South Dakota's corn harvest behind last year, but some yields coming in higher than expected

Oct. 24—MITCHELL — The South Dakota corn harvest is behind schedule, but producers are seeing higher-than-expected yields in some areas this fall despite hot and dry conditions over the summer.

"We're looking pretty good. It's surprising how good the yields are compared to the conditions of the year," said David Klingberg, executive director for the Farm Service Agency offices in Davison and Hanson counties. "Of course it is fairly spotty, but for the most part guys are pulling more corn than they were anticipating."

Producers have been stymied off and on this fall as sporadic rains have forced them to stop work in the fields right at the busiest time of year for harvesting. That followed a summer that saw generally hot and dry conditions, leaving many to predict average at best harvest yields.

The South Dakota corn harvest is at about 48% complete, which is considerably behind the 61% at this time last year but close to the 46% average. So far, according to United States Department of Agriculture statistics, producers are seeing corn coming in 5% very poor, 11% poor, 35% fair, 40% good and 9% excellent in terms of grain condition.

Klingberg said farmers are seeing a wide range of yield numbers for corn, with some reporting 60 bushels per acre to as high as 200 bushels per acre in the Mitchell area. Some of that comes down to good luck and fields getting good doses of rain when they needed it as well as individual field characteristics such as slope and where water flows and pools on the land.

But there are other factors at play that are helping keep numbers higher than expected.

Modern science and seed genetics that can withstand less-than-ideal growing conditions are one such factor.

"I'm going to attribute a lot of that to genetics. We have some pretty good genetics that can survive," Klingberg said. "It got hot for a stretch — an important stretch — and corn we were expecting to be a little rough, but it's not as rough as we were expecting."

Soybeans are much further along in terms of harvest completion but the condition of the crop is lower than corn. Stats from the USDA indicate that 90% of the South Dakota soybean harvest is out of the field. That's equatable to 91% at this time last year and well ahead of the 74% average for this time of year.

The latest USDA crop progress report, dated for Oct. 23, did not contain any specific soybean condition statistics, but Klingberg said the consensus among farmers right now is that yields and quality are down.

Soybeans are sensitive to late growing season fluctuations, and August saw temperatures that did not help crop development.

"August temperatures and rains make or break the soybean crop, and it wasn't a total disaster, but it was not what we would have liked to see for August rains," Klingeberg said. "We had some hot temperatures and drought conditions."

Drought conditions in the state have eased somewhere since this time last year. According to the United States Drought Monitor, about 83% of the state is experiencing no drought conditions, whereas all of the state was experiencing some kind of drought a year ago at this time. Most current drought conditions are in the east and southeastern portions of the state, and most of that is classified as D0, which is abnormally dry, or D1, which is moderate drought.

Thanks in part to that, the USDA is listing topsoil moisture levels at 5% very short, 18% short, 70% adequate and 7% surplus. For subsoil moisture levels, 9% is rated very short, 25% is rated short, 63% is rated adequate and 3% is rated surplus.

Winter wheat would be one beneficiary of ebbing drought conditions, but Klingberg said relatively few farmers planted winter wheat in this area this year compared to previous years. And despite the headache late rains are causing for farmers trying to harvest, the moisture should provide an additional boost when spring rolls around again in 2024.

"Putting any moisture in the ground in the fall will help us next spring," Klingberg said. "While it put a little delay on things, it didn't take too much longer and guys were back in the field."

While farmers can tolerate light rains this time of year, Klingberg said they would like to avoid severe weather. Some areas in Hanson County were hit recently with high winds, forcing corn stalks to lie down, making picking it up a challenge. They would also like to avoid snow in the fields before their crops are out, he said.

Other USDA statistics indicate winter wheat harvest was at 94% planted, about even with the 95% at this time last year. That percentage also marks the average for this time of year.

Sorghum was listed at 65% harvested, about the same as the 67% at this time last year but above the 54% average.

Sunflowers were 23% harvested, slightly behind the 30% from last year and right around the 24% average.

For pasture and rangeland, 6% was rated at very poor, 6% poor, 29% fair, 47% good and 12% excellent.