Propane Tanks Running Dry

Spike in propane demand leaves some farmers wondering how they'll get the rest of their corn dried.

Published on: Oct 25, 2013

Dustin, Wayne and Arnie Anderson, Hankinson, N.D., are going to run out of propane in a couple days and can’t get any more due to a propane shortage that is spreading across the Dakotas and Minnesota.

“We’ll have 30% of our corn left to harvest,” Dustin says.

There’s plenty of propane in the national pool, says Mike Rud, director of the N.D. Propane Retailers Association. “But we can’t get it up here fast enough.”

Many terminal storage tanks across North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota are empty and trucks are being loaded directly from pipelines -- a process that takes 30 to 60 minutes per truck.

The shortage is apparently being caused, in part, by a dramatic spike in demand that occurred just last week. Nearly everyone in the Cornbelt is harvesting and drying corn now. Usually, corn harvest in Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and parts of Iowa is over by the time it starts in the Upper Midwest.

Spike in propane demand leaves some farmers wondering how theyll get the rest of their corn dried.
Spike in propane demand leaves some farmers wondering how they'll get the rest of their corn dried.

Also, corn is a lot wetter than expected. The Andersons were harvesting corn that was running 25-29% moisture.

Since the big storm Oct. 3-5 -- which turned into a blizzard in western South Dakota that killed tens of thousands of cattle and dumped several inches rain across most of the Upper Midwest -- the weather has been cold and wet and there has been very little field drying.

There’s also a propane distribution problem. A pipeline that runs from Alberta, Canada, through the Upper Midwest and out into the eastern state is only running at 60% capacity, says Matt Kumm, CHS, Inc. propane marketing manager, St. Paul, Minn.

Steam pours off grain dryer at the Arnie Anderson farm near Hankinson, N.D.
Steam pours off grain dryer at the Arnie Anderson farm near Hankinson, N.D.

The industry also hasn’t been able to obtain as many outside trucks to haul propane into the Upper Midwest as it did in 2009 when a similar shortage occurred.

Because the weather has been colder than normal in the southern U.S., truckers have been busy hauling home heat to their local customers. Midwest truckers are also hauling anhydrous ammonia to farmers.

In response to the shortage, the governors of North Dakota and South Dakota lifted propane trucking restrictions. Rep. Kevin Cramer (D-ND) says he has discussed the situation with CHS and BNSF Railway officials.

The propane shortage will likely last through the first week in November, Kumm says. But it could last longer. The weather, trucking resources and other factors will all affect how long it takes to get enough propane to farmers in the Dakotas and Minnesota.

In the meantime, the Andersons will have to decide what to do when they run out of propane.

They could shut down their combines or they could keep harvesting and haul wet corn to an elevator that has a natural gas dryer. They also could put wet corn in bins on the farm, turn on aeration fans and hope the grain doesn’t spoil before it freezes. They could also leave corn in the field.

“There aren’t any good options,” Dustin says. “We just need the propane.”