What The Corn Harvest Is Like For A Grower
Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil, and you’re a thousand miles from the cornfield. – Dwight D. Eisenhower
Kris Nightengale is Vice President of Sales and Marketing at Jain Irrigation, Inc. and this year when his father passed away he took a more active role in the management of his family’s farm in South West Kansas. Kris is bright and hard working and manages his family and work responsibilities amazingly well. He sent some pictures of the harvest to me. These photos brought up many questions about bringing in a crop. Kris was generous and honest with his answers to the questions and allowed me to reprint them in this article. I know you are going to find this inside look at the harvest fascinating.
What is harvest like from a grower perspective?
Every grower looks forward all year to harvest as it is the culmination of all the work, research, decisions, and challenges from nature. Once the crop is about 75% harvested, you get to the point of fatigue that you just want to finish.
For me, this harvest was an intense emotional experience as I harvested what would’ve been my father’s 52nd and final crop as a third generation Kansas farmer. In his absence, I went through every step of the process he repeated 51 times before. From preparing the ground, choosing the fertilizer program, planning the planting schedule, overcoming weather setbacks. Then losing sleep over the market, losing sleep about the weather, having a pit in my stomach waiting for one of our critical irrigation pumps to break down, overcoming personnel shortages, and ultimately racing the weather to get the crop harvested and stored before wind, rain, or snow destroyed it. It was heart-wrenching, tear-jerking, fulfilling, thanksgiving, forced introspection experience.
What was the overall outcome of the corn harvest? Good yields? Quality?
We harvested a record crop this year. Including over 200 acres of non-irrigated corn, we harvested 240 bushels per acre average across 2,800 acres.
Was harvest on schedule late or early, why?
Harvest started late due to cool temperatures, high relative humidity, and lack of the typical high plains winds. The environmental factors kept the corn from naturally drying down in the field and forced us to dry all we harvested except for about 80 truckloads.
What is happening here with the steam?
These are grain dryers, which sound like jet engines at full throttle. Corn enters the top and passes through the exterior walls where it is subjected to over 180-degree air blast which reduces the moisture and makes the corn suitable for extended storage without quality degradation. In this case, the corn was coming in from the field at about 18.5% moisture, and we are reducing it to 15.5% moisture. The steam is the moisture expelled into the atmosphere.
Do you just work until the work is done or do you take some sleep breaks?
Typically we start the day around 6:30 am by servicing and fueling the equipment. Overnight the grain dryers have caught back up and made about 12 truckloads worth of room in our wet holding storage. When we are harvesting 18.5% moisture corn, the dryers can dry up to 2 truckloads per hour. So if we start harvesting at 9 am, we typically won’t be out of wet storage room until midnight. 18-hour workdays during corn harvest are typical six days a week and, this year, for eight full weeks. Everyone looks forward to some winter rest after the marathon.
What are the biggest challenges?
It depends on what your job is. For my mother, the hardest part is keeping everyone fed twice a day for the duration of the harvest season. A typical week will consume about $3000 worth of groceries and about 60 hours of cooking, serving, cleaning, and repeating. For our farm manager and his wife, they were saddled with my late father’s job of running the grain dryers 24 hours a day including at least 14 hours every Sunday off day. Between operating equipment, driving trucks, storing grain, repairing equipment, and maintenance I think the most common thread among everyone is general physical fatigue and sleep deprivation.
Do most growers contract price or risk a market price at harvest?
Our farm is located in southwest Kansas in an area that is an importer of corn for ethanol and cattle feed. On average growers in the area get pricing above the futures exchange for the difference in freight costs required to bring the crop in from Nebraska or Iowa. If growers store their corn, they average another $.50/bu on average above harvest time pricing on the board. As a result of these consideration growers usually look to contract as much as 50% of their crop while they are growing it during a period of uncertainty like planting progress, drought conditions, US currency fluctuations, and with increases of consumption/export sales. The remainder they price and book during the following year’s crop cycle with the same drivers. In areas where production is primarily an export, growers tend to hedge by trading futures on the Kansas City and Chicago Board of trade.
What technology are we looking at in the cab of the tractor? Is this technology typical these days?
A majority of the high tech stuff is overhead on a touch-screen monitor, not seen in this picture, which is mapping the yield as we harvest. This monitor is showing critical machine metrics like rotor rpm, rotor clearance, header rpm, grain moisture, and grain yield.