Combines roll as warm, dry stretch accelerates crop drying

About 62% of Illinois’ corn crop was rated in good or excellent condition, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service’s Sept. 13 Crop Progress report. (Photo by Catrina Rawson)

Harvest got off to a quick start in some areas as a stretch of unseasonably warm and dry conditions accelerated crop maturity and dry down.

The run of unseasonable weather also brings some risk with it, as the odds of fires in combines, other machinery and fields are greatly elevated at this time. A handful of combine fires have already been reported around the state so far this harvest.

“The combination of heat, low humidity, winds and lack of rainfall has really dried out the topsoil and crops,” Trent Ford, state climatologist with the Illinois State Water Survey, told FarmWeek. “What that can spell is heightened risk of combine fires. You get quite a bit of friction in those machines that can really cause quite a bit of heat and can create fires.”

Statewide, the temperature averaged 70.3 degrees from Sept. 5-12, more than half a degree above normal, with barely a trace of rain (.24 of an inch on average) across the state. That was followed by another stretch in which temperatures climbed well into the 80s and approached 90 in some areas, as of Friday. Rainfall totals the first half of the month were just 5% to 20% of normal in many portions of the state.

“Things are drying down,” Krista Lottinville, who farms with her family in Iroquois County, said during a recent Illinois Farm Bureau Partners podcast.

“It’s always an exciting season for harvest,” she said. “We’ve spent the whole year preparing for this crop and watched it grow. Now we get to reap those benefits and see how things turned out.”

A handful of farmers started harvest the last week of August in the southeast corner of the state, which is typical there, according to Blake Luckett, who farms in Gallatin County.

“For the most part, it’s been a pretty normal start for everybody,” Luckett said during a Partners podcast. “I’m maybe a few days later than what I’d like to be. We put fungicide on all the soybeans, which left a little bit of greenery.”

Corn harvest was 1% complete statewide, as of Sept. 13, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service Illinois field office, prior to the recent acceleration of field activity.

Statewide, 51% of the corn crop was mature as of Sept. 13 while 63% of beans were turning color, both 14 points ahead of the average pace.

“The corn actually died in the last couple weeks,” Dan Meinhart, FarmWeek CropWatcher from Jasper County, told the RFD Radio Network. “A few fields have been harvested, but not many. A lot of silage chopping is taking place on the earlier planted corn.”

Yield and moisture reports so far are all over the board, depending on planting dates and weather patterns throughout the season. Some crops, particularly in northeast Illinois, suffered from drought conditions this season while other crops encountered oxygen and nitrogen deficiencies in saturated and flooded fields in other parts of the state.

“I think, for the most part, southern Illinois is having a fantastic crop,” Luckett said. “I started cutting soybeans and set a couple records, already.”

Meinhart plans to start harvesting corn and soybeans later this month and follow that up by planting more winter wheat this season compared to last year.

The weather outlook continues to show elevated odds of warmer and drier conditions through the end of the month, although some scattered rains could provide spotty relief early this week. The outlook for October shows a large band, including all of Illinois, with elevated adds of above normal temperatures as well, along with weekly odds of wetter than normal conditions.

But, until the weather pattern shifts or widespread rains cover the state, farmers should beware of the enhanced fire risk. They should maintain a working fire extinguisher in all machinery and stop the combine regularly to remove crop debris. Ford also recommends suspending harvest operations if any red flag warnings are posted in your area.

“The most heightened risk is in northern Illinois where the soils are dry all the way down (due to drought),” Ford said. “Just keep on top of the weather conditions. Make a plan before you jump in the cab in case there is a fire.”

Current conditions bring back memories of widespread combine and field fires around the state late last September and into October. While conditions are similar this year, the dew point hasn’t dropped nearly as dramatically so far this season as this time last year when it dipped all the way down to the 20s.

“Fire weather is a lot like flood weather,” the climatologist added. “It depends on prevailing conditions, and it also very much depends on current weather conditions.”

A crop update from Jasper County
FarmWeek CropWatcher Dan Meinhart provides an update on his corn and soybean crop, which are both experiencing stresses. Find out when his combines will his the field in this Sept. 14 update.