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Propane shortage affects Minnesota farmers

By Janet Kubat Willette
jkubat@agrinews.com

Date Modified: 11/14/2013 8:14 AM

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A shortage of propane is hampering farmers and grain elevators as they attempt to dry corn.

It is worse than 2009, the last time a high percentage of the crop needed to be artificially dried, said Bob Zelenka, executive director of the Minnesota Grain and Feed Association. That year, even some soybeans were dried.

During the past three years, only a small percentage of the state's corn has needed artificial drying because most came out of the field and went right into the bin or only needed a little drying before being stored.

Propane wasn't in high demand, but late planting this spring signaled 2013 would be different.

And indeed it is.

The Southern Research and Outreach Center in Waseca reported last week that corn planted in late May or early June still is coming in at more than 30 percent moisture.

Ryan Buck, a Goodhue farmer and president of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, said the majority of corn coming out now has 21 to 28 percent moisture.

Zelenka said corn moisture levels vary from 17 percent to 18 percent in some areas where they will be able to use aeration to dry the grain on up to 19 percent to 21 percent, where artificial drying is required to bring the moisture down to 14 percent to 14.5 percent for long-term storage.

In the USDA Crops and Weather report issued Oct. 28, the National Agricultural Statistical Service Minnesota Field Office reported the average corn moisture at harvest was 21 percent.

As is often the case in agriculture, farmers and grain elevators need the propane now. The crush of need is one reason given for the shortage, Zelenka said.

Other reasons he's heard are that some suppliers are using their pipelines for other types of products and that exports are increasing. The home heating season also is here.

Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson told Minnesota Public Radio news that one factor in the shortage is a pipeline that formerly carried propane to Minnesota now is switching to carrying light condensates associated with oil shale.

The Cochin pipeline, which is owned by Kinder Morgan, stopped transporting propane in half their pipeline in April.

"That literally cut the supply of liquid propane to west-central part of Minnesota in half," Frederickson said.

Gov. Mark Dayton on Oct. 23 signed an executive order exempting drivers transporting propane and anhydrous ammonia from hours of service restrictions in order to get more propane into the state. Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad took the same action.

Governors in Wisconsin, North and South Dakota have signed similar exemptions.

Truckers are having to wait eight to 10 hours in line in order to load their semis. That eats up available hours to drive very quickly, Zelenka said. Others are driving to Nebraska or Kansas to pick up propane because the harvest there is further along, and the crop didn't need as much drying.

Larger grain dryers also are exacerbating the problem as a newer dryer at a grain elevator running at full capacity can burn through a semi-load of propane in four hours.

Farmers also have installed more dryers on their farms, creating more demand.

Zelenka hasn't heard of price fluctuation caused by the supply shortage, rather it's been an issue of trying to get propane.

In order to keep harvest progressing, grain elevators are storing wet corn, waiting for a lull in harvest to run the wet grain through the dryer, he said.

Drying income is a significant revenue source for elevators. In a year like this where less crop was planted, drying income can make or break your year, Zelenka said.

The grain and feed association plans to meet with others in the industry to come up with longer-term solutions to hopefully avoid perennial propane shortages.