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Published July 16, 2012, 09:43 AM

Living from rain to rain

Jeff and Jodi Knutson say they have a chance of a corn and bean crop — but only if they get a good rain — and soon.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

CLEAR LAKE, S.D. — Jeff and Jodi Knutson say they have a chance of a corn and bean crop — but only if they get a good rain — and soon.

The Knutsons’ corn crop in eastern Deuel County in South Dakota, is in “survival mode” — leaves curled to protect the plants from dehydrating and dying. The family farms at the northern edge of some of the dry conditions creeping northward from the South and traditional Corn Belt states, threatening to ruin a once-promising crop at a time when commodity prices are up.

The Knutsons farm about 1,000 acres and have a dairy of 70 cows — mostly Holsteins. They have some Jersey cows that started out as 4-H projects. They get help from their children, Brett, 17, Brittany, 13, and Cole, 9. They also get help from Jodi’s father, Bob Pfeil. Jeff raises about 350 acres of corn, 200 acres of soybeans and 100 acres of cereal grains, as well as about 150 acres of alfalfa.

Walking into a crop on a sandy loam hillside in mid-July, Knutson says his crop is desperate for moisture at a critical tasseling phase. “We’re a little cooler than last week and if we get dew at night it’ll help, but it’s not going to replace a rain by any means. It’d only give us another day or two.”

Knutson shoots for 150 bushels per acre or better on corn. Soybeans should make 30 bushels per acre.

This year’s wheat looks good. “Hopefully we had enough moisture that it filled,” he says. “I don’t know what the test weight’s going to be on the wheat.” He estimates this crop could run 50 bushels per acre and was “turning fast,” by July 8.

Knutson, 45, has lived on the farmstead since his parents moved here in 1970.

Most of the weather problems he remembers have to do with too much water, not too little. He says the main drought he remembers was in 1976, when he was 9 years old. His father, Norman, ran the place back then. “I know we bought hay at that time, and I know we chopped everything that could be chopped.”

Planting this year was a breeze, he says. The crops were in the field by mid-May. “Everything’s about a month ahead,” he says. But the last rain the Knutsons had was June 22 and it was only a quarter-inch. “Right now, I would say we’re on very borrowed time,” Jeff says, while giving a tour of his milking and farming operation, where his family scurries to perform a variety of tasks. “Everybody I’ve talked to, they say that when it tassels as dry as we are, we may not have ears on the corn at all.”

Uncertain future

First-cutting alfalfa was good quality (a whopping 200 on the relative feed value scoring chart for digestibility), but six inches shorter than he’d normally expect. Frost stunted the growth. Knutson typically gets about 2 tons per acre, and this year got about 1½ tons on his first cutting. Normally he blends that with his second- and third-cutting hay. But his second cutting was more like a first cutting, he says. “I need a third cutting, too.”

If he is forced to cut corn for silage, Knutson must worry about nitrate concentration.

“Also, how bad does it have to look before it’s dry enough to cut?” he questions. “Just because the leaves are shriveled up on that stalk — you break that — there’s still juice in it. If you can’t put it up at the right moisture, you don’t have anything either. I may have to cut some and put it in a pile, or bale it. But then I’m going to have to buy corn. And I may have to buy hay — depending on how much (forage) I can get out of this corn.”

The Knutsons sell their milk to Valley Queen Cheese Factory, 40 miles away in Milbank, S.D. But their volume isn’t enough to sell under a contract. They’ve been getting $15 to $16 per hundredweight for their milk, but that works primarily if they raise their own feed.

“If it doesn’t rain, we’re going to buy corn and hay and everything else,” Knutson says. “We’ll have to sit down this fall and see what’s going to be here and what isn’t. If it doesn’t rain, I’m not going to have enough hay. I’m doing my second cutting right now.”

Even before this dry spell, the Knutsons were concerned about the future of a dairy that’s been in their family for a long time.

“Last winter we sat down and asked ourselves, ‘Should we stay in this business, or not?’” he says. “We decided to stay in because we’d kind of miss the milk check every two weeks. It’s already spoken for when it comes. But trying to figure out how many stock cows it’d take to cover all of the bills, and if you sell milk cows, you’ve got to go pay the bank before you can buy any stock cows.

“Crop insurance is good, but you can’t afford to insure to the amount that a guy gets out of a crop. It covers expenses for a crop, but if I don’t have my crop to feed, I still have to purchase that out of the milk check.”

The dry side

Reports from other farmers in east/northeast South Dakota are similar. Conditions vary significantly, but everyone seems to want rain.

Todd Sprung is the fourth generation that has farmed on a century farm in Corona, S.D., with help from his father, Gene. They raise 1,500 acres of corn, soybeans, wheat and alfalfa. They have 130 cow-calf pairs, and feed them through slaughter. “Depends on what the calf market is doing, I might pick up 50 to 60 head in the winter.”

This year’s corn went in well. “We had rain about three weeks ago — about 3 inches — but now everything’s starting to get on the dry side. We’re just at the tasseling, silking area.” He says he is fortunate in comparison with farmers in other areas.

He usually aims for 130 to 150 bushels per acre in corn yields, but occasionally has pumped out 200 bushels. “Last year, we kind of dried out,” he says. “We never had any rain last year in July, but we still averaged 130-bushel (per acre) corn.” He thinks that, with no snow in the winter and not much rain in the spring, he has little subsoil moisture.

Soybeans appear to be doing well this year, but the 3-inch rain didn’t hurt. He usually looks for the low 30s in bushels per acre. “As we were planting, we had aphids out there, so we actually sprayed with our burn-down, our first pass, we sprayed with Warrior,” Sprung says. So far, the pests haven’t returned.

Wheat harvest is about two weeks earlier than normal. The crop had leaf hoppers and Sprung sprayed them early. Harvest will start either this week or next. Sprung typically looks for a yield of about 45 bushels an acre and thinks he could hit that this year.

This year’s alfalfa was good enough for good first- and second-cuttings. “Normally if we get three cuttings around here, we’re pretty decent,” he says.

Sprung knows he is lucky to have that moisture. He drives truck with Mielitz Brothers, a custom silage chopping crew from Big Stone, S.D. “They called and wanted us to head south already, by the end of July to cut silage,” Sprung says. “It’s just burning up down by Sioux Falls, so they are trying to get what they can now.”

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