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USDA trying to make up for harvest samples missed during shutdown

By Tom Polansek

CHICAGO (Reuters) - The U.S. Department of Agriculture is working to find the best way to compensate for samples of corn and soybean crops it was unable to collect during the partial U.S. government shutdown, a top official said on Monday.

USDA enumerators, who gather crop samples nationwide to help determine harvest estimates that can jolt grain prices, were among the government workers sidelined by the shutdown that began on October 1.

When they returned to work last week, some of the crops had already been harvested, meaning they lost the opportunity to make final physical assessments of some of the country's agricultural production.

The USDA knows some samples are missing and is working "to try to understand what we have and where we have it," said Joe Prusacki, director of the statistics division for USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service.

The USDA must determine how to compensate for the missing samples before a widely followed, monthly grain production report is released on November 8. The department on Thursday canceled the monthly report for October because of the shutdown.

Users of corn and soybeans, from food companies to exporters, will be counting every bushel to determine if supplies recover after three years of declining production. As a result, markets have been highly sensitive to the USDA estimates.

For the November crop report, the USDA will run its usual survey of more than 10,000 growers and send crop enumerators to check yields at hundreds of fields selected for monthly inspections. The USDA's crop estimates, issued around the 10th of each month, are based on conditions on the first of the month.

The enumerators "know that if a farmer is working in the area, they will make an attempt to get out and make that final gleaning of soybeans, those mature corn ears," Prusacki told Reuters on the sidelines of an industry conference in Chicago.

"This year, they were not afforded that opportunity" during the shutdown, he said.

The USDA will likely rely more heavily on surveys of farmers in that areas where crop enumerators missed out on the chance to collect samples, said Alan Brugler, president of brokerage Brugler Marketing & Management.

Farmer surveys are a less accurate way to assess the size of the crops, but the missing samples likely accounted for a small percentage of the total harvests, he said.

Leaning on farmer surveys is "a way of bandaging up the situation," he added.

The U.S. corn harvest was 39 percent complete as of Sunday, below the five-year average of 53 percent, according to the USDA. The harvest was 12 percent complete as of September 29.

(Reporting by Tom Polansek. Editing by Andre Grenon)

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