12 Steps to a Weatherproof Harvest

Based on his research, Farm Journal Field Agronomist Ken Ferrie has found applying a fungicide can add two weeks of standability, which helps manage harvest and avoid bottlenecks. ( Lindsey Benne )

There are easy harvests and hard harvests, short harvest seasons and long ones. As many were reminded this past fall that’s the nature of farming. But saying “harvest all depends on the weather” can be an excuse for running late year after year, says Farm Journal Field Agronomist Ken Ferrie. Worse yet, it shows a crop manager has given up a degree of control that is rightfully his.

Occasional rainy autumns are just the way Mother Nature works. But there are ways to weatherproof your harvest and turn wet years from disasters into inconveniences. Here are 12 tips that will help you minimize the effect of moist fall weather, harvest after harvest:

1. Evaluate your operation realistically. “Don’t think in terms of what you feel you should be able to do,” Ferrie says. “Examine what you actually accomplished the past four, five or more seasons. How many days did it actually take you to harvest? What made the difference between years when you harvested quickly and years when harvest ran late?

“Review everything from scale tickets to yield maps. When did you actually start? When did you finish? How often in the past five years did you harvest down corn at the end of the season? If corn goes down in the summer, it might be due to weather. But if it goes down, or ears drop, in the fall, it might mean the crop was left in the field too long.  

“Make sure your vision of harvest matches reality,” Ferrie says. “If you run late every year, and suffer harvest losses, reassess every aspect of your operation. Have a harvest plan in place before you plant the crop.”

2. Know exactly how many days are required for harvest. Then you are able to allocate equipment and manpower appropriately. This requires understanding the capacity of your system.

“You may be equipped to harvest 100 acres per day,” Ferrie says, “but if your grain system only handles 40 acres per day, that’s your capacity (unless you plan to haul the rest of your grain to the elevator). I see this situation frequently on farms.”

Allow for some interference from Mother Nature. “If you can harvest 80 acres per day, and you have 4,000 acres to harvest, you need 50 days of actual harvesting time,” Ferrie explains. “But that number is in addition to days lost to rain, snow or mechanical breakdowns.”

3. Be ready to roll. “In late summer, your harvest team should perform preventive maintenance on combines, grain carts, trucks, dryers, augers, legs and everything needed for harvest,” Ferrie advises. “You don’t wait until the first day of planting to get your planter ready. It’s the same with harvest. Starting preparation late is a sure recipe for shortfalls and breakdowns.”

4. Prepare your harvest crew. Along with equipment, calculate how much manpower you will need to pull off a timely harvest. “Training your employees ahead of time will eliminate many problems,” Ferrie says. “The first day of harvest should never be a driver’s first day in his truck. Cross-train your crew to handle different positions, in case someone becomes unavailable.”

5. Lengthen your harvest window. There are two ways to gain more harvest time. The first is to add drying and storage capacity. “Waiting for corn to dry in the field can waste some of your most productive harvesting days,” Ferrie says. “If you don’t have the ability, or don’t want to invest in drying and storage facilities, the second way is to add some early hybrids to your lineup, to let you start harvesting earlier.

“Some growers don’t like early hybrids because they yield less. But in 2018, when the harvest season turned wet, many farmers had their late hybrids go down. When that happens, you can easily leave 40 bu. per acre in the field, and you’ll have to deal with volunteer corn next spring.”

Just remember, if you add earlier hybrids, plant the early-maturing ones first and the latest-maturing ones last. If you plant the late hybrids first, all your corn will still mature at the same time.

6. Use your pest management team to prioritize fields. “Their job is to create a pecking order of fields that are struggling and are on the verge of going down, so you can harvest them first,” Ferrie says.

After corn reaches black layer, scouts should check for ear rots. “Ear rot will only get worse with time,” Ferrie says. “Harvest those fields early to prevent a buildup of toxins that, if severe enough, can make grain unmarketable.”

Split corn stalks from top to bottom, and look for nutrient drawdown and insects in the stalk or ear shank. “Corn borer feeding damage in the stalk or ear shank indicates you may have standability or ear-drop problems later, making those fields candidates for early harvest,” Ferrie says.

Perform the push test—stand next to a plant, grab it at ear height and see if you can push it over. “Push on 10 stalks and record how many stand,” Ferrie says. “Do this in all hybrids and all populations.”

With soybeans, split some plants and search for disease or insect damage. “Stem borer damage indicates soybeans may go down, so plan to harvest those fields first,” Ferrie advises.

Drones can help your pest team spot areas in fields that are beginning to fall over. “Keep updated reports flowing to your harvest team all the way through harvest,” Ferrie says. “That lets them stay focused and plan their attack, so they always know which field to harvest next.”

7. Spend your time where it nets the greatest return. “When corn goes down, nobody wants to leave it on the ground long,” Ferrie says. “But don’t sacrifice harvest efficiency on a field that’s already down if there are three more about to go down. Harvest those three while they’re still standing, and then come back to the first one.”

8. Apply fungicide, at least to some fields. “In our trials, we have found that applying a fungicide can add two weeks of standability, even if it doesn’t increase yield,” Ferrie says. “In a wet fall like 2018, that can make the difference between harvesting 160 acres per day and 20 acres per day. Some farmers spray fungicides on part of their acreage simply to manage harvest and avoid bottlenecks.”

9. Harvest poorly-drained fields first. Your pest team can evaluate soil readiness as they scout for insect and disease damage and stalk quality.

“If all fields are standing equally, you may want to organize harvest around field drainage,” Ferrie says. “If a field tends to get wet, harvest it while it’s dry enough to support combines, grain carts and trucks. This is especially important in no-till and strip-till conditions. It may require moving equipment a little more often, but that’s better than leaving tracks and ruts to deal with later.”

If you must deal with wet fields, keep your combine as light as possible. Position trucks and carts to do minimal damage.

10. Adjust your combine as needed to maintain grain quality and get a clean sample. “This is crucial to weatherproofing, especially in seed crops, as well as for eliminating storage problems,” Ferrie says. “Even a light shower or snowfall can turn a well-adjusted combine into a seed spreader. Monitor harvest loss every day and with every hybrid. In dry years, when light ground produces smaller ears, adjust the stripper plates to reduce header loss.”

11. Spread residue evenly across the width of the head. That will create uniform moisture and temperature conditions to plant in next spring.

“Spreading residue uniformly is easiest to do in corn, but it’s becoming more important in soybeans as yields increase and headers get wider,” Ferrie says. “You may have to purchase add-on equipment to supplement the spreader that came on the combine. Calibrate your spreading equipment. Utilize harvest direction and wind direction to help obtain an even spread.”  

12. Plan for the worst, while hoping for the best. As you map out your 2019 harvest plan, determine how to deal with weather problems. “It’s great when good fall weather lets us follow our plan,” Ferrie says, “but insects, diseases and weather often complicate things. Weatherproofing your harvest minimizes the impact of those complications.”

Too dry, too wet and everything in between. This is the last story in an eight-part series on weatherproofing your crops. Follow along at bit.ly/weatherproof-crops