The snow and freezing conditions forecast for parts of Minnesota have farmers heading into an uneasy weekend.
Heavy snow expected in the northwest corner of the state will delay harvest of all crops there. And in the rest of the state, a late harvest was already a given and may become even later.
Cornfields aren’t quite mature thanks to late planting caused by heavy rains this spring. If this weekend’s weather system produces deep frost on farms outside the snow zone, it may kill plants before the corn is dry and weighs enough to fetch a good price.
“I think we could use another week or two weeks here for some of this corn,” said Dave Nicolai, a crops educator at the University of Minnesota Extension. “This is going to go all the way through October and into November. It’s going to be a very late harvest.”
The state’s corn crop was only 39% mature on Monday, compared with 95% a year ago at the same time, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Soybeans and sugar beets were also behind schedule earlier in the week, but not as dramatically as corn.
Chances of devastation from a deep frost are low. Cornstalks won’t die until temperatures drop below 28 degrees, Nicolai said. Also, most cornfields around the state could be harvested today. The problem is the “test weight” of a bushel of corn that’s not fully mature is lower, meaning elevators won’t pay as much for the crop, and wet corn costs more to dry because of the expense of fuel or the fees charged by elevators.
“Normally a bushel of corn should weigh 56 pounds,” said Zach Rada, a farm business management instructor at Ridgewater College in Willmar. “Who knows, if it freezes early, maybe it’s 52, maybe it’s 40 pounds. It makes for really poor quality corn.”
For farmers who got their fields planted early enough, a freeze might help by killing the plant and drying it out more quickly, but many farmers didn’t get their fields planted early enough, Rada said.
“I would venture to say most have corn or soybeans both that are not at maturity,” he said.
The situation for sugar beet farmers is “very alarming,” Rada said, because fields are so wet that beets can’t be pulled up, and the concern is they’ll freeze before they can be harvested.
The National Weather Service expects 3 to 10 inches of snow in the Grand Forks area, followed by temperatures not much above 40 degrees for the following week.
“Whenever you have snow on the ground, it reflects about 80% of the solar energy away and prevents surface warming,” said Luigi Romolo, a state climatologist.
‘Get back to me in November’
For farmers in the Red River Valley, snow could knock over soybean plants and force bean pods to drop, which makes them a loss, and then it makes combining prohibitive.
“When you’re harvesting soybeans you’re cutting one inch off the ground, so snow makes it literally impossible,” said Brent Fuchs, a farmer near Dundas.
The snow will likely miss Fuchs, but he said more than half of his corn shut down thanks to a cold snap a week ago, and he expects the rest of it to die this weekend.
He’s optimistic that his corn harvest will hit the 54-pound-per-bushel threshold that elevators require before they start deducting from the price per bushel. “Get back to me in November when this is all over,” he said with a laugh.
He added that drying costs will be up this year. “It definitely dries a lot slower when it freezes early,” he said.
His soybeans have reached maturity already — turned yellow, dropped their leaves — so there’s no problem there as long as the snow stays away.
In general, farmers are ready to move on to next year, said Nicolai, thanks to the trade war and the relentless antagonism of the weather.
“We’re not going to be sorry to see 2019 go away,” Nicolai said.