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MARENGO, Illinois (Reuters) - Brothers Steve and Ron Pierce spent most of an hour in a chilly northern Illinois field last week clearing a clog of soybean chaff from the guts of their combine, using a mix of tools and their bare hands.
"The beans get tough when they pick up moisture," Steve Pierce said.
The clog had idled the $260,000 harvester, another delay in what has been the harvest from hell across the U.S. Midwest corn and soybean belt.
The clock is ticking on farmers like the Pierce brothers all across the Midwest as they scramble to bring in the largest U.S. soybean crop on record and the second-largest corn crop before winter arrives.
Late-maturing crops and persistent rain throughout October halted fieldwork, making this the slowest start for the U.S. harvest since the 1970s. The delays -- and questions about crop quality -- have kept Chicago Board of Trade grain markets on the boil.
"Just look at the price of corn from October to now. The delayed harvest has had a bullish impact on prices," said Terry Reilly, an agricultural analyst with Citigroup.
CBOT corn futures are up about 15 percent since October 1. CBOT soybeans, already supported by strong export demand from China, are up about 7 percent.
On Thursday, fresh concerns about mold in the corn crop helped bolster prices for CBOT soymeal, an alternative ingredient to corn in livestock feed rations.
The United States produces 40 percent of the global corn crop and 35 percent of all soybeans, and is the leading exporter of both commodities.
In a normal year, farmers would be nearly finished harvesting the two primary crops, which help feed people across the globe, from Europe to Asia to Africa.
By November 1, U.S. farmers had brought in only half the soybean crop and one-quarter of the corn, well below the five-year averages of 87 percent and 71 percent, respectively.
Because of the late harvest, some analysts say the true size of the U.S. corn and soybean crops might not be known until well into 2010 -- possibly even after the USDA issues its "final" production numbers in January.
"This is the latest harvest we've had in a very long time, so there are lots of questions out there that we would not have normally," said Patrick Westhoff, co-director of the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri.
"It's really tough, in a year like this, to get a handle on things."
Despite the delays, yields have been strong, and the U.S. Agriculture Department this week projected the largest U.S. soy crop on record, at 3.3 billion bushels, and the second-largest corn crop at 12.9 billion bushels.
Livestock producers and other grain end-users may face higher-than-normal costs as the harvest drags on, but U.S. food costs probably won't be affected.
"It was probably reassuring from a consumer standpoint that yesterday's USDA reports did not really change the size of the crop from previous estimates," Westhoff said.
Still, all the wet weather has caused widespread quality problems including mold and diseases. Also, crops all across the Midwest are higher in moisture than normal, creating harvest glitches like the Pierce brothers' clogged combine.
Because high-moisture grain cannot be stored or processed properly, many farmers will pay to have their crops dried at grain elevators -- cutting into their profits and further slowing the harvest.
"In some cases, depending on the yield, the drying charges alone are running $100 to $150 an acre, which is more than what some of the (land) rents are," Ron Pierce said.
The sky finally cleared over the Corn Belt last week and growers have seized the opportunity, running their combines at full tilt. Soybean harvest progress moved up to 75 percent by November 8, USDA said. But the rush has taken a toll on machinery and farmers alike.
"I've been doing this for 30 years and I've never seen a year like this," said Ron Waldschmidt, a vice president with farm equipment dealer A.C. McCartney in Wataga, Illinois.
"It's not unusual in any given year to have wet conditions, or maybe a variety that tends to mold, or maybe the moisture is a little bit high. But this year, you've got it all," he said.
Waldschmidt said his office has tripled orders for combine parts like belts in response to demand from local farmers who are running their equipment hard, taking advantage of the brief harvest window.
"This morning before 7 o'clock, we had six belts out the door," he said. "Everybody is having these kind of problems."
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Reporting by Julie Ingwersen; Editing by David Gregorio