Corn farmers urged to plan ahead to avoid propane shortages

  • Article by: TOM MEERSMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 20, 2014 - 8:56 PM

Corn growers are being advised to plan ahead to avoid propane shortages like last year’s.

Corn is only a foot high in many parts of the state, but farming leaders say growers should already be concerned about having enough propane on hand for the fall harvest.

The Minnesota Corn Growers Association is warning farmers to be ready for possible shortages like those they experienced last year, especially if the weather is wetter than normal in the fall.

“It’s absolutely essential that farmers plan ahead for their propane needs,” said Ryan Buck, president of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association. “There’s a good chance that the days of having propane delivered as you need it during harvest — something farmers had been used to before last year — are over for the foreseeable future.”

Propane, also known as LP gas, is necessary during some years if the moisture content of corn is more than about 15 percent at harvest time. Farmers use the fuel for large dryers to reduce the moisture so that the harvested corn kernels do not rot or spoil in storage.

In the past, farmers have ordered propane at harvest time on an as-needed basis, and in some years little if any was needed because crops dried sufficiently in the field.

But Buck noted that several factors have changed significantly in the propane market during the past couple of years.

The Cochin pipeline that supplied 36 percent of Minnesota’s propane is no longer available, and now carries light petroleum condensate from the United States to Canada’s booming oil industry. More propane is being delivered by rail, Buck said, but that has not always been as convenient and reliable. More propane is being exported to other countries than ever before, he said.

The take-home message is that farmers and suppliers need to add storage capacity or take other steps if possible to lessen the risk of shortages — both during harvest and during winter when homes and barns need to be heated.

Richard Syverson, who grows corn and soybeans on about 1,100 acres just north of Benson in Swift County, said he was forced to delay some of his harvest slightly last year because of the propane shortage. Syverson said his two 1,000-gallon propane tanks can keep his grain dryers running for about two days.

“What I’m doing for this coming year is I’m adding one more 1,000-gallon tank,” Syverson said, “so I can go three or three and a half days if my supplier is temporarily out of LP.” He has also added fans to be able to dry more corn in his bins with natural air.

Dan Erickson, who farms on about 1,400 acres with his father near Albert Lea, said his harvest last fall was more stressful than usual. “The crop was wet, and it took a long time to dry it,” he said. “It’s slow going anyway, and then the fact that you had to shut the dryer down from time to time because there wasn’t enough propane made it worse.”

Erickson said most farmers in his area fill their propane tanks each summer to be ready for fall, and he has enough in storage to run dryers for 48 hours. But that’s still not enough if the weather is wet and tanks need to be refilled every other day.

“We had a couple years recently where we didn’t need to dry anything,” Erickson said, and it’s expensive to build more storage tanks that might not be needed except every third or fourth year.

Suppliers are also moving to increase their propane storage and distribution near rail lines to help fill the void left by the Cochin pipeline’s switch to other products.

CHS, the nation’s largest farmer-owned cooperative and a major wholesaler and retailer of propane, announced this month that it will build a new propane terminal at Hixton, Wis., about 40 miles southeast of Eau Claire.

The terminal is part of $24 million in investments that the co-op, based in Inver Grove Heights, is making to expand the company’s propane service. It will serve customers in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa, according to the company. The terminal will have large storage tanks, equipment to offload propane from rail cars, and bays to transfer propane to trucks.

The new terminal is expected to be completed this fall.

 

Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388

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