Farmers will likely face a challenging corn harvest this fall and should be prepared to handle anything, says Mark Hanna, Iowa State University Extension ag engineer. Experts from around the Midwest agree that corn growers can expect a relatively high-moisture harvest that could require extra dryer capacity and more patience compared to years with an early drydown and harvest.

“This is probably going to be one of those years when people will be anxiously watching moisture levels to see if they can avoid costly grain drying expenses,” says Emerson Nafziger, University of Illinois Extension agronomist. “With a later-planted crop, both late harvesting and wet corn can be a real issue.”

Ohio farmers could also be harvesting more high-moisture corn than in recent memory, says Robert Hansen, Ohio State University Extension ag engineer. “I'm a little concerned that farmers won't have the capacity to dry all the corn that will need to be dried,” he says. “It's been a few years since farmers here have had to dry much corn.”

With the potential for either a late harvest and/or considerable high-moisture corn likely in many parts of the Midwest, these and other experts give the following top-five tips for successful corn harvest:

  1. BE SMART ABOUT drying corn. “Don't try to dry corn that you're not equipped to dry,” warns Hansen. “Having a bin fan with a propane unit on it isn't good enough. If you don't have the right equipment to adequately dry corn, take it to a grain elevator for storage. It's better to get docked a little for wet corn than risk having a bin full of moldy corn that will be docked even more.”

    Also, it's much more important to screen high-moisture corn than low-moisture corn, notes Hansen. “If we're running into 28% moisture corn at harvest, then the corn is still soft, and in the process of being shelled, you'll end up with more broken shells and fines than when harvesting corn at lower moisture levels,” he says “Generally, you don't want to screen corn on the way into the dryer, because that will likely hold up harvest. If possible, try to make a deal with a livestock farmer to pick up material that you have screened as it leaves the dryer or screen your corn shortly after harvest when you have more time.”

    You can also purchase gravity-operated spreaders to prevent fines from accumulating in the bin's center, adds Hansen.

  2. CONSIDER BOOSTING dryer capacity. Dryers are typically the main bottleneck at most farms, says Orvin Bontrager, a crop consultant for Servi-Tech, Aurora, NE. “A lot of farmers have recently upgraded their operations with bigger combines, grain carts and semis so that they can harvest a lot of corn quickly,” he says. “Not as many farms have also upgraded their dryers to a capacity that can keep up with the rest of their machinery.”

    However, farmers can still boost their drying capacity without buying new equipment by optimizing the way their current dryer performs, points out Hansen. “Most dryers are set up to heat grain in the top half of the bin while the bottom half of grain is cooling,” he says. “Rather than tying up a dryer to cool grain at the bottom, you can double the dryer's capacity by using both halves of the dryer to dry grain. You set the temperature to heat in both halves of the dryer, but the upper half is set at a little higher temperature than the bottom half.”

    Farmers only have to dry corn to 18% moisture, not 15%, if they use a bin to steep it in for a day before aerating it. “You can alternate bins for steeping and use your dryer just to dry,” adds Hansen.

  3. AVOID HARVEST LOSSES. Your harvest goal should be to have a machine loss of 1 bu./acre or less, says Hanna. “For corn, it's what's up front that counts,” he says. “Between 50% and 60% of machine loss is at the head. So, make sure that ears aren't bouncing out or over the sides of the head. Also, pay particular attention to stalk-roll shelling.”

    For average ear size set the stripper bars approximately 1¼ in. apart, he advises. “If that space is set too close together (ears are larger than normal), you'll have problems with stalk breakage or wedging on the stripper bars,” explains Hanna. “If that gap is set too wide (ears are smaller than normal), you'll start to get stalk-roll shelling.”

    It's also important to make a quantitative measure of losses that occur behind the combine, he adds. “One way to do that is to build a 2 × 5-ft. frame, which is 10 sq. ft., and count the losses that you see in a random sample of four or five frames,” says Hanna. “Every two kernels you find in 1 sq. ft. equals a 1-bu./acre loss.”

  4. KNOW YOUR CROP and risk. “There is always a risk of high winds causing harvesttime losses,” says Clay Mitchell, Mitchell Farm, Buckingham, IA. “However, that risk is proportional to the size of the crop that remains unharvested. Farmers should be especially intense when the whole crop is at risk.”

    Standability problems can also significantly add to your risk at harvest, says Bontrager. One tool to help with standability is to regularly scout fields during the season and apply crop-protection products when needed, he adds.

    “This year, we had a lot of disease issues due to cool, damp conditions,” says Bontrager. “By far, the main threat to plant health and standability has been gray leaf spot, but common rust has also been an issue.”

    Scouting late in the season can also help to identify fields that farmers should harvest more quickly than others, either due to quicker drydown or lodging issues, notes Bontrager. “Sometimes a successful harvest is just a matter of knowing the hybrid and the fields where stalks are weaker and more susceptible to wind,” he says.

  5. EMPHASIZE FARM SAFETY. “A relaxed harvest often depends on how well the crop is standing and if weather conditions will allow machinery to operate without long delays,” says Hanna. “However, if you do get behind, remember that feeling under the gun to harvest the crop quickly is a safety issue. Haste makes waste, and it often leads to accidents and injury.”

    A common mistake during harvest is simply getting too tired, which results in costly errors, agrees Mitchell. “Modern harvest machinery has a really oversized cost compared to the thin margins on the crop being harvested,” he says. “One of the necessary goals for success is avoiding unrecoverable collisions.”