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Justin Neidig of Renegade operates his company's LS35 hybrid squeeze chute as Pat Altenburg of Ritchey Livestock ID (right) watches during a cattle handling demonstration in the Livestock Industries Building at the Husker Harvest Days site west of Grand Island. (Independent/Barrett Stinson)

Husker Harvest Days has always been about the future during the event’s 42-year run in Grand Island.

It’s a future based on optimism as technology and better management practices show producers the path to better efficiencies and the production of tomorrow.

But this year has been full of uncertainties caused by weather, trade difficulties, EPA waivers to small oil refineries concerning ethanol production and ongoing low commodity prices for both crops and livestock.

These are today’s problems that tomorrow’s solutions can’t fix.

But still, despite the frustrations and stress caused by a myriad of unfortunate factors, there is an underlying hope and optimism among producers that tomorrow will be a better day.

Ted Schrock of Holdrege is a corn grower and a member of the Nebraska Corn Board.

“It has been a real challenge,” Schrock said about this growing season. “We have had crazy weather in Nebraska, and our markets haven’t been covering our costs of production. It hasn’t been a good time.”

But overall, Schrock said, corn farmers are doing the best they can to cope with the challenges they are facing this year.

“There are guys who have crops that are doing well, and the dryland crops for my family are doing great,” he said.

Schrock said there were irrigation center pivots that his family couldn’t run after a nine-inch rain in their area this summer.

“It has been a potluck for a lot of people,” he said.

Others have it worse

Schrock said while Nebraska corn farmers have had a tough year, elsewhere in the Corn Belt, farmers have fared worse because of the weather. In some areas of the eastern Corn Belt, farmers didn’t get their crop planted until June. The crop’s maturity there is in a close race with the coming of the fall freeze.

For the week ending Sunday, the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service reported that Nebraska’s corn condition rated 2% very poor, 5% poor, 20% fair, 58% good and 15% excellent. Corn dough was 94%, behind the 100% last year, but near the 98% five-year average. Dented was 70%, behind the 84% last year and the 81% average. Mature was 9%, behind the 20% last year and the 18% average.

Soybean condition rated 1% very poor, 4% poor, 20% fair, 61% good,and 14% excellent.

Soybeans setting pods were at 94%, behind the 100% both last year and average. Dropping leaves was 7%, well behind the 29% last year and the 22% average.

Winter wheat planted was 4%, equal to last year and near the 8% average.

Sorghum condition rated 1% poor, 15% fair, 67% good and 17% excellent.

Sorghum coloring was 59%, well behind the 82% both last year and average. Mature was 1%, behind the 12% last year and 10% average.

The numbers don’t lie

“I don’t know how it is going to shake out as even a normal crop is going to be bad,” Schrock said.

The numbers aren’t going to lie once the harvest is completed, he said.

“We are going to see what is there,” Schrock said. “Maybe the price will be something people can make a living from. It has just been frustrating.”

The National Weather Service in Hastings reported for the immediate future, a hard freeze is not in the forecast.

Last year, the weather service reported that the first freeze and hard freeze did not deviate far from 30-year averages for the majority of the area. The first widespread freeze and/or hard freeze of the season occurred on Oct. 11. A hard freeze is when the temperature is 28 degrees or lower for several hours.

Also, last year, there was early snow on Oct. 14.

What will be a help with farmers and their crops is the expectation that temperatures will be back into the 80s with sunshine starting Saturday. That will be an aid in helping the crops mature.

Mike Korth of Randolph is a soybean farmer and a member of the United Soybean Board.

“I feel people are very upbeat,” Korth said, despite the challenges of 2019. “The prices are very depressed right now, and we are yearning for some good news — something that will help perk up the price.”

But Korth said people’s spirits are good.

“We are just hoping that we will get enough good weather for the crops to mature before frost hits,” he said.

More than food production

In the commodity building at Husker Harvest Days, farmers and representatives of the corn, soybean, wheat and sorghum industry have educational displays on the hundreds of products that are derived from those crops.

For soybeans, corn, and sorghum, an important byproduct of those crops is their use in making an alternative fuel source. But since the beginning of the Trump administration, the EPA has approved 85 waivers for 4 billion gallons of renewable fuel, which has been a loss of market for billions of bushels of those crops. That has been a contributing factor for the lower prices producers received for their crops.

Korth said about one-third of the soybean oil goes to biodiesel production.

“It’s (biodiesel) a big deal for us,” he said. “We need those small refineries and for those exemptions to be cut off.”

Exemptions to oil refineries aren’t helping the ethanol industry at a time when ethanol exports are growing.

An analysis by the U.S. Grains Council (USGC) showed that non-beverage ethanol had been the fastest-growing U.S. agricultural export over the past five years.

In 2018, U.S. ethanol exports totaled more than 6.1 billion liters (1.62 billion gallons or 609 million bushels in corn equivalent), valued at $2.7 billion.

Using trade data on 47 different agricultural and ag-related product groupings tracked by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service (USDA’s FAS) via its Global Agricultural Trade System, analysis reveals the volume of ethanol exports grew by 18% per year over the past five years, USGC reported.

Hoping for warm weather

Jim Erickson is a sorghum farmer from the Sterling area and a member of the sorghum board.

“Our sorghum looks pretty good, but it still needs this heat,” Erickson said. “We need some more warmth to get the crop finished off. All the crops need it, not just sorghum.”

Like many Nebraska farmers, Erickson was three weeks late planting his sorghum but now is just about a week behind in maturity as the crop made up the difference during the growing season.

“I think most of our crops look average or a little better,” he said. “We are more fortunate than other parts of the country.”

Last month, the USDA reported that Nebraska’s 2019 corn production is headed for a record harvest of 1.79 billion bushels, up slightly from last year’s production.

Soybean production in Nebraska is forecast at 287 million bushels, down 14% from last year.

Nebraska’s 2019 winter wheat crop is forecast at 56.3 million bushels, up 14% from last year, with a record yield forecast at 58 bushels per acre, up 9 bushels per acre from 2018.

Sorghum production of 15.5 million bushels, is down 3% from a year ago. Yield is forecast at 94 bushels per acre, unchanged from last year.

In recent years, sorghum acres have been declining, according to USDA statistics.

Erickson said some elevators have stopped handling the state’s sorghum crop.

“I know one producer who didn’t raise sorghum this year because he didn’t have any place to go with it,” he said. “If you can’t get rid of it, why grow it?”

Erickson said he feeds his sorghum to his livestock as it is an excellent feed source.

He said it is important that the U.S. resolve its trade disputes and the Congress passes the United States-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement to provide some surety to producers when it comes to selling their crops to foreign markets.

robert.pore@theindependent.com

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