We all love to eat our favorite foods and wear our favorite clothes…. but before we can, farmers must embark on, arguably, their busiest time of year – harvest. Harvest occurs at different times of the year depending on geographic location, type of crop and variety that is planted. In the case of corn in Texas, harvest can begin as early as July in South Texas and into late November as you move north through the state.
Colin Chopelas, fifth generation South Texas farmer, and his family grow corn, cotton, sorghum, wheat and sesame, and they are acquainted with what it takes for a successful harvest. He said while harvest is rewarding, it can also be organized chaos at times.
“I mean it’s long hours and a lot of different variables, different things that can go wrong,” Chopelas said. “You just try to manage the best you can. You can have days that you have no issues and things go very smoothly and you get a lot of acres covered. Then you have days where for whatever reason it feels like you can’t get anything accomplished.”
He explained that mechanical breakdowns, waiting on trucks to deliver grain and return for another load and weather can all be barriers to a successful harvest day.
Without any major complications or weather setbacks, Chopelas said they can typically finish their corn harvest within 7-10 days. Chopelas, along with full-time and seasonal field staff work hard during that time, putting in 80-100 hours a week to get it done. With this in mind, he said it’s important to prepare ahead of time for day-to-day things like running errands, office work or scheduling appointments.
To determine when best to harvest his corn, he takes two major things into consideration: what other crops he has planted and the corn’s growth stage. Typically, he said they harvest their sorghum first followed by corn and cotton, primarily due to the length of each crop’s growth cycle and physical characteristics. Next, and perhaps the most important factor, is the corn’s growth stage. Farmers know if their corn has reached physiological maturity when the kernels have reached an appropriate moisture content, signaling it’s time to harvest.
“We’ll do some field spot checks, go out and take some corn ears, shell them by hand and take a moisture test. So, we harvest based on moisture content of the seed, and we’re really looking for somewhere in that 15 percent moisture range,” Chopelas said.
Moisture content is important because if it is too high it can cause the grain to sweat and mold when it is stored at the grain elevator, which is undesirable for end-users. On the other hand, when corn is too dry, the kernels can begin to crack. Chopelas said there is a fine line and harvesting at the right time is key.
When it is time to harvest his corn, daily start time can vary due to weather conditions. In the case of Chopelas farms, their days typically start around 10 in the morning and end an hour past dark due to their proximity to the Gulf of Mexico. Being by the ocean increases moisture quickly after dark so they can rarely harvest late into the night, and it requires them to wait for the sun to dry down the plants before getting started in the morning. The day begins by checking equipment, which he said includes servicing their machines and refueling.
“Some things are daily, some are weekly, some are once a year. Other than that, assuming we don’t have any major mechanical issues, it’s pretty smooth sailing from there,” he said.
The process of harvesting corn is relatively simple. Using a combine with a corn header, the machine makes its way down the rows of corn. Chopelas said the header has a set of chains on the front of it that grabs and gathers the ears of corn, and an auger brings them into the feeder house of the combine. From there, the corn is sent to the middle of the machine where the rotor turns at a high speed and separates the corn kernels from the cob. The cob and plant materials are returned to the ground and the kernels make their way to the rear of the combine where they will be held until the combine is filled.
Once the combine is filled, he said a grain buggy comes alongside where it is filled using the combine’s auger. When the grain buggy is filled, the corn is transferred to a tractor-trailer. After the combine makes several passes through the field and the truck is completely full, the corn is then typically transported to an elevator.
In Chopelas’ case, their corn is transported to their farm-owned elevator where they have on-farm storage.
“This will all go in our grain tanks, and it’ll probably be there from now until October-November timeframe,” Chopelas explained. “We added our own storage about three years ago for increased profitability.”
By having their own on-farm storage, Chopelas said it allows them to market their product at optimum times instead of relying upon harvest time price. When the market is more favorable, they sell their corn. For them, their corn is typically exported to Mexico where it is used for livestock feed.
“As a farmer during harvest season, you get to reap the benefits of what you produce. Both from an observational point and from a financial point, you only get paid once a year and you get paid usually after harvest,” Chopelas said.
Beyond the more obvious benefits, he said harvest is also a time to reflect on challenges and learn from mistakes. It allows them to begin thinking about decisions they need to make and consider potential technologies to utilize the next year.
And of course, water management is an important factor to consider year-round on their dryland acres and limited irrigated acres. They’re always looking for opportunities to utilize the rainfall they receive each year and irrigation in the most efficient way possible. He said they strive to achieve this by implementing crop rotation, limiting the amount of tillage on their land and taking a closer look at their plant populations.
“Farming is a really is a cool way to live. I mean, you are doing something that so few people do anymore,” Chopelas said.