Collin Waltner easily picked the biggest difference between his corn harvest this year compared to the same time last year.

“We actually have the combine turned on,” Waltner said.

The farmer, who works land near Freeman, is not alone. The 2020 corn harvest is underway throughout South Dakota and across the country, and producers large and small can be seen toiling away in the fields as they work to bring in the crop they sowed in the spring.

It’s a considerably different scene from late September and early October of 2019, when farmers were dealing with a season that had seen record-setting rainfall and moisture throughout the state, drowning out low spots and creating enough of a mess that some producers were never able to get into the field to harvest.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

Erik Gerlach, state statistician with the United States Agricultural Statistics Service in Sioux Falls, said the latest numbers from the USDA indicate that farmers are indeed ahead of the pace for last year, even if work on corn is just getting underway.

A combine makes its way through one of Scott Stahl's fields northeast of Emery while harvesting on Friday, Oct. 2. (Matt Gade / Republic)
A combine makes its way through one of Scott Stahl's fields northeast of Emery while harvesting on Friday, Oct. 2. (Matt Gade / Republic)

“Right now (corn) harvest progress on our last progress report was at 10%. That’s ahead of the 5% average and certainly better than it was last year at 0%,” Gerlach said.

Farmers are taking advantage of the relatively warm and dry conditions that were so lacking in 2019. Without flooded roads blocking the pathway to fields and the fields themselves dry and navigable for heavy equipment, the harvest season of 2020 is shaping up to be a cakewalk compared to the process farmers had to undergo last year.

A combine makes its way through one of Scott Stahl's fields northeast of Emery while harvesting on Friday, Oct. 2. (Matt Gade / Republic)
A combine makes its way through one of Scott Stahl's fields northeast of Emery while harvesting on Friday, Oct. 2. (Matt Gade / Republic)

“It’s glorious,” said Waltner, who had just wrapped up his soybean harvest and begun bringing in his corn at the start of October. “Harvest is going really fast. The yields are not a bumper crop, but I’m happy with them.”

Waltner said he planted around 210 acres of corn and has seen an estimated yield between 150 and 160 bushels per acre. That’s not over-the-top good, but he’ll take it compared to what he was able to bring in last year, when the crop he was able to get to brought in around 80 bushels per acre.

Scott Stahl heads back to his pickup while corn is dumped into the back of a tractor while harvesting a field on Friday, Oct. 2 northeast of Emery. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Scott Stahl heads back to his pickup while corn is dumped into the back of a tractor while harvesting a field on Friday, Oct. 2 northeast of Emery. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Gerlach said producers were forecast to see around 168 bushels per acre on corn, which is an increase of about 24 bushels per acre forecast for producers last year. The 2019 forecast for bushels was 144, 2018 was 160, 2017 was 145 and 2016 was 161. Including the forecast for 2020, the average over those years comes in at 155.6 bushels per acre.

The main factor in improved yield forecast is unquestionably the weather, Gerlach said.

Corn on a stalk waiting to be harvested. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Corn on a stalk waiting to be harvested. (Matt Gade / Republic)

“In the trend, clearly there’s a lot that goes into it. But in the spring they were able to get into the field, and also technology advances as seed corn continues to improve on genetics, which continues to improve on yield,” Gerlach said.

The dry conditions also meant more corn planted in 2020. Gerlach said South Dakota saw an estimated 5.4 million acres of corn planted, which is up from 4.35 million acres last year. 2018 was similar to this year, with 5.3 million acres planted, 2017 saw 5.7 million acres planted and 2016 saw 5.6 million acres planted.

Scott Stahl visits with the driver of his truck while the corn is dumped into the back of a trailer as a field is harvested on Friday, Oct. 2 northeast of Emery. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Scott Stahl visits with the driver of his truck while the corn is dumped into the back of a trailer as a field is harvested on Friday, Oct. 2 northeast of Emery. (Matt Gade / Republic)

The numbers show just how much of an impact the heavy rains had on production in 2019, Gerlach said.

“Of course, last year there was a considerable amount of prevented planting,” Gerlach said.

Corn on a stalk waiting to be harvested. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Corn on a stalk waiting to be harvested. (Matt Gade / Republic)

As for what is expected to be harvested this year, Gerlach said 2020 is shaping up to be the biggest crop since 2017.

The latest survey for 2020 forecasts total acres of corn harvested at 4.92 million acres, which would be up from the 3.87 million acres harvested in 2019. About 4.86 million acres were harvested in 2018 and 5.08 million acres were harvested in 2017. Of the last five years, 2016 was the most successful harvest with 5.13 million acres brought in from the field.

A combine makes it way through a row of corn before turning around to start another pass while harvesting a field on Friday, Oct. 2 northeast of Emery. (Matt Gade / Republic)
A combine makes it way through a row of corn before turning around to start another pass while harvesting a field on Friday, Oct. 2 northeast of Emery. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Scott Stahl, who farms between Emery and Bridgewater, was a little further along in his corn harvest, figuring he had harvested about 40 percent of his corn with the sunny, dry conditions allowing him access to areas he couldn’t reach last year.

“It’s a really nice start to harvest. It’s nice to have dry roads and drivable roads and dry fields, and in some way that makes harvest easier,” Stahl said. “You don’t have to worry about that excess moisture.”

Scott Stahl watches as corn is dumped into the back of a trailer while harvesting a field on Friday, Oct. 2 northeast of Emery. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Scott Stahl watches as corn is dumped into the back of a trailer while harvesting a field on Friday, Oct. 2 northeast of Emery. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Stahl, who in addition to farming full time also serves as vice president for District 8 for South Dakota Corn, said there is just no factor as important to the harvest process as decent weather, and the difference between 2019 and 2020 couldn’t be more stark, he said.

“There is no doubt the weather is always the biggest factor in farming. God is in control. In 2018 and 2019 we had excessive water in our pattern and saturated soils,” Stahl said. “The number one limiting factor on corn production in South Dakota year after year is water availability to the plant and during the reproductive cycle.”

Corn is dumped into the back of a trailer as Scott Stahl and his team harvest a field on Friday, Oct. 2 northeast of Emery. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Corn is dumped into the back of a trailer as Scott Stahl and his team harvest a field on Friday, Oct. 2 northeast of Emery. (Matt Gade / Republic)

And while plants received enough of that needed moisture thanks to subsoil moisture left over from last year and timely rains that boosted growth when it was needed, the dry conditions of the fall may have crimped growth a bit at the end of the growth cycle.

“Some of the yield was taken back by a bit of drought. That drought started in Iowa and crept this way. I do think some of the yield was taken back by the hot, dry days in August, but we’re still very happy with the yield,” Stahl said.

Scott Stahl said his yields this year are much better following a rough 2019 season. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Scott Stahl said his yields this year are much better following a rough 2019 season. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Stahl said he was seeing 200 bushels of corn per acre in some areas, while noting that inconsistent rainfall likely changed yield totals significantly over relatively short distances. He estimated that farmers near each other may experience differences in yields because the rainfall difference between two locations just a few miles apart was enough to affect plant growth.

“We had variable rain totals throughout the year. My dad and I live five miles apart. We had 30 hundredths and he had over three inches in August. In that five mile span there is a lot of variable in yields experienced,” Stahl said.

Scott Stahl signals to the driver in a tractor to stop while corn is dumped into the back of a trailer while harvesting a field on Friday, Oct. 2 northeast of Emery. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Scott Stahl signals to the driver in a tractor to stop while corn is dumped into the back of a trailer while harvesting a field on Friday, Oct. 2 northeast of Emery. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Both Stahl and Waltner noted that corn prices had inched upward recently, which is also an encouraging sign. One reason for that is China deciding to purchase more corn from the United States.

The latest corn prices show corn at about $3.80 per bushel, which is the highest it’s been in all of 2020 and the highest since October of 2019.

Scott Stahl watches as corn is dumped into the back of a trailer while harvesting a field on Friday, Oct. 2 northeast of Emery. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Scott Stahl watches as corn is dumped into the back of a trailer while harvesting a field on Friday, Oct. 2 northeast of Emery. (Matt Gade / Republic)

“China finally blinked as far as grain is concerned. They don’t like to have low reserves and that’s what’s driving prices,” Waltner said.

Stahl also noted the derecho storm in Iowa in August caused considerable damage to the corn crop, which reduced supply while demand for the product remained steady.

“In August there was a deterioration of the crop with the derecho, which has created an upward trend in corn prices. Our foreign buyers like China have stepped up to the plate and purchased more grain than they have historically, and that’s creating some upward trends in the markets,” Stahl said. “But there’s still room for improvement. Another part of what’s holding it back is ethanol is not back to use as it was before COVID-19. With less people on the road, they use less gasoline, but (prices) look better than they did 60 days ago.”

In addition to decent yield numbers and slowly improving prices, Stahl also said the quality of the corn coming in is excellent.

“I would pass along that the quality is outstanding. We’re seeing very good test weights and quality grain, and that helps provide good efficiency for feeding at storage,” Stahl said.

The season is not without its challenges, however. Stahl said the hot, dry weather can take its toll on stalks, and he’s working diligently to get his corn out of the field before those stalks begin to have trouble standing, which makes it difficult for combining.

“Standability is something we’re keeping an eye on and making sure we get it harvested in a timely manner,” Stahl said.

With the weather forecast favorable for harvest conditions, Stahl and Waltner expect they’ll have their crops out in relatively short order if everything continues as it currently is. It may not be a perfect harvest season, but it’s a step above and beyond 2019, and farmers will take it, they said.

“The engine is running, and we should be done in two weeks to 20 days,” Waltner said.