Picking up extra yield is the goal of any grain farmer. For Johnny Verell, the key is not losing the bushels he’s already raised.
“Whether it's phantom yield loss associated with waiting for corn to get to 15%, or mechanical loss from the combine with dry corn, we felt we were leaving too many bushels on the table,” said Verell, 38, who farms corn, wheat and soybeans with his father and grandfather near Jackson, Tenn. “For us it’s easier to harvest wet corn. The way the combines handle the grain is much better. You don’t have near as much loss.”
In 2007, Verell began experimenting with harvesting corn at moisture rates above 25%. While he was certainly not the first to do this — harvesting high-moisture grain is a common practice in the Midwest — it was a rare sight on Southern farms at the time. After more than a decade, he’s all in on high-moisture grain harvest.
“We’ve seen a significant yield increase, we’re able to get into the field earlier to harvest, and we’re in a position to catch early harvest premiums,” he said.
Johnny VerellFinding the sweet spot
Verell begins shelling corn in mid-August at 25% moisture — although 2020 weather conditions pushed planting, and thus harvest back nearly three weeks.
“But I haven’t shelled any dry corn yet,” Verell told Delta Farm Press in mid-September. “So, if I was waiting on my corn to dry, I still wouldn’t have even started, and we have 4,300 acres of corn this year. Not starting until late September would be really bad.”
While Verell said he can realistically start shelling corn at 30% moisture, his on-farm research indicates 25% is the optimal rate.
“Twenty-five percent seems to be the sweet spot where the cost of initial drying is offset by the amount of phantom loss bushels picked back up,” said Brian Adams, an agronomist with Volunteer Ag Services. “That seems to be the amount most profitable for drying corn for this operation.”
In a two-year study conducted on the Verell farm, Adams compared corn harvested at 25% versus corn harvested at 15%. His findings suggest a roughly 30 bushel per acre, or 12% increase when harvesting wet corn. These numbers are fairly consistent with research from Purdue University which showed yield loss of approximately 1% per point of moisture loss.
“We probably caught the top-end of that yield increase,” admits Adams, “but I would expect to see 20 to 30 bushels per acre each year.”
Even after considering the costs of utilities, dryer payments, and transportation, Adams said there’s nothing phantom about the gains in revenue coming from the yield bump.
“That becomes significant money in your pocket.”
Grain dryer key to efficiency
Of course, as the saying goes, you have to spend money to make money, and investing in a good grain dryer is crucial to a high-moisture system. As Verell learned, having inadequate dryer capacity can bottleneck the harvesting process.
“Our old dryer was fine initially, but we quickly outgrew it. We got to the point where we would run out of wet corn because the dryer couldn’t keep up,” Verell recalled. “We would shell corn every day until the dryer was full, then we would have to wait until the next morning to go again.”
At the end of 2019, he installed a much larger mixed-flow grain dryer, which he says has exponentially increased his drying capacity. This is the first corn harvest it’s been in use.
“It’s the best thing we’ve ever done for our operation,” he said. “Now, we’re able to do probably 30 to 40 more acres a day and not run out of wet corn, and that’s a big deal for us.”
“The dryer system gives the farmer flexibility,” said Angela McClure, Extension corn specialist with the University of Tennessee. “In weather like we are having now, corn isn’t drying down in the field very quickly. Farmers with dryers can shell and move on with their crops. Farmers without heat dryers have to decide how long to wait for it to dry down in the field, or shell it higher and take a dock.”
Of course, a state-of-the art grain dryer is a substantial investment, and university experts caution that installing a dryer tends to generate a positive return only if additional grain is harvested and marketed.
“A big way we’ve been able to justify the cost of the dryer is picking up early harvest premiums combined with the increase in yield that we see,” said Verell. “Not every bushel can be early harvest, but if you can get several weeks of it, that helps.”
Verell also harvests high-moisture wheat, mainly as a means to plant soybeans earlier, although he says he can pick up great quality that way. He’s seeing more of his fellow Mid-South farmers take an interest in harvesting high-moisture grain.
“You’re starting to see a lot of guys who are predominantly grain in the South put a dryer on their farms now. It gives them a head start as they try to put more acres through the combine.”
McClure concurred. “I think the cost share programs have increased the number of grain bins across Tennessee. More producers are installing heat dryers, but we still have a good number who run air to cool grain but don’t have heat dryers.”
Verell noted that dryers involve a big initial cost, but farmers should always look to the future.
“Being able to store more during harvest is key. You can run less equipment and it provides you with more options.”