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Wet autumn tests farmers, delays harvest

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Heavy rainfall keeps tractors from entering cornfields in Buffalo Lakes.
Tire tracks lead up to a cornfield on Oct. 12, 2017 in Buffalo Lakes, Minn., at John Schafer's farm.
Ellen Schmidt | MPR News

Some farm fields west of the Twin Cities are so wet you can't even get a combine into the fields to harvest the crop.  

Conditions have improved for John Schafer, who grows corn and soybeans and runs 80 head of Hereford cattle near Buffalo Lake. But you can see the ruts left when he had to take his machinery into the field to harvest silage to feed his cattle. His area received more than 6 inches of rain over a few days earlier this month. 

"If you look over here, you can see what I was dealing with a couple days ago. It certainly is not ideal to be doing this, but when the cattle need feed, the cattle need feed," he says. 

Weather affected the harvest of farmer John Schafer's crops this season.
John Schafer describes how weather affects his harvest schedule.
Ellen Schmidt | MPR News

Schafer is holding off on harvesting his soybeans because running heavy equipment on wet ground can compact the soil. Compacted soil can stunt the growth of the crops in the next growing season, according to University of Minnesota Extension educator Dave Nicolai. 

"Compaction doesn't go away when you pull the combine or the truck out of the field," he says.

But farmers are up against the clock. And if they wait too long, they could bump up against winter weather.  

Cornfields are flooded with about six inches of water near Hector, Minn.
Water from rainfall floods a cornfield on Oct. 12, 2017, near Hector, Minn.
Ellen Schmidt | MPR News

"With the wet weather, we're pushing this harvest and the big concern for a lot of farmers here is if we get too late, we get into November, you run the chance of snow," Nicolai says.

Snow and harvesting soybeans do not mix. Snow isn't great for harvesting corn, either. 

Even if Minnesota farmers do get their crops harvested before winter there's a chance the beans and corn will be wet from all the rain and cause mold and fungus to grow. Farmers will have to use fans or propane dryers to reduce the moisture content or else pay the local grain elevator to deal with it.

"It's going to cost more money, and with low commodity prices, that just adds to the cost of production," according to Nicolai.

Brian Ryberg harvests sugar beets at his farm in Hector, Minn.
Brian Ryberg drives a tractor harvesting sugar beets on Oct. 12, 2017, in Hector. Ryberg Farms hasn't had to delay their harvest.
Ellen Schmidt | MPR News

Heavy October rains are not unusual in Minnesota. But what we don't know is whether the rains this month are part of a changing pattern fueled by a changing climate.

Kenny Blumenfeld, a senior climatologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources says the trend is toward heavier rains and an expanded season for heavy rains.

"We have seen all the way back through the record in Minnesota episodes of heavy rainfall in October. We know we've seen things like this in the past, and what we probably need to figure out is is it actually changing or was this just a bad year," he said.