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Corn and soybean harvests deliver for Minnesota farmers

Published 8:10am Thursday, November 15, 2012

By Mark Steil

Minnesota Public Radio News

COTTONWOOD COUNTY, Minn. — The seeds Minnesota corn and soybean farmers planted last spring paid off with good yields and great profits, as the state’s two largest cash crops should generate about $13 billion in revenue.

Although drought and other bad weather threatened some fields in 2012, many Minnesota farmers had a great year.

Among them is Mike Wojahn, a southwest Minnesota farmer whose harvest was pretty much in line with the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimate of about 168 bushels an acre for the state. The state soybean harvest averaged about 43 bushels an acre, consistent with past years.

“I had a very acceptable year,” said Wojahn, who saw a corn yield of about 10 percent less than he had hoped, but a normal soybean harvest. “And I have to take into account that we’ve got some really great prices and that’s going to really help us.”

For Wojahn and other farmers, great prices will make up for any shortfall in bushels. A bushel of corn is commanding more than $7; soybeans reap nearly $14.

But good timing makes the year even sweeter for the Wojahn, who farms near Windom, Minn.

While most farmers start selling their crop on the futures market before they plant a single seed, Wojahn held off until mid-summer. Doing so, allowed him to market his grain at the perfect time.

By July Wojahn had a crop, even though drought covered most of the corn belt. Every day, the estimated size of the U.S. harvest seemed to shrink. When corn prices spiked, Wojahn decided it was time to sell.

“Basically, we like to wait until we’re sure we’re going to have a crop before we start selling something,” he said. “I got one contract sold at $7.95.”

That’s the highest price Wojahn has ever received for a bushel of corn. But just as he started to lock in good prices, the same drought that was driving prices up began to visibly hurt his corn fields.

“It goes all the way from having a few stalks that didn’t put on ears to having ones that had short ears,” Wojahn said.

When his combine rolled into the fields in September, Wojahn found the drought had reduced his yield only a little. He attributes that to the drought resistance traits of modern hybrid corn, which he said can produce a crop on very little rain.

University of Minnesota extension agronomist Jeff Coulter agrees. He said the worst drought areas in the state suffered, but a lot of areas escaped harm.

“In places like southwest Minnesota, northwest Minnesota, the yields were anywhere between 10 to 20 percent below what we would have liked,” Coulter said. “But in other places like Rochester or Hutchinson, the yields were 10 to 15 percent higher than expected.”

But if many Minnesota farmers were pleasantly surprised at their yields, the drought did significant damage south and east of the state. The nation’s corn harvest was 13 percent below last year’s. That short supply is causing pain elsewhere in the agricultural economy.

With corn and other grain prices at historically high levels, the livestock industry is cutting back on grain buys and herd size, Omaha based commodity consultant Alan Brugler said.

“So we are anticipating smaller cattle numbers in 2013, a cut of two to three percent in hog numbers, and the chicken guys have also started to pare back a little bit,” Brugler said.

Consumers will feel the effects of those moves as meat prices are expected to rise as much as four percent next year. But the drought shows no sign of ending. That’s already causing concern for next year’s crop.

“I’m a little apprehensive,” Wojahn said. “I really am.”

A recent construction project on his southwest Minnesota farm underscored how dry it is.

“You get down to that four, five-foot level and it’s powder dry,” he said.

Heavy winter snow or nice rains next spring could quickly change things for the better. That’s what happened this year when plentiful precipitation in May and June made for a fine harvest in Minnesota.

The months ahead will decide whether state farmers get that sort of break two years in a row.

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