How to Optimize Your Harvest Timing

It’s finally time for growers to reap what they’ve sowed, but how can they safeguard the value of their crop through harvest? Our guide covers how to optimize harvest timing to safeguard yield and maintain farm finances.

All of the effort, care and time growers put into their fields this season is about to pay off — it’s almost time for harvest. But growers still have to get that grain out of the field, dried down and stored, and proper harvest timing can help minimize costs and while maximizing yield. By balancing crop quality and health with harvest and storage costs, growers can develop a harvest plan tailored to their fields and finances.

Balancing Crop Health and Harvest Costs

Optimizing harvest timing means considering both agronomics, economics, and region-specific factors, especially for corn,” says Ian Kessler, Sales Agronomist at Sound. And with changing weather patterns, the window for bringing in the crop is shorter than ever.”

When it comes to deciding when is the best time to harvest their corn, the sweet spot is where growers can balance crop quality and the costs associated with harvesting and drying down the grain, all before winter weather arrives. 

Field drying corn is the least expensive option available to growers, but there are risks to leaving the crop in the field. The arrival of wet weather in particular can significantly impact yields and make drying the crop for long term storage much more difficult and costly. From an agronomic perspective, the plants’ stalks weaken as the corn ages and more energy is put into the ear, so growers need to keep an eye on their stalk strength. Stronger stalks may be left in the field longer, while weaker stalks need to be harvested more quickly. 

Growers who use cover crops may have additional harvest timing considerations. All else being equal, the earlier in the season cover crops are planted the better so that the plants have more time to develop roots and a vegetative canopy. 

Growers may have to consider the value they place on getting a cover crop stand established against the added costs of drying corn that has been harvested earlier,” says Ian. Another option is sowing the cover crop into standing corn prior to harvest using a high clearance application or even a drone.” In some regions, growers are already inter-seeding cover crops in their fields in order to make the most of their shorter growing seasons.

In order to make informed economic decisions, growers need to know how much drying they can do in-field and how much they can do post-harvest.

The Three Keys to Harvest Timing

Optimizing harvest timing means considering both agronomics, economics, and region-specific factors” Ian explains. Or, to put it another way, Know your fields, know your costs, and know your region,” he says.

1. Know Your Fields:

Monitoring agronomic conditions across their farm will give growers a sense of which fields are ready to harvest and which need more time. By the time they reach black layer, growers should have a good sense of their stalk integrity and grain quality. Ian recommends taking samples periodically to monitor the grain’s moisture content. Growers can then begin to plan when and in what order to harvest their fields.

2. Know Your Costs: 

In order to make informed economic decisions, growers need to know how much drying they can do in-field and how much they can do post-harvest.

Know how much it will cost to take one point of moisture out of your crop,” recommends Ian. Some growers may be able to afford to harvest their crop earlier and wetter, hoping to make up the difference by avoiding yield loss, while others may dry down as much as possible to avoid paying high fuel costs to run driers. 

3. Know Your Region: 

With winter creeping ever closer, growers need to keep track of how much time they have to harvest the crop before the weather turns. Farm size and equipment will play a part in how long a grower will need to bring in the crop, but regional weather patterns are just as important. Knowing when the weather in their region is likely to make being in the field challenging, whether with rain, snow or mud, gives growers a deadline to get all of their grain out of the field.

The Cost of Water Weight

Corn’s moisture content is a key harvest indicator that has both economic and agronomic implications. The minimum moisture content needed for storage is 15%, and while it is possible to achieve that in the field, many growers will harvest when the moisture content is closer to 25% to reduce the risk of the fields falling or the weather turning. Once harvested, the grain will then need to be dried further before storage. 

Growers should start keeping a close eye on moisture content once the crop reaches physical maturity (or black layer). At this point, it will be around 30% and growers can begin to evaluate the state of their fields in order to decide how long to wait before harvesting. Stalk integrity becomes a significant consideration at this point, as does the elusive phenomenon phantom yield loss.” 

The idea behind phantom yield loss is that when dried in the field, hybrid corn loses dry matter at a rate of about 0.3 to 1% per point of moisture loss,” explains Ian. This weight loss then results in a yield reduction that can impact growers’ bottom line. 

Field-drying grain takes time — under perfect conditions, about two weeks. Because post-harvest drying happens much faster than in-field drying, there is thought to be less yield loss. As a result, some growers may start harvesting earlier, hoping to save dry weight and yield in order to make up for the cost of drying wetter grain. 

On my farm, we look at agronomics first,” says Ian. If there is a chance this field is going to fall over, that’s the biggest risk. Then we look at grain quality — can we harvest it when the moisture content is in the low 20s? Can we keep enough grain from phantom yield loss, and finish our harvest early?”

From an economic perspective, growers need to consider how much it will cost to dry their corn down to a storable moisture level. Once harvested, growers may continue to dry the crop with their own equipment on farm or send it to be dried elsewhere and cost may vary depending on a grower’s location. Alternatively, if growers dry their grain completely on their own farm, they will need to factor in the cost of running the equipment. 

The moisture point at which a grower starts harvesting will vary based on their region, financial needs and even between fields. Growers should rely on their observation and knowledge of their own operation to find the balance between grain quality and the cost of drying to maximize yield and finish the season strong. 

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