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Unharvested U.S. Corn May Pose Challenges This Spring

A larger-than-normal portion of the U.S. corn crop will likely be left standing in the fields this winter, serving as a testament to the troubled harvest of 2009 and a harbinger of challenges facing farmers in 2010, crop experts said.

Any remaining corn will create extra work for farmers next spring, creating potential delays for planting the 2010 crop. Along with harvesting the leftover corn, producers may have to squeeze in fertilizer applications and other tasks normally handled in the fall.

“We have a lot of farmers who did not get their fertilizer put on, and did not get the stalks worked out. You have a lot to do in spring before you plant corn,” said Roy Huckabay, an analyst with the Linn Group in Chicago.

“So if you don’t have a nice spring, if it’s wet, we’re back to the same problems we had this year,” he said.

Small amounts of corn are commonly harvested in the spring due to localized harvest problems. But this year’s share should be much larger than normal after planting delays last spring, a cool summer and a wet fall resulted in the slowest U.S. harvest in decades.

The U.S. corn harvest typically wraps up by late November. This year, by Dec. 13, eight per cent of the corn crop – roughly one billion bushels – still awaited harvest, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said.

How much of the remainder gets left until spring will depend on weather conditions. Some farmers may be able to continue harvesting corn during the winter, although heavy snowfall would halt their efforts.

“A lot of people are thinking they will have to get it pretty soon, within the next week or so – or they are going to have to leave it until spring,” Jeff Coulter, extension corn agronomist with the University of Minnesota, said Dec. 21.

Any corn left in the field faces a risk of yield loss from snow or wind knocking down the stalks, or ears dropping to the ground.

“If you have to leave it until spring, losses could be upwards of 30 per cent,” said Don Roose of U.S. Commodities in West Des Moines, Iowa.

Overall U.S. production losses should not amount to much, several analysts said. USDA has forecast 2009 corn production at 12.92 billion bushels, the second-largest crop on record.

And private analyst Informa Economics on Dec. 18 estimated the crop at 12.97 billion bushels, saying that a rising national average yield would offset acreage losses.

Still, many U.S. farmers will be happy to close the book on the weather-plagued 2009 harvest.

“There is a human aspect to this, too. It’s no fun trying to get corn out of a muddy field on a cold day,” said Greg Wagner, an analyst with AgResource Co in Chicago.

“I think there is a sense of relief,” Wagner said, referring to farmers who have completed their harvest. “The guys I talk to say, ‘Thank God.’”

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