DECATUR, Ill. (DTN) -- That bite of cold in the North Dakota mornings isn't the only thing signaling fall is in the air. The combines sit at the ready to take their first bite out of the crop on Chandra and Mike Langseth's farm near Barney.
"The corn crop is really starting to show signs that it is dying back," said Mike. "Everything is dented. The milk line is moving down. Soybeans are starting to drop leaves. We seem right on target for a normal start date of around the end of September here."
Some 600 miles to the south, Zachary Grossman is also waiting to get his first taste of what yields might look like on his Tina, Missouri, farm. "We keep pulling moisture checks and the corn is running about 23%. When that number drops below 20%, we'll roll," said Grossman on Sept. 7.
Grossman and the Langseths have been reporting through the 2023 growing season as part of DTN's View From the Cab project. The feature started as the farmers were planting their first seeds. This is the 19th installment in what has been a rollercoaster year due to lack of consistent rainfall, which leaves farmers wondering what fall might have in store.
DTN Ag Meteorologist John Baranick noted both regions have come off hot temperatures early in the month and slipped into a more near or slightly below normal pattern with temperatures through September 15-18. "We turn up the potential for above-normal temperatures again to close out the month of September," said Baranick.
There are chances of isolated to scattered showers for both areas mixed into the long-range forecast. But Baranick said rain events are not likely to be heavy enough to cause many harvest delays.
"When we get into October, models are liking a more active pattern and that could mean some better opportunities for rain; but right now, it doesn't look too threatening," he added. "November's forecast is for cooler and wetter conditions for a lot of the Corn Belt. Anyone still working out in the fields then may have more issues. But I'd say in general, the forecast is favorable for harvest," he added.
This week the farmers talk about harvest preparations and ways they work to make gathering row crops more efficient. Haying season finally comes to an end. And our farmers scout for late-season diseases and other field problems to address next year.
For these farmers, the most important piece of harvest readiness isn't weather-related or even mechanical. Read on to learn more.
ZACHARY GROSSMAN: TINA, MISSOURI
For Zachary (Zach) Grossman, this time of year requires a bit of patience to let the crop dry down a smidge more. The farm put up the first storage bin this year, but it is air-dry only, not a propane-heated system. He also prefers to avoid drying costs or discounts if he hauls to the local elevator. To do that, the corn crop needs to drop under 20% moisture before starting to nose into fields.
The chances of rain in the forecast for early next week don't concern him much. Mature corn doesn't pick up much moisture. "Maybe it is just me, but sometimes a small amount of rain seems to help the husks on hanging ears loosen and dry down further," he noted. Right now, he figures harvest will begin between Sept. 10 to Sept. 15, which is about typical for the area.
"We're anxious to get going, but at the same time, I'm glad to have a little time to get a second cutting of hay baled and finished," he said. In fact, he's washed the baler off and put it away for the year.
"I'm sticking her in the shed and not thinking about baling for a good long while," he said with relief. Since Memorial Day, the only week he didn't bale something this summer was the two weeks in August when it rained nearly every day.
The second cutting of grass is going to be a lifesaver for many Missouri cattle producers, Grossman noted. Drought greatly limited pastures and reduced hay production early in the season. While Grossman's situation was not nearly as dire as some, he went through most of the summer nervous about what fall might bring and baling everything he could, just in case.
"On this second cutting, we are getting at least 50% of what a normal first cutting would yield in a good year. It's excellent quality and made some beautiful small square bales," Grossman said.
Grossman's farm fields are dotted over two counties and approximately 30 miles, but the home base sits in the middle of that span. That centralized location helps reduce travel time between fields.
"I'm not sure we have a harvest strategy as much as we unwind or work backwards from what was planted. The theory is those crops mature in the order they were planted. That isn't always the case, but we try not to travel more than needed," he said.
On-the-go unloading helps speed up harvest but isn't always suited to every field. "We do it where we can, but terrain and terraces only allow it about 50% of the time," he noted. Having a grain cart and enough trucking capacity to keep things moving is essential to harvest efficiency, he added.
This is the first year the farm has raised soybeans destined for seed. Grossman knows that will require a slower pace as there's a list of harvest protocols to follow. "We'll have some extensive combine clean out, among other things. We're taking the time to learn it all and enjoying the new challenge," he said.
CHANDRA AND MIKE LANGSETH: BARNEY, NORTH DAKOTA
Soybean seed production is central to the Langseth's farming enterprises. This year they are only growing two soybean seed varieties, which will help limit the time required for clean-out and segregation. To take further precautions, the first few loads through the combine in each field are sold separately as commodity grain, Mike said.
To further distance the production, this year the varieties are planted on opposite ends of the farm or about 25 miles apart. "Our planting plan really has more to do with agronomy and putting the beans on the right field," Mike said. "We have one 0.9 (relative maturity) variety that is known to not have as good of a score on IDC (iron deficiency chlorosis). So, it was placed on our irrigated, tiled, and sandier soils." Research has shown the severity of IDC increases when soybeans are grown in wet soil conditions.
The second number, a 0.7 relative maturity variety with a better IDC profile, was planted on the farm's heavier, higher pH soils. Normally, that slight difference in maturity between the two varieties would give a week to 10 days between the two harvests. But as luck would have it, this year, planting was delayed on the shorter maturing variety by about two weeks.
"Right now, it looks like all our beans are going to be ripe about the same time, which isn't ideal. I guess we'll see what everything looks like in about three weeks," Mike added.
Going by temperature alone, the crop is running about 100 growing degree units ahead of normal. "But looking at the crop, it doesn't seem like we are actually ahead," he said. "As long as September stays relatively normal, I don't see us wildly off schedule."
This year, the non-irrigated corners are mostly fried and dryland acres on heavier soils are showing drought stress, observed Chandra, who does a lot of the crop scouting. "Irrigated crops are stressed, but we've poured the water to them all summer, and they have held up pretty well."
Waterhemp breaks have her attention this year. News that Iowa has likely identified dicamba-resistant waterhemp doesn't surprise her but adds to the desire for diligence. "There's an advantage to farming to the north, we often get a heads up on problems as they happen in states below us," she said.
She'd put sudden death syndrome (SDS) on that list this year. She's seen a few more patches of it this year, which will have her studying yield maps to see if a seed treatment or some other step is indicated in the future.
For Mike, most of August has been spent working in the shop readying the combines for harvest by making repairs such as replacing plastic skid plates and leaking hydraulic cylinders. While the fixes turned into a longer project than anticipated, the importance of limiting downtime is real since the harvest season in this northern climate is typically compressed into three weeks before weather turns gnarly.
One bright spot this year on the repair front is the availability of replacement parts has improved. "Dealers may not have a part on hand, but they can generally get it in two days now," he said.
However, price is another story. "I don't think the cost of parts has risen much more in the past year, still there's always a thought in your head: 'How much can they possibly charge for that?' And, when the bill comes it's almost always 30% more than you expected," Mike said.
Mobile communication between workers may be the single biggest harvest helper, he noted. "We try not to switch ends of the farm too often during harvest. It can kill a half day just moving the whole parade of equipment 15 miles to get set up again," he said.
Last year they added a second combine to the equipment lineup and converted that machine from an 8-row to a 12-row (30-foot) head. That upgrade threatened to push their grain cart capacity, so a new 1,050-bushel-capacity cart debuts this fall.
On-farm storage and the ability to avoid elevator lines is another time saver. So is the ability to dry the crop if needed. "It's nice when the crop finishes naturally. But when we have these abrupt things that shut down the plant early, such as drought or disease, the crop is more variable and sometimes needs a bit of drying," Chandra said.
When it comes to tips for improving harvest efficiency, the philosophy at the Langseth farm is to practice patience. "We're kind of a slow and steady type operation and really methodical about that next step," she said. "We like to think through things. We like to prepare in a planned and thoughtful way to stay ahead.
"I take pride in all those things because I think it puts us in a mindset of being ready for the challenges. We do these preparations knowing that every plan we make can easily go to crap. Being prepared is being able to mentally adjust and roll with whatever upsets the plan in a calm and measured way," she added.
Pamela Smith can be reached at email@example.com
Follow her on X, formerly known as Twitter, @PamSmithDTN
(c) Copyright 2023 DTN, LLC. All rights reserved.