WATERLOO — If grain farmers didn’t have enough problems between stalled trade talks with China and ethanol waivers — plus winter arriving in full force in early November — add a propane shortage to the list.
“Extremely low supplies of propane” prompted an October disaster proclamation by Gov. Kim Reynolds to suspend rules on how many hours truckers can drive when hauling propane. On Friday, Reynolds signed a second proclamation allowing oversized and overweight trucks on Iowa roads and bridges.
Those orders — which expire Nov. 30 and Dec. 15, respectively — allow propane truck drivers to disregard rules on size, weight and hours driven, all in an effort to help get desperately-needed propane to suppliers.
Matthias Schwartzkops said the proclamations are sorely needed. The energy manager of Mid-Iowa Co-Op said the high demand for propane has led to rationing and long lines at grain dryers.
“I would say this is probably one of the worst (years) you’ll see,” Schwartzkops said. “You never want to say things can’t get any worse, because they always can.”
Propane inventories nationally are actually up over last year, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. But in the Midwest, propane inventories were down to 24.8 million barrels as of Nov. 8, when there were 26.5 million barrels on hand at the same time last year.
That may be because Iowa farmers had a very wet spring, meaning they couldn’t plant until later. The corn crop’s late maturity means it had less time than usual to dry in the field. That’s boosted demand for propane used in grain dryers. The early onset of winter hasn’t helped, with more propane needed to heat homes and livestock facilities.
Only 64% of the state’s corn crop had been harvested as of Nov. 12, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The five-year average at this time is 86%.
“This year, I’ve heard more people say this is the biggest harvest, and it’s harder to dry,” said Deb Grooms, chief executive officer of the Iowa Propane Gas Association. Her organization disputed the governor’s use of the word “shortage,” instead saying it’s a transportation problem. Trucks wait in line for hours at propane terminals as elevators scramble to get propane to customers.
Corn and soybeans need to be below a certain moisture level to store through the winter, typically 15% and 13%, respectively, according to the Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. Generally, farmers need grain dryers to help achieve that.
And grain dryers use a lot of propane: A typical home, using propane to heat and cook, uses around 3 to 7 gallons per day, according to the USDA. Grain dryers, on the other hand, use 15,000 to 18,000 gallons per day.
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“That requires two transport loads full of gas every day per dryer,” Grooms said.
When they don’t have enough of it, places like Mid-Iowa Co-Op have been forced to ration their gas.
“Normally, we can give everybody the full fill. Now, we might have scaled back to a half-fill or less than that on our grain dryers to space out our gallons and keep people moving along,” Schwartzkops said.
Another major problem causing a bottleneck at grain dryers in the Midwest is aging pipelines that carry propane being unable to keep up with demand.
“A lot of storage was added with farmers after (another propane shortage) in ‘14,” Grooms said. “A lot of combines and dryers have been updated with brand-new equipment. But the pipeline has not been updated.”
“Some (of the pipelines) are over 25 years old,” Schwartzkops said.
But both also agree updating the pipelines isn’t feasible at the moment.
“Environmental groups, with any pipeline right now, there are a lot of issues,” Grooms said, with Schwartzkops adding it was “a lot of fights and battles, politically.”
Grooms said it was “extremely important” for grain farmers to give propane suppliers a heads-up for this or next year’s harvest. Schwartzkops said this year, farmers are deciding mostly between keeping the grain in their bins to dry it later, or take their chances on long lines and rationed gas.
“I wouldn’t say they’re leaving crops in the field — I don’t think anybody wants to do that yet, though I’ve heard some people thinking about it,” he said. “There’s some difficult decisions that they’re making.”