DRAPER - Scott Dowling is one of many farmers piling wheat on the ground and stuffing it into bags.
There is no room for the crop in the bin, and elevators aren’t able to move it to market. Dowling and his wife, Janet, farm in Jones, Stanley and Haaken counties in South Dakota. The farm has grown to 50,000 acres, with a staff of one full-time and nine seasonal employees. About 28,000 acres were planted to winter wheat this year and 12,000 acres to spring wheat. He has 25 combines operating at once.
Dowling’s farms have 3 million bushels of bin capacity - all full.
In addition, he’s piled a whopping 415,000 bushels of winter wheat on the ground near Draper, a town of about 70 people and the farm headquarters. With the elevators not taking grain, it was just coming too fast to do anything else with it, he says.
At 58, Dowling has been farming full-time for nearly 40 years. In May 2014, Dowling was one of several farmers in National Geographic’s “Faces of Farming,” which featured farmers worldwide, describing the people who feed a world of 9 billion people. (The magazine noted that one “monster American farm” like this would equal 8,000 farms in Ethiopa.)
Since 2009, Dowling has leased a large farm north of Midland, accounting for about three-fifths of what he farms. The farm includes an old elevator in the town of Midland on the Rapid City, Pierre & Eastern Railroad line, formerly Canadian Pacific and before that the Dakota Minnesota and Eastern short-line. “I’ve been there since 2009, loading rail,” Dowling says.
Historic rail problems
The 2014 crop will go down in history for its acute rail logistical problems.
Milt Handcock, general manager of Midwest Cooperatives, based in Pierre, doesn’t want to overstate things, so he says he’s “concerned.”
But it’s a big concern because the Pierre headquarters has been full and not accepting grain a majority of the time since winter wheat harvest started around July 18.
The Pierre site can handle up to 75 cars at a time. It is served by the RCP&E Railroad, which is fed by CP Railway from an interchange 250 miles to the east in Tracy, Minn. The co-op gets long, 110-car shuttle trains from the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, but only at its Onida, terminal.
Midwest Cooperatives, associated with CHS Inc., has seven grain elevator locations including rail terminals in Onida (110 cars), Pierre (75 cars), Philip (35 cars) and Blunt, (25 cars). It handles an even volume split among winter wheat, spring wheat, corn or milo, and sunflowers or soybeans.
Midwest Cooperatives orders cars weekly from the RCP&E on a tariff system - a standard rate based on location. It’s possible to double-order cars, but there is no advantage to it, Handcock says.
“They’re only going to deliver what they’re able to get delivered. So if you know they’re going to only have 500 cars a week there’s no sense in ordering 600 a week,” he says. “The car ordering system isn’t the issue. It’s the lack of crews and power to the cars.”
The RCP&E recently has offered suggestions to its customers for using its car ordering system more efficiently. In the old CP system, some elevators double-ordered cars, on the theory that whoever had ordered more cars might receive the most cars - proportionally.
“The RCP&E says to us, if you’re honest and realistic about how many cars you need, we will do what we can to get that number of cars to you,” Handcock says. “Don’t just throw out a bunch of car orders because that creates a mistrust. They can’t tell if it’s real or a fictitious number.”
Full at harvest
The winter didn’t allow producers and elevators to empty their storage before winter wheat harvest. That followed a fairly good crop in 2013.
“A lot of on-farm storage was full, going into the winter,” Handcock says.
Farmers in the region went into harvest about 60 percent full on storage, according to government estimates in July.
“Midwest Co-op normally goes into harvest close to empty at all of our locations, and this year we were at least half full,” Handcock says. “So then we have a 60- to 80-bushel-per-acre winter wheat crop when we’re used to a 40- to a 60-bushel crop, and things get worse. The winter wheat wasn’t early, but it got ripe at a rapid pace. With fewer cars, three days into harvest we were piling on the ground.”
Midwest has made three piles totaling about 300,000 bushels in Pierre, and about 100,000 more at a location in Draper.
The winter wheat averaged about 55 to 60 bushels per acre on S.J. Dowling Farms - about 25 percent better than average.
On Aug. 13, Dowling’s two custom harvesters wound up winter wheat harvest. They were down to 4,000 acres of spring wheat on Aug. 19.
“I can’t sell my grain and get my money,” Dowling says. “I need to sell it, so I can pay my combiner and pay my fuel bills and equipment, parts, repairs and make payments. You’ve got to extend (credit) to get it paid, wait more time, pay more interest. My bankers are supporters - behind me 100 percent. They know it just takes time to work through it.”
Bagging it up
Besides piling on the ground, Midwest Cooperatives also has been putting some of its spring wheat in bags. Instead of the long tubes most farmers use, the company is using vertical cone-shaped bags, filled with augers, near Draper and other locations. Those each hold 56,000 bushels.
“It’s just a little better than piling it on the ground,” Handcock says. “Really, the only thing you’re doing is keeping it from the elements - rain. That’s it. You can’t circulate air through it. Your bag has to be destroyed when you empty grain out of it. It’s a onetime use.”
Bags cost about 10 cents a bushel. It takes time to put the grain in the bag, and pick it up. The bigger the bag, the less cost per bushel.
“We figure an open pile of wheat on the ground has only a six-week shelf life - you’ve got to start picking it up,” Handcock says. “I’m hoping to get two or three months in a bag before we have to pick them up.”