A late corn crop has fueled a propane shortage that’s delaying harvests and causing headaches for farmers in Minnesota and across the Upper Midwest.
Late planting this spring — due to the weather — has led to a late harvest, giving corn less time to dry naturally in the field. Recent rains have compounded the problem.
So, moist corn is being treated by propane-fueled dryers. But with the harvest compressed into a short time period, demand for propane has spiked, putting the fuel in short supply.
“It’s spotty throughout the state, but in western Minnesota there is a severe shortage,” said Bob Zelenka, executive director of the Minnesota Grain and Feed Association, a grain elevator trade group. “Some elevators have had to shut down drying because of a lack of propane.”
Corn is Minnesota’s biggest crop, and Minnesota is one of the nation’s top five corn growing states.
Farmers dry their corn at a country elevator or on their own properties, using their own dryers. If the moisture content of corn is about 15 percent or less — as it has been for much of the past four years — little or no machine drying is needed. But this year, moisture content levels have been up over 20 percent for many farmers.
Wet corn can be stored for a few weeks or even longer with fan-driven aeration. But the longer it sits wet, the greater the chance for quality problems like mold. “It limits your ability to market the grain,” Zelenka said.
Right now, the biggest problem stemming from the propane shortage is harvest delays. Richard Syverson, who farms near Benson in western Minnesota, has experienced the issue first hand. He has his own dryer, which has two 1,000 gallon tanks for propane. A full 24-hours worth of drying sucks up at least an entire tank.
The tanks were full a couple of weeks ago, and he managed to get one complete refill before he ran into the propane bottleneck. He waited with empty tanks for four days before he got 500 gallons; the supplier essentially had to ration. Another 500 gallons came this week and the truck driver told Syverson he had no idea when he’d be back.
“It’s delayed us a week to 10 days,” Syverson said. The greater the delay, the less time for fall fieldwork. “If the ground were to freeze, we’d be looking at a huge workload next spring because we can’t get it done this year.”
The price of Syverson’s last propane delivery was about 15 percent higher than his first refill this fall. Still, pricing is less of an issue for farmers right now than availability.
The shortage stems from a bottleneck more than it does a dearth of propane supplies, propane industry executives say. “There’s an adequate supply of propane in the United States, but it’s not here,” said Roger Leider, executive director of the Minnesota Propane Association. “It’s more of a distribution problem.”
Minnesota is served by two main propane pipelines, and one of them — the Cochin pipeline that originates in Canada — is operating at 60 percent capacity. The pipeline is being converted for non-propane uses by next year, setting up a potential long-term supply issue as well.
The propane industry at least was well aware of the Cochin crimp, said Matt Kumm, propane marketing manager for Inver Grove Heights-based CHS Inc., one of the Upper Midwest’s largest propane distributors. But less predictable was a corn harvest occurring in a three-to-four week time span, not the more normal six or seven weeks.
“If the corn harvest was not compressed the way it is, you wouldn’t see this impact,” Kumm said. He said the propane bottleneck should be a factor through mid-November.
That should give farmers enough time to get their corn harvested and dried, depending on the weather. “Farmers are pretty eager to get their crops in now,” said Douglas Tiffany, an assistant professor with University of Minnesota Extension. “But by historical standards, a lot of corn has been harvested in Minnesota in November, right up to Thanksgiving.”