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Break-even year expected for corn despite drought conditions

Farmers harvest corn North of Mitchell earlier this month. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Overall corn conditions are worse than they were in 2016, but South Dakota's growers are relieved nonetheless.

A devastatingly dry year instilled a sense of dread early on for what was to come during the fall harvest, but timely moisture has harvesters happy in hindsight.

"Most people are happy," said Will Walter, of the Farm Business Management Department at Mitchell Technical Institute. "A lot of them are quite surprised at the yields we are getting for as much stress as the crop had this summer."

According to the National Agriculture Statistics Service (NASS), corn rated as "very poor" rose from 3 percent in late October 2016 to 7 percent in the first week of November in 2017. Corn rated "good" and "excellent" both saw a decline in South Dakota since last year. Those conditions are met with a low per bushel price, which sits around $2.75 to $3 in the Mitchell region compared to a national average of $3.48 per bushel in 2016, according to the NASS.

Despite the poorer corn condition compared to 2016, the general morale of farmers is high considering the doom and gloom forecast of mid-summer yield estimates.

"Given the year they had, they said down here it was about 160 to 170 (bushels per acre), which is pretty incredible for a drought year," Fulton area farmer Tristan Bender recently told The Daily Republic.

The NASS estimated a 150 bushels per acre average in South Dakota in early November, well below the 175.4 estimated national average. The estimate is also 11 bushels down from 2016. And based on Nov. 1 conditions, the NASS predicted 788 million bushels will be harvested in South Dakota, a 5 percent drop from 2016.

When taking into account the excessive drought that shook the region over the summer, the 150 bushels per acre expectation isn't so bad.

"We've got a better crop out there than we expected," Walter said. "We expected poor, and we got fairly good."

Walter said corn growers will likely face a break-even year, although those with soybeans or cattle are in better shape.

Walter also noted the drought didn't strike each area evenly. The unreliable weather pattern left the Brookings area with excess moisture, while west of Mitchell — particularly Brule County and west of the Missouri River — saw far too little.

Early November snow didn't help either, Walter said.

The weather wasn't quite warm enough to fend off the snow, nor was it cool enough to keep the ground hard to allow for proper harvesting conditions. Walter said that left some growers waiting for better conditions to harvest their remaining corn.

As of Nov. 5, South Dakota lagged behind the national average in corn harvested at 61 percent compared to 70 percent.

As a whole, the nation will see less corn harvested than it did in 2016. In 2016, more than 94 million acres of corn were planted, but that number dropped to 90.4 million in 2017.