Grain farmers are harvesting a big crop across the Mid-Atlantic, though many combines have been slowed by rain.
In Pennsylvania’s Oley Valley, father-and-son custom harvesters Robert and Josh Noll started harvesting grain corn around Oct. 8 — several weeks later than they started last year.
“Nothing dried down the way it was supposed to,” Robert said. “We never see sunshine. We can’t cut soybeans when it’s all cloudy and damp. We need a lot of sun and air to dry the beans.”
Moisture levels have been high in both the corn and the soil, nothing below 22%, Josh said.
The season’s first nor’easter, which made landfall Monday night, didn’t help that picture. AccuWeather reported some parts of New Jersey receiving 4 inches of rain in 24 hours.
But that wasn’t the only big storm to challenge harvesters. The remnants of Hurricane Ida blew through the region on Sept. 1. As a result, Josh has seen down corn in about 10% of the corn fields he has harvested. Most of the lodged stalks had root disease, he said.
Like the Nolls, Kyle Shuey, a custom harvester in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, has been hoping, often in vain, for clear skies.
“We need a lot of sun for beans,” he said.
As of Monday, Pennsylvania farmers had harvested a third of their grain corn and were approaching the midpoint for beans. Both marks were a little behind average, according to USDA.
Rob Kauffman, field manager for Farmers’ Independent Research of Seed Technologies, was about halfway through the harvest on corn seed research plots throughout Pennsylvania, and he said the yields are unlike anything he’s ever seen before.
Some plots are topping 300 bushels per acre, Kauffman said, and the farmers he’s talked with are reporting similar numbers. So far, Kauffman’s highest yield has come in at 304 bushels per acre from a field in Mount Joy. The average yield of all the plots at the Mount Joy location was 269.9 bushels.
Even beyond research fields, USDA is expecting Pennsylvania will set records for average yields in both corn, at 169 bushels per acre, and soybeans, at 52 bushels per acre.
Kauffman attributes the strong yields in the research program in part to warm soil temperatures in the spring that helped establish a good stand, as well as to ample heat and moisture during the growing season, and timely sprays.
But the biggest factor, he said, is advances in genetics.
“The kernels on an ear are deep and packed so tight. There’s no wasted space. That’s where the yield is coming from,” he said. “Even the bottom varieties are yielding 200 bushels this year.”
Kauffman’s soybean yields are strong, if not as lofty as in corn. Some bean fields are hitting 75 bushels an acre.
“The soybean plants got too high, and when that happens a lot of the energy goes into the stalk and not bean development,” he said. “We had a lot of rain in August and some lodged, some went down, and that’s when you start seeing more disease. With soybeans, I’m not seeing the jump like corn.”
In Pennsylvania’s northern tier, Mason Tate was expecting that, with good weather, the corn harvest would get underway in earnest this week.
By Monday, only a small amount of high-moisture corn had been harvested for dairies. About half of the soybeans had been harvested, though local farmers would normally be closer to finished with them in late October.
“The weather has been our biggest obstacle,” said Tate, a Penn State Extension educator in Bradford County. “We’ve been on the cusp of really almost being able to get started and get rolling as far as drydown and enough moisture, and then it decides to rain and get damp.”
The corn harvest has been set back in part because planting was delayed.
A handful of farmers got their corn planted in early May, while others used the hot, dry weather to take off hay. That good weather was followed by two rainy weeks, which left most farmers planting in the first week of June.
Not surprisingly, silage yields were uneven, with the early-planted fields performing the best, and Tate is eager to see how the grain corn yields.
This summer’s humidity has caused some sprouting in low-lying fields, as well as some fungal diseases and ear rots. But thanks to timely rains, many corn ears have filled nicely and should have good test weights, Tate said.
Soybean yields have been average, though some fields suffered from waterlogging during the wet July, he said.
Given the muddy conditions and wait to harvest corn, Tate hasn’t seen many fields planted to cover crops. He has noticed a number of fields planted to wheat, as well as good-looking stands of radishes and red clover that were planted into this summer’s wheat stubble.
At this point, Tate said, there aren’t many cover crop species that farmers will be able to get established before the mountain winter sets in.
But to the relief of cover crop planters, that cold weather has been slow in coming. The region hasn’t seen a frost yet, except for maybe the lightest coating on high elevations.
“I know there are guys contemplating still about possibly putting something out there into the fields and seeing what happens,” Tate said.
The story is similar in central New York. The first frost has been unusually slow to arrive, and wet fields have hindered harvest.
“It just seems like it hasn’t stopped raining since July,” said Janice Degni, a field crops specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension in Cortland County.
Given the wet conditions, some farmers have told Degni that harvesting took them three times longer than in a typical year.
About 10% of New York’s grain corn and 60% of its soybeans were harvested by Monday. The soybean progress is similar to last year, but corn is behind average, according to USDA.
In Cortland County, soybean growers are still waiting for a few sunny days to dry out the crop before they can harvest. Though a frost hasn’t materialized, temperatures have been falling, and that suggests ideal drydown conditions may be hard to come by.
If there’s a silver lining to the plentiful rain, it’s that New York’s yields, as in other states, are well above average.
“It’s been a really good year for building inventory back because last year we were super dry and a lot of people were short,” Degni said.
The rain did lead to some disease in late September and early October, but Degni doesn’t see that causing problems.
“Everybody is happy with their yields,” she said. “Harvest has been a little bit tougher than people would like, but we’re getting through it.”
Some parts of the Mid-Atlantic have been spared the sopping conditions.
Tim Smith of Endless Rows Custom Work in Stewartsville, New Jersey, had wrapped up most of his custom harvesting by mid-October.
Smith started taking off grain corn Sept. 6 because his clients with early-planted corn were ready to transition those fields into a rye cover crop. Since then he’s harvested roughly 1,100 acres.
“This year the harvest has been good, and it’s doing well,” Smith said.
Smith has had only two hiccups with the harvest. One of his clients had an airplane out spraying fungicide when Smith was planning to harvest, and he encountered burcucumber in some fields.
The last hurdle now is finishing soybean harvest.
“If I get a couple of nice, sunny and dry days to cut beans, then I’ll be in good shape,” he said.
Three-quarters of New Jersey’s corn and a third of its soybeans were harvested at the beginning of the week, according to USDA.
On Maryland’s Mid-Shore, farmers were able to start the corn harvest early.
“It’s been dry, so people have been able to harvest without any problems,” said Jim Lewis, a University of Maryland Extension agent in Caroline County.
That’s a welcome contrast to the 2020 harvest, when miry conditions meant stuck combines and problems planting cover crops and small grains.
This year, dryland corn yields have been particularly strong. Irrigated corn has produced good yields, though not records. On Monday, Lewis estimated that local farmers were 95% done harvesting corn and 50-60% through with soybeans.
In recent years, wheat production has dropped off with the price of that crop, so double-crop bean acres have declined as well, Lewis said.
Overall, soybean yields are a little lower than last year, but production has been more uniform because low spots didn’t get drowned out.
Lewis saw scant insect damage, and he wasn’t concerned by the smattering of sudden death syndrome he saw in soybeans.
“Usually when that happens, it happens in lower, wetter areas of the field. And that means we had enough moisture that other areas of the field yielded pretty good,” he said.
Cover crop seeding by airplane began at the end of August. Those early-planted covers got the right amount of rain and are among the best Lewis has ever seen.
With harvest going smoothly, Lewis said many farmers have turned to reducing their income tax obligations. Equipment purchases would normally be a go-to strategy, but with that market unfavorable, farmers are in some cases putting up buildings or investing in their soil instead.
“Farmers are just in a good mood in general and happy because of good harvest, good yields,” Lewis said.