

AP News
Posted: Dec 04, 2009 9:39 AM

Ken Beck isn't much of a golf fan, but the 48-year-old corn farmer was a little relieved to have Tiger Woods' troubles to discuss.

Anything new to talk about is good, Beck figured. Farmers waiting in long lines to unload corn are out of conversation topics as harvest season in the country's No. 2 corn-producing state drags on for weeks longer than usual.

"You go to the elevator and, we're just all tired of seeing each other," Beck, who farms near Mendota, about 100 miles west of Chicago, said Thursday. "We're running out of things to talk about."

The country's long, slow corn harvest season _ expected to be the second largest U.S. crop ever _ is finally winding down in most states. But not Illinois.

While farmers in Iowa, the country's top corn producer, are steering combines toward the final 10 percent of that state's crop, more than a quarter of Illinois' corn hasn't been harvested, according to the Department of Agriculture.

Among the other top 10 corn states, only South Dakota, with about 60 percent of its crop harvested, is further behind.

Across much of the Corn Belt, a wet spring kept farmers from planting on time or in some cases forced them to replant washed-out crops. The season was followed by a cool, damp summer that slowed crop development. A rainy fall kept farmers out of their fields and prevented corn from quickly drying out.

Corn must be dry before it is used for animal feed, corn syrup or other products. Elevators penalize farmers if they bring in corn with high moisture content.

On average, U.S. farmers harvested all but 3 percent of their crop by the end of November in 2004 through 2008, and all but 1 percent in Illinois, according to the USDA.

This year, the figure was 72 percent in Illinois as of Monday. Rain and light snow fell in parts of the state later in the week.

The USDA still expects a 12.9 billion-bushel crop, which would just miss the 13 billion-bushel record in 2007.

Base on those projections, the corn still left in Illinois fields amounts to about 557 million bushels _ roughly 4 percent of American production _ still clinging to stalks.

"That's a big chunk of corn," said Bruce Babcock, an agricultural economist at Iowa State University. "That's enough, if it didn't get out of the field, to kind of affect supply and demand."

But he and others are optimistic that that won't happen.

Prices are nowhere near highs of a year or two ago, but they're still enough to motivate farmers to push into muddy fields as soon as they can. The quality of the corn still in the fields, primarily in central and northern Illinois, is beginning to drop because of moisture, said Dennis Bowman, a crop expert with the University of Illinois Extension Service.

"Most of it's starting to go out of condition pretty fast where you're starting to see the ears drop and stalk strength go down," he said. "The stalks are falling over."

Once corn is on the ground, as sometimes happens amid strong winter winds, it can't be harvested, Bowman said.

Some elevators are far behind on drying corn, prompting some farmers to consider hauling their wet crop to barges along the Illinois River where they're penalized about a dollar of the roughly $3.75-a-bushel market price, according to Monty Whipple. He farms in Utica, about 90 miles southwest of Chicago.

"It gets to be which is going to be the worst situation _ taking the discount or not getting your corn out," said Whipple, who finished harvesting his corn this week. "I think at this point farmers are worried about the weather."

Beck said Thursday as he waited _ 90 minutes to two hours, he predicted _ at an elevator near Mendota that he still has about 450 acres of corn to go, about a third of his crop.

He could have been done by now, harvesting in late October or early November, but figures he would have lost $140 an acre to penalties for delivering moist corn _ that's about $180,000 over his whole crop.

Instead, he said, he waited for his corn to dry down, a move he thinks will pay off, even if it means a winter blast could come through at any time and tear through the rest of his crop.

"I took a gamble," he said. "So far, I'm winning."