Like so many stories in agriculture, the story of this year’s harvest in Crawford County is really a combination of several stories.
One story on which almost everyone agrees is the pleasurable weather for the harvest. Perfect day, followed perfect day and for many the harvest is already over—for most others, it’s almost over.
Last Friday, USDA-FSA County Director John Baird estimated the soybean harvest was 98 to 99 percent over and the corn harvest was about 85 percent over in Crawford County.
Wayne Burkum, owner of Burkum Milling Company in Soldiers Grove, indicated almost all the soybeans in the area were harvested and the corn was on the way to being done too.
“We’re about two weeks ahead of the average (for completing the harvest),” Burkum noted. “Many years we’re harvesting corn right up to deer season.”
Deer season starts Saturday, Nov. 21 this year and Burkum was talking about the harvest on Friday, Nov. 6.
Chris Olson, owner of Olson Feeds in Seneca, was largely in agreement with that assessment of the harvest. However, he noted that while some are done or nearly done, there are others who are only about two-thirds done.
“With the bigger and faster equipment, it gets done so much quicker,” Olson said of the ever-evolving local farming situation.
Swede Knutson, a row-crop commodity farmer in the Ferryville area, enjoyed being “done in record time.” Knutson finished his harvest a week ago.
“It’s nice to get everything done and put away,” the local farmer said.
Daryl Aspenson, another row crop commodity producer who lives in Mt. Sterling, was harvesting corn Monday and said he and the crew had about 400 acres left to harvest that he thought would be done this week.
Well, the accommodating harvest season wasn’t the only thing that was making people happy. Yields were good and the quality of the crop was excellent by most every account.
Aspenson noted there was some range on the yields on the many acres his family had planted over a wide area. It all had to do with spotty rains in late July into August. Those that received the timely rains outperformed those that didn’t.
For example on a field on Taylor Ridge near Seneca, Aspenson got 200 bushels to the acre on 95 acres. Meanwhile, on another farm the yield was just 130 bushels to the acre.
Knutson was satisfied with a good yield, but was just as quick to point out that this year’s harvest was not a bumper crop.
For his part, Olson agreed that where August rains were missed, yields suffered. The feed store owner felt the yields this year were about average.
Baird, the Crawford County USDA-FSA Director, saw a variance in yields—citing corn yields from 110 bu/acre on up to 180 bu/acre. He also felt yields of soybeans were lower than initially expected and probably in the 40-something-bushel-per-acre range.
Aspenson, on the other hand, saw his yield on soybeans range from just 31 bu/acre on one small planting to over 60 bu/acre in another field. However, he was very happy with his overall average yield for soybeans, which he estimated at just over 50 bu/acre.
Crawford County Ag Agent Vance Haugen was a little more impressed with this year’s yields. He noted there were “phenomenal yields around the county and in surrounding counties.”
The ag agent thought it was an ideal growing season, except on some sandy soils near the Wisconsin and Kickapoo Rivers
Burkum said he was seeing some consistent yields of 45 to 50 bushels per acre on soybeans grown in the area. However, he noted there was a wider range on corn yields.
Another upside of the mild weather for this year’s harvest was the drier conditions. The mild warmer weather allowed crops to mature and then dry in the field. Neither Knutson nor Aspenson used corn dryers to remove moisture from corn this year.
Aspenson’s wettest corn had 17.5 percent moisture content and his driest was 14.7 percent. Anything over 15 percent is considered to moist.
However, Aspenson took a small price penalty for the corn over the 15 percent moisture level when it was sold. It was decided it wasn’t worth the energy and effort for the small amount of moisture to put the corn into the dryer.
“The crops were as dry as I’ve ever taken them,” Aspenson said. “They were taken straight to the river for sale. We won’t even start the dryer.”
Last year, the Aspensons spent $50,000 on propane to dry a particularly wet crop.
Baird also noted crops had dried nicely in the field with soybeans coming in at nine to 12 percent moisture levels and lots of the corn at 15 percent. He noted some of the early harvested corn was 19 to 20 percent.
The drier crops were part of the generally higher quality of the crop particularly the corn.
Aspenson noted they were selling Yellow #1 Corn this year compared to the Yellow #2 Corn sold last year and on other occasions.
Aspenson explained that last year his corn had test weights averaging around 54 and this year the test weight average was 57 with some as high as 60.
Like Aspenson, Olson agreed the test weights were coming in high. However, Haugen indicated that he had seen some low test weights on this year’s corn crop.
One area of universal agreement on this year’s corn and soybean crop was the price. It was simply too low in everyone’s opinion.
Current prices in the mid-$3 range just weren’t high enough to make a profit.
While most quoted a price around $3.70/bu, there were some lower prices being quoted. Baird said local markets paid $3.10 to $3.30/bu on Friday. Haugen cited a cash price of $3.49 at Prairie du Chien on Friday. Olson noted that although the price was low, it still is 30 cents per bushel higher than it was exactly one year ago.
Burkum noted the cash price in Westby on Friday was just $3.35/bu.
The two producers both had corn sold on contract at higher prices. For Knutson he had 50 percent of the corn “priced” and will store 50 percent. Aspenson had 33 percent of the crop contracted at $4.60/bu and planned to store the other 60 percent through fall hoping for higher prices in late winter and spring.
There was some variance on what the cost of the production actually was. The highest estimate came from the FSA’s Baird who said, considering the value of land and everything else, the estimate he was using was $4.35 to $4.50 per bushel to break even. Burkum estimated the break-even price on corn as $4/bu. Haugen estimated the break-even price on corn to be $3.80 to $3.90.
Although things weren’t looking too bright for prices, it may have been Baird who brought the silver bullet to the table. It came by the name of the ARC-County Option (Agriculture Risk Coverage), a federal subsidy program put into effect this year with a new Farm Bill to replace federally subsidized crop insurance.
How important is ARC in Crawford County this year?
The program will pay out $1.6 million dollars to the county’s farmers this year. It’s the perfect storm for ARC. The program uses a couple of averages to determine the payment level.
One of the most important calculations is the revenue based on the prices paid for the commodity in the each of the last five years. Then, the highest and lowest prices are removed and an average price per bushel is obtained. Similarly, the average yield is obtained.
Through more calculations a subsidy price per acre on 85 percent of a farm’s FSA-registered base acres is determined. Both Baird and Haugen indicated the ARC subsidy payment would be significant this year.
Producers Aspenson and Knutson agreed if ARC provides a substantial payment this year, it would be very important to producers struggling with prices at or below the cost of production.
“I’d rather have decent prices on the crop,” Knutson said. “But it (ARC) might be enough to keep you surviving. I know I won't be buying any new tractors. Hopefully, the bankers will be nice this year.”
If Baird presented the silver bullet to the problems caused by the lower prices, Haugen discussed two “black swan” event scenarios that might change the price situation for the better for U.S commodity producers.
Frist, he said there’s a possibility of a really severe weather event that would disrupt the South American harvest. This would impact soybean markets the most. The impact on prices would be determined by how many fewer beans were harvested in South America.
The second event that could have a positive impact on prices could be a currency event, where the dollar comes off its record high. As the dollar weakens, export of commodities would increase and eventually drive prices higher.
Another very real factor that might begin affecting ag exports to China is cheaper transportation costs occasioned by the backhaul of thousands of empty shipping containers every day.
West coast producers are already sending cheap feed products, including hay, to China in the empty shipping containers that they can access for just hundreds of dollars each.
All this leads to a rather interesting point that Baird made Friday.
“It’s not about what you’re putting in the ground anymore,” Baird explained. “That’s only a small percentage of being able to make money. To make money in agriculture anymore, you have to know when to buy and sell.”