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West central Minn.crops largely escape drought

Despite an extremely hot summer with little rain, the region's corn crop has fared well. Although there are pockets of under-producing crops, one area farmer projects the overall harvest of corn and soybeans will be on par with last year. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

The fall harvest probably isn't a bin-buster for farmers in west central Minnesota, but area producers are expecting to bring in respectable corn and soybean yields.

Noah Hultgren, who is a partner with his family members in Hultgren Farms near Willmar, expects a "pretty good" corn crop and that the corn harvest could begin the first week of September, thanks to early planting dates. He figures the crop could bring in up to 170 to 180 bushels per acre.

"We probably took the top end off of the yield with the dry weather," Hultgren said, noting that he's talked with farmers from other parts of the country at meetings and heard them tell of areas where the crops have been completely burned up by the extreme drought conditions, leaving farmers with no crop at all.

"We're going to have a crop, that's decent anyway," he said.

In fact, Minnesota may just have the best average corn yield in the Corn Belt. The USDA's latest Crop Production report expects the state to have an average yield of 155 bushels per acre, better than Iowa's 141, Illinois' 116 and Indiana's 100 bushel per-acre expectations.

Nationally, USDA expects a harvest of 10.77 billion bushels of corn, 13 percent below the 2011 harvest of 12.35 billion bushels. The drought has prompted the USDA to forecast 3 to 4 percent increases in food prices.

The smaller corn crop has caused livestock producers to ask the government to relax the national Renewable Fuels Standard, the requirements for ethanol production -- largely from corn -- to provide more, and cheaper, feed for cattle, swine and poultry consumption.

The U.S. drought monitor data released Thursday shows that 49 percent of the nation's corn crop, and 46 percent of the soybean crop, is in areas experiencing extreme to exceptional drought conditions. As of Aug. 20, only 23 percent of the nation's corn crop and 31 percent of the soybean crop was rated in good or excellent condition. USDA has downgraded the national corn yield to just 123 bushels per acre, 24 bushels less per acre than the 2001 harvest.

In Minnesota, only 0.24 percent of the state, portions of Rock and Nobles counties in the southwest corner, is in extreme or exceptional drought. However, 18 percent of the state is in severe drought conditions, including the southwest and northwest portions of the state. Kandiyohi County is largely in the "abnormally dry" category.

Harlan Madsen, who farms near Lake Lillian in the southern part of Kandiyohi County, said crops there are "moving quickly with maturity" and although there are pockets of under-producing crops, he projects the overall harvest of corn and soybeans will be better than last year, barring an early frost.

Madsen was in the midst of cutting silage this week, with stalks in some fields 12 feet tall. He's started his fourth cutting of hay and reports that his second and third cuttings yielded the best tonnage he's had in years.

He's heard reports from neighboring farms that early sugar beet harvests are showing extraordinary yield and that 8 to 10 percent may not even be harvested because capacity limitations at processing plants.

The season presented issues with stubborn weeds but there were few problems with aphids and spider mites and timely rains have made central Minnesota the "garden spot of the whole nation," said Madsen.

"I know we're lucky," said Dean Shuck, who farms near Sunburg on the western side of the county. He said crops there will be average.

Wes Nelson, executive director of the Farm Service Agency in Kandiyohi County, says there is a wide range of variability across the county, in part because of the wide range of soil types, but also because of the spotty rain pattern this year. Still, there's probably a comparable corn crop to last year and a much better sugar beet crop awaiting harvest.

"It's amazing we have the crops we do out there," Nelson said. "The reports are that it's a phenomenal year (for sugar beets)."

The county average for corn yield was 150 bushels per acre in 2011, Nelson said. This year's county yield may come in around that number. The beets, however, are expected to yield 27 tons per acre, rivaling the record 2010 crop.

As for the soybeans, they are the wild card crop, Hultgren says. The plants look good, but more rain in the next week to 10 days is needed to fill the pods.

"They say we make beans in August," he said, expecting upper 40-to-50-bushel yields if the rains do come in time.

Madsen said crops are nearly three weeks ahead of schedule and he wouldn't turn down more rain - as long as it waits until he's done cutting silage and getting the hay baled.

Tribune reporter Carolyn Lange contributed to this report.

Gretchen Schlosser

Gretchen Schlosser is the public safety reporter, and writes about agriculture occasionally, for the West Central Tribune. She's been with the Tribune since 2006 and has 17 years of experience working in news, media and communications. 

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