Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Harvesting Organic Corn

My first certified organic corn crop was trucked to Cashton Farm Supply, 170 miles south of Turtle Lake, in Cashton, WI, a few days ago.  A lot of planning went into making sure the harvest went smoothly, even so, there were a few things that went wrong.

Where to start.

We've had a wet fall, which pushed back all harvesting. There are really only two crops up here that are harvested in the fall, soybeans and corn. As corn can, theoretically, be harvested while there's snow on the ground, and beans are usually ready first, all the farmers in the area, including those who do contract work (known as "custom" work), are busy at the same time. This means that scheduling is a big issue. 

Being organic adds another layer of complexity to the mix. There are no organic grain mills nearby. The entire industry is dependent on semi-trucks to haul 50,000 lb (about 950 bushel) loads from farm to mill or elevator, where the grain is converted into feed or stored. Storing corn on our farm is something I don't want to do. First of all, I'd need to build storage bins and buy a dryer, as corn needs to be around 15% moisture before putting it into a bin, or it will rot. More importantly, I don't want to "manage" grain. And I don't have to. Since I have the option, I'd rather sell it for a little bit less right out of the field and let someone else deal with it. In practice this means the corn goes directly from the combine and tractors/grain carts and is then augured into waiting semi trucks. 

Finding four or five trucks to show up on a given day, during the busiest time of the year, on a day that can change due to unfavorable weather, is a challenge. Given how difficult it is to get trucks, you really only get one shot at it. Our combine is around 35 years old, and while it runs, I had no faith that it would hold up for two whole days. If your equipment breaks down, it's a long wait until the trucks are free again and the weather is favorable. Sometimes you'll have to leave the corn out in the field all winter and combine it in the spring. The weather and deer will take a big chunk of what you've worked on.

With that in mind I hired a local, experienced, "custom" combine operator. He came with his own relatively new combine too! I drove our grain cart the 12 miles down to this field and the custom guy brought his own tractor/cart, driven by his brother in law. Great.

As he started going over the field my first thought was he was going too fast and wasn't getting the corn head down low enough to the ground. My dad was there and thought the same. This became an issue when it turned out that I had a lot of downed corn stalks. That is, stalks that had fallen, or were so weak, that they ended up on the ground. The only way to pick them up is to slow down and run the corn head right along the ground.

If you look closely at the above pics you'll see plenty of horizontal stalks still on the ground. There shouldn't be any of that. All you should see is (much shorter) stubs of corn stalks surrounded by the corn stalks and leaves that have been pulverized by the chopper as they come out the back of the combine.

It seemed that he didn’t want to do any “extra” work, even when I told him the economics behind picking up the fallen corn stalks. Specifically that the profit from one of my organic acres was equal to the profit from roughly 5 of his conventional/chemical acres and that he should treat every downed stalk as though it/they were 5. It would have meant him going slower to allow him to get the snouts of the corn head under the fallen stalks. The snouts “scoop” the stalk into the combine where the grain is threshed. I believe that the stalks had fallen due to heavy rains earlier in the fall. 

Bottom line - based on several yield estimates prior to harvest I was expecting 140 bushels an acre. The combine operator has a real time yield monitor in the combine and he told me he was running across areas that were giving me 150-160 bushels/acre. Fantastic. I ended up averaging around 100 bushels/acre. Big difference. It took me a couple of days to understand what had happened. I ended up accepting that I did everything I could, but there were a few areas I need to do things differently.  An expensive lesson, but something that I can handle.

Aside from the stumble at the end I’m proud of my first year. Taken as a whole, considering all the various obstacles/issues I dealt with, it went great. I’m making plans for next year, which include starting the transition to organic on another 115 acres.  I’ll be making a major upgrade in our equipment now that I know what I need and am capable of.


  1. Thanks for sharing this! Great to learn more about what goes into growing corn.

  2. Thanks for sharing. You did an amazing job of pulling together the trucks and the harvest. It is a lot easier to just haul a crop to the local grain terminal if you have a "conventional" grain. It's too bad the custom operator did not have the same level of concern that an owner has. It wouldn't surprise me that he may have a difficult time establishing his business if he treats all customers in the same fashion as he did you. The first years challenges are now behind you and you can look forward to next year with a greater degree of confidence.

    1. Hello Mr/Mrs/Ms Unknown, Thanks for the kind words! It sounds like you're in the organic grain business too. In either case I agree with what you've said and appreciate the support.