LF20191012-Harvest1.jpg

Corn is harvested near Route 419 in Womelsdorf, Pennsylvania. Recent dry weather has provided great conditions to harvest grain, and farmers are ahead of schedule compared to recent years, according to USDA

Pennsylvania farmers are motoring ahead with grain harvest thanks to several weeks of dry weather.

About 40% of the state’s grain corn and soybeans had been harvested by Tuesday.

That’s about 10 percentage points ahead for this time of year, according to USDA estimates.

Not only have harvest conditions been favorable, but yields and quality have also been outstanding.

“I think this could be a record year for the county for both corn and soybeans,” said Jeff Graybill, a Penn State Extension educator in Lancaster County.

As a data collector for the state yield contests, Graybill has tested three corn fields with yields over 300 bushels per acre, and three soybean fields over 100 bushels per acre.

He’s tested such yields maybe once in the past.

Graybill attributes the productivity to the summer’s warm but not excessively hot weather, timely rains, and abundance of light.

“Sunshine brings the energy that powers the plants to produce,” Graybill said.

The dryness may have also kept disease pressure to a minimum.

All of the top-yielding fields that Graybill visited were planted in late April, so they were mature by the fall dry spell.

Late corn and double-crop soybeans probably won’t set any records, but yields should still be decent, he said.

Graybill estimated that Lancaster County farmers were 50-60% done with grain harvest at the beginning of this week.

The scene is similar next door in York County, where harvest is progressing rapidly and yields and quality are both good.

Heidi Reed, an Extension educator there, estimated that farmers were 40% done with both corn and full-season beans early this week.

Double-crop soybeans are still growing, but some are starting to yellow.

Like Graybill, Reed is impressed with the numbers coming from the yield contest fields.

Yield contest participants are some of the top producers in the state, but the strength of their yields can still be a bellwether for the state as a whole, Reed said.

Pennsylvania is on the northern verge of a so-called flash drought that has stampeded across the South in the past month or so.

Conditions are worst in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, but most of Maryland, as well as Adams and southern Chester counties in Pennsylvania, are in moderate drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

USDA estimates that about a quarter of Pennsylvania’s soils are short on moisture.

That isn’t such a bad thing if you’re trying to harvest grain, but it can be a problem for renovating pastures, or planting small grains and cover crops.

Without more rain, winter plantings could come up unevenly, and they might not put on enough growth to survive the winter well.

Of course, there’s still time to get winter crops in the ground, Graybill said, especially because farmers are harvesting ahead of schedule.

In any case, this fall could hardly be more different from last year, when frequent rains delayed harvest and reduced crop quality.

Soggy conditions persisted into planting season this year, which in some places prevented planting or required replanting.

Mark Canon had 27 prevented-planting acres at his dairy farm in West Middlesex, Mercer County.

He’s occasionally had to forgo planting on a few acres in the past, but this was the first year he had enough acreage to make a claim.

In response, Canon has been extending drain tile and adding new lines in the fields he couldn’t plant.

Drain tile helped in the fields where he already had it installed this spring, he said.

Mercer is one of several western Pennsylvania counties where prevented planning acres made up at least 10% of total acres.

Neighboring Venango County had the worst luck in the state, with prevented acres topping 25% of total acres, according to data from John Newton, an American Farm Bureau Federation economist.

Venango County declared a disaster emergency in connection with a July 20 storm and flooding.

Though Canon’s land was wet through August, his fields, like many in the state, have since dried out.

“We’re just about right for this time of year,” he said.

Canon hadn’t harvested any grain by Tuesday, but was planning to get into his soybeans soon.

Farmers in Blair and Cambria counties have had favorable weather and are mostly harvesting soybeans right now, said Zachary Larson, an Extension educator in that area.

Yields and quality have been good, and pod splitting has been low.

Desirable conditions have persisted since the statewide grain tour Larson organizes in August. That wasn’t a given.

The crops looked good in last year’s tour too, only to be battered by the late-season rain.

This year, “what looked good continued to be good,” Larson said.

The soil is firm and a bit dry, but Larson has still been able to insert a probe for soil sampling.

In Cambria County, he worked with some farmers who interseeded wheat into soybeans just before leaf drop.

The small grain established well despite the limited rain, he said.

Like other mountainous parts of the state, much of Larson’s territory has gotten frost, though he has not yet seen a 28-degree killing frost.

While pest and disease pressure has generally been low this fall, Graybill has gotten a lot of calls about burcucumber.

He thinks the weedy vine is spreading in Lancaster County.

A decade ago, Graybill only saw burcucumber in crop fields. It’s since become established in meadows and on stream banks, where animals and hunters might be picking up the jagged seeds and redistributing them to fields.

If there’s enough moisture, as there probably was this year, burcucumber can germinate all summer long.

That means plants that escape the early herbicide application may become a hard-to-control problem by the time the corn is too tall for most sprayers.

A few farmers used a drone service to scout their fields for the weed, which can get tangled in a combine head.

Still, burcucumber is a small fly in the ointment for what has otherwise been a good time for harvesting grain.

“The weather’s not going to stay this good, so it’s time to get out there,” Graybill said.