August’s derecho leaves storage, quality problems for Iowa farmers

By Dave DeWitte
[email protected]

The aftermath of the Aug. 10 derecho will continue through the fall for Iowa farmers, many of whom will be tested by severe grain harvesting, quality and storage challenges.

Some 4 million acres of corn and 2.4 million acres of soybeans were hit by the unusually extreme storm that left a wide swath of devastation across Iowa, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“It was kind of a triple whammy really,” said Jim Greif, a Monticello area farmer and president of the Iowa Corn Growers Association. He said crop damage was “horrendous.” At the same time, the winds of up to 140 miles per hour crushed many of the large metal grain bins at farms and elevators.

Now, as farmers file crop insurance claims, he says they’re coming up against discrepancies in how the insurance companies want to deal with their crops – some wanting them to harvest whatever’s left of the crop, and others telling them to destroy what’s left in the fields.

Mr. Greif had a stunning windshield view of the damage as he drove home from Nebraska recently along Highway 30. The heaviest crop damage started around Denison, and went clear through to Cedar Rapids.

“We’re used to tornadoes in Iowa,” Mr. Greif said. “We get a six-pack and watch them. They’re a quarter-mile wide and 10 miles long. This was 40 miles wide and 800 miles long. This was like a category 2 hurricane across three states, and we got the worst of it right here in Eastern Iowa.”

The derecho damage is a multiplier for crop problems farmers were already seeing from widespread drought conditions, Iowa State University grain quality expert Charles Hurburgh said during an Aug. 28 webcast with Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig.

“This is the largest area of coverage of multiple problems that I’ve seen,” Mr. Hurburgh said. “Small, isolated areas tend to be handled more easily and on a more individualized basis, but this year will be a challenge because of the scope of the drought and the scope of the damaged grain because of the storm.”

The winds destroyed an estimated 120 million bushels worth of grain storage structures, about half of which was on farms, and half at grain elevators.

“Between our facilities at Martelle, Stanwood and Clarence, we lost just under 2 million bushels of bin space plus the loss of spouting, legs and conveyors to fill the [storage] space that is still standing,” River Valley Co-op General Manager Tim Burress said in a video message to co-op members last month. “As we evaluate the damage, our primary goal is developing a short-term plan that allows us to best serve our customers this fall.”

Mr. Burress said River Valley’s biggest challenge will be handling soybeans at the facilities, with 320,000 bushels of bean space missing at Clarence, 400,000 bushels of space gone at Stanwood and 250,000 bushels destroyed at Martelle. The soybean crop is not expected be reduced nearly as much as the corn crop by the storm.

Mr. Burress said River Valley is making adjustments to its grain handling equipment to convert some of its undamaged corn bins into bean space. The co-op is also preparing lime pads at Olin and Martelle to pile corn on the ground, and is working with its truck fleet to “keep beans moving to market and keep bean space as fluid as we can.”

Marion-based Linn Co-op had serious damage at its Springville elevator, the co-op said in its website, and is down three grain bins for the season. It warned farmers of long lines at Springville because the facility is down to only one grain dump.

To compensate, Linn Co-op purchased a grain bagger. Customers will be able to dump their grain at Alburnett or Springville, and the co-op will take care of transferring the grain to bags.

Outside the Corridor, Key Cooperative in central Iowa reported 12 million bushels of space was damaged or destroyed out of its 30 million bushels of total licensed capacity. The derecho significantly damaged 10 of its 15 locations, damaging 40 grain bins and completely demolishing 20 more that represented 6 million bushels of storage.

General Manager Boyd Brodie said in a video message to members that the cooperative is looking at installing 3 million bushels of bunker storage as a temporary fix at strategic locations, and a combination of grain bin repairs, replacements, and even total facility redesigns depending on the individual site’s damage.

The co-op was already in the process of adding 3.5 million bushels of new storage this year. Bins ordered because of the derecho damage were to begin arriving early this month, he said, and should be up and running the first week in October.

Ironically, that damage and others will probably have little effect on the state’s net grain storage this year, according to Mr. Hurburgh. He said the decline in grain storage will be less than the decline in the grain harvest, “so overall – while it doesn’t make any individual person feel any better – we’ll probably not have a net storage crunch out of that.”

Individual farmers who’ve lost on-farm storage will have a number of options.  They include storing grain in silage bags if the grain is relatively dry, and – while he doesn’t normally recommend it – maintaining piles inside of farm outbuildings.

Mr. Greif said he didn’t lose any grain bins on his farm, but had a storage challenge anyway.

“We have a non-GMO contract with Cargill in Cedar Rapids for soybeans,” he said. “They’re still processing, but it’s hand-to-mouth because they’ve had several million bushels of storage destroyed that was their buffer. Our harvest contracts got pushed back to December, so now we’ve got to come up with storage for those beans.”

The Greif family farm secured storage outside the derecho-impacted area, however Mr. Greif said silage bags will be the favored solution for many farmers, because grain bin manufacturers now have their capacity booked out to 2022. At 16 feet in diameter and 300 feet long, the bags are reasonably easy to deploy and fill, but difficult to unload, he added.

Farmers can also put up temporary storage ranging from a pile to a grain bunker covered by tarps, Mr. Hurburgh said. They also have the option of trucking the grain to elevators further away that did not lose storage due to the derecho.

Harvest headaches

Grain drying capacity will be vital this fall, because farmers will want to act fast to harvest compromised grain. That means much of the grain will come out of the field with high moisture content, resulting in longer drying times and more propane use to dry it. Mr. Naig recommends that farmers work with their suppliers to ensure they have an adequate supply of propane for grain drying.

“People aren’t going to want to wait for that field to dry down,” said Virgil Schmitt, a farmer and ISU field agronomist. “They would be pennywise and pound foolish. How much would they lose to mold? How much would they lose to stalks that deteriorate more and fall down where you can’t harvest it?”

The corn harvest is likely to get into full swing at many farms this week, Mr. Greif noted.

“That corn on the ground needs to be harvested sooner than later,” he said. “If we wait until October, there’s going to be all kinds of mold and aflatoxin and so on.”

Partially green corn stalks that are bent or broken also tend to go through a combine header without lodging easier than brittle stalks, he said.

The wind damage is layered on crop quality challenges already created by a drought covering 96% of the state in late August. Drought “basically reduces yield and also raises the potential for field issues such as mold development and toxin development,” Mr. Hurbugh said.

Grain could also have low test weights, due to all the weather stresses Mother Nature threw at this year’s crop, according to Mr. Schmitt, who recommends farmers have their grain tested and, if necessary, reevaluate its end use or market.

Mold can be a cause for rejecting corn at some markets such as ethanol mills, he noted. The week of Sept. 7 was the wettest week of the growing season so far for most farms, greatly increasing the risk of mold on corn that was no longer growing. Corn with some mold may still be acceptable as cattle feed, he said, but test results should be shared with a veterinarian in order to be sure.

Crop insurance will prevent the derecho damage from becoming a financial calamity because the vast majority of farmers buy coverage, however it’s not as simple as just having coverage, Mr. Hurburgh said.

“Make sure you have an active conversation with your crop insurance adjuster about how [grain] quality will be handled,” he said. “When will be the best time to measure them? What do you need to make the measurement and analysis process a little easier, a little more accurate?”

Mr. Schmitt believes that many farmers will try to minimize the mold issues by adjusting the header on their combine – the part that cleans and collects the corn plants, higher off the ground. The adjustment will leave some of the downed corn in the field and reduce yields, but also avoid picking up the more mold-infested ears, and plants with soil embedded that could damage their equipment.

Corn producers will also turn up the speed on the fans in their combines that separate the grain from the lighter leaf and stalk material, Mr. Schmitt said, in order to blow out underdeveloped ears of corn that are more likely to have mold issues.

Because of all the storm debris in many fields, Mr. Greif said harvesting will become at least a two-person operation. One will operate the combine as usual, while an additional helper will travel just ahead of the combine spotting and removing debris before they can lodge in the machine.

It’s often inevitable that some debris clogs the combine header, requiring the operator to reach in or take other measures to get it out. Modern combines have safety features to prevent that, but Mr. Greif said many farmers will deactivate them.

“Corn heads are notorious for grabbing arms and legs and fingers,” he said. “You’re not supposed to be in there. And then you get longer hours, because you’re delayed and slow and working at night.”

Mr. Schmitt advises farmers to brace themselves for a harvest that “will be very slow and frustrating.”

“We need to remember that there is no crop worth being seriously injured or killed over,” he said. “So farmers should take their time and take frequent breaks, and if they get frustrated, just shut the machine off and walk around for a few minutes.”   CBJ