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10 percent of North Dakota corn crop won't be harveste

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About 10 percent of North Dakota's record corn crop remains in the field and will likely spend the winter there, after the blizzard a week ago and the winter storm this weekend that dropped 4 to 6 more inches of snow across the region.

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Tom Lilja, the Larimore, N.D., native who is executive director of the North Dakota Corn Growers Association, said most of the 10 percent still unharvested is north of a line drawn from Jamestown, N.D., to Grand Forks.

"The traditional corn belt in North Dakota which is south of that line is almost completely harvested," he said in an e-mail answer last week to questions from the Herald.

As recently as three years ago, nearly half the corn harvested in the state for grain came from the seven counties in the southeast corner of the state. After averaging about 800,000 acres harvested a year since the mid-1980s, the state's corn crop began increasing in 2002 and nearly tripled over the past 10 years in acreage as seed varieties and farming techniques improved.

Snowdrifts in corn fields make it pretty difficult to run combines through them, although areas with the least snow might still see some corn harvesting, Lilja said.

The corn harvest went so late in North Dakota this year it outlasted the weekly crop progress reports compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's ag statistics office in Fargo, which surveys county extension agents.

The last survey was done at the end of November, because that's USDA's tradition since by that time normally the crop is pretty much in the bin, said Earl Stabenow, longtime ag statistician in Fargo. At that time, 20 percent of the corn was estimated to be still unharvested.

This year, North Dakota farmers planted 2.25 million acres of corn, slightly lower than the record in 2007 of 2.55 million acres. But the average yield this year is expected to be higher, making the 2008 crop the biggest ever to be harvested.

The average yield this year is estimated to be 124 bushels an acre, a record, as is the estimated total crop of 284 million bushels, more than the size of the spring wheat crop, for the first time.

Assuming the best-yielding corn tended to get harvested, there could be 20 million bushels of corn or more left in the field over this winter, or $60 million worth, based on $3-per-bushel price.

Some farmers in the Red River Valley saw corn yields of 180 bushels and more per acre and many harvested 150-bushel corn, but the lighter, drier soils in central and western North Dakota yield less than 100 bushels an acre.

Although corn prices were relatively high for much of the year, they fell by half in the past three months. High moisture content of the corn has meant farmers have to spend extra to dry the corn.

Even if farmers got their corn combined, many were not able to finish their fall tilling because of a record wet autumn and the late-maturing crop. That means many acres of corn stalks will remain in the fields until spring, possibly slowing down spring planting.

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