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Published July 23, 2012, 10:55 AM

National drought, heat loom large

The national agriculture drought and the specter of hot, dry conditions during corn pollination are looming large for farmers Agweek visited on July 17 and 18, in a swing that went from Fargo, N.D., to Rugby, N.D.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

The national agriculture drought and the specter of hot, dry conditions during corn pollination are looming large for farmers Agweek visited on July 17 and 18, in a swing that went from Fargo, N.D., to Rugby, N.D.

Here is a look at the scenarios they are faced with, and what they say is on their minds at this point in the season.

CASSELTON, N.D. — Jim Nelson and his son, Grant, raised only corn and soybeans this year. Everything was planted in a timely fashion, but survived high temperatures just after planting. “We were doing quite well up to 10 days ago,” he said on July 17. “Then we started to see some deterioration in the heat of the day. It’s critical for us to get some rain on the corn. Now. NOW.”

The Nelsons received .06 inches on July 16. “It was pretty shy,” he says. “We’ve still got pretty good potential, but corn has to have it now.” Since 1988, Nelson has kept a daily diary that includes weather conditions. He thinks this year is something like 1989, which was the second year of a regional drought.

Nelson figures the soybeans have a little more time — maybe with a two- to three-inch rain over a few days, the crop might still pan out. Rain totals are variable around the region, he says.

This year is still better than last year — “one of the most ugly crops I’ve raised,” Nelson says. Corn yielded just more than 100 bushels and the soybeans averaged in the 20s. Nelson says a 140-bushel corn and an upper 30s bean crop would be average.

The Nelsons have sold corn to Cargill, but the majority goes to Maple River Grain in Casselton, N.D. About half of the soybean production goes to Peterson Farm Seeds for seed production.

Grant, 25, is in his fifth crop year, and owns about 18 percent of what the Grants farm. The Nelsons also have four part-time workers during the harvest.

Insects pose some threat to the Nelsons’ soybeans, but otherwise they’re preparing equipment for harvest.

Weed spraying is done, but Jim knows for sure he’s seeing some herbicide-resistant ragweed. “We just started to see it last year and this year,” he says. “We’re using some more conventional chemicals in some of our beans along with the Roundup. Next year, I think we’re going to have to seriously look at some Liberty beans to take care of that resistant ragweed issue.”

There are things coming down the pipeline, for Dicamba-tolerant beans, or 2, 4-D, tolerant beans. “We’re mixing it up. Pretty much everybody is. It’s here,” he says of herbicide tolerance.

Nelson is watching with interest the development of national policies in the 2012 farm bill. He says he understands the urge to reform such things as crop insurance subsidy levels, but thinks any changes should be incremental and should take into consideration the long-term land rental or investments farmers have made based on current policies. “All of a sudden you could be (financially) upside-down, if you’re running that thin (on margins),” he says. “You want to know what your fixed costs are.”

JAMESTOWN, N.D. — Gayne Gasal farms individually, but in cooperation with his sons, Jarred and Greg, in their Gasal Brothers partnership. The headquarters is about seven miles out of Jamestown, N.D. They and nine hired men raise mostly soybeans and corn. They have some navy beans and they buy feeder calves and finish 1,500 to 2,000 of those per year. About 500 are marketed as natural beef.

The Gasals own about half of their acres, with the rest leased. In 2011, about 30 percent of the farm’s land went unseeded because of excess water. This year, about 10 to 20 percent still couldn’t be planted. Less than 5 percent of the land they control is irrigated.

The Gasals had a couple of timely rains last fall that benefitted fieldwork, followed by little snow. This summer, they’ve been getting timely rains and if that continues, their corn crop could run in the 150- to 200-bushel range.

The family has some herbicide-resistant kochia in some fields.

The Gasals have had a good hay crop. They’ve made 2,000 bales this year, on top of the 1,500 left over from last year. They usually put up 4,000 to 6,000 bales. Their alfalfa crop first cutting was nipped by the frost. Grass hay is excellent and they’ve sold some to neighbors from South Dakota.

When it comes to farm program debates, the Gasals are paying less attention this year.

The sons left the farm program two years ago and Gayne stayed out this year. They stayed out of the government’s Average Crop Revenue Election program and have gotten out of the Conservation Reserve Program entirely.

Out of the farm program, they’ve drained some inundated areas, recovering some 200 acres of land in certain spots. Even though it was drained this year, some of it won’t be available to plant until 2013. They control most of the land until the water ends up in a coulee that ultimately goes into the James River.

The Gasals have heard of more farmers pulling the plug on the farm program. “Who knows what this new farm bill is going to be?” Gayne questions. “Maybe it won’t be good enough for people to want to join it.” He says that if conservation compliance is tied to crop insurance they’ll probably strongly consider self-insuring. The so-called “shallow loss” provisions in the farm bill could probably be covered by crop insurance.

The Gasals say crop insurance is the best part of today’s farm program, and describe it as adequate, noting that farmers in Illinois and Iowa will see the value of it this year. “If they didn’t exclude the fall harvest price they’re going to get a pretty hefty payment,” Jarred says.

The Gasals have used the prevent-plant provisions in the crop insurance program, but there will be limits to that. “Some of our ground now has not been seeded for four years, so next year it’ll get thrown out if we don’t seed anything there,” Gayne says. Some Gasal land couln’t be drained because it had U.S. Fish and Wildlife easements on it. Road contracts pay $1 million to raise a road bed, but the government could be money ahead by paying for a center pivot irrigation system for adjacent farmers and letting them pump the low-lands dry.

The extra water has attracted extra populations of Canada geese. The North Dakota Game and Fish Department recently indicated they might increase “early season” Canada goose limits to 15 per day, up from eight per day. He thinks they should go to a spring hunt, as geese will wipe out 300 feet of soybean plantings surrounding wetlands. The Gasals have gotten a permit to shoot geese that otherwise would clean out soybeans.

CARRINGTON, N.D. — Mark Pederson is manager of Central City Grains, based in Carrington, N.D. The facilities are owned by the Fessenden (N.D.) Co-op Association. The company’s mainstay is handling grain and it has only a small agronomy plant, with fertilizer and chemical.

Corn was only about 50 percent tasseled in the Carrington elevator’s trade territory as of July 18, and just starting silking. “We don’t want an extended period of 90-degree heat during pollination,” Pederson says. “We can handle two to three days like they’re talking about at the end of the week.”

The company is building a 730,000-bushel steel tank bin to handle the corn crop, which runs about $2.50 per bushel of construction costs, or a total of about $1.8 million. This will bring the elevator’s total storage capacity to more than 2.3 million bushels, making it one of North Dakota’s largest.

“We need it to handle bigger volumes of corn — a lot more bushels,” Pederson says. “Fifty-bushel wheat (yield), 40 bushel beans versus 100- to 150-bushel corn — you have so much more volume when there’s corn planted.”

“The national drought is huge,” Pederson says. “Prices are skyrocketing. The drought isn’t over. If we can grow a good crop, our farmers will have a phenomenal year.” Rain and cooler weather are needed for the kernel count on the ears. At least one more good rain after that would be needed to fill the ears.

Barley harvest was starting on July 18 in the Carrington area. Pederson was hearing test weights in the 41.5 pounds to 46-pounds-per-bushel range, but no per-acre yields yet. No problems have occurred with high deoxynivalenol, a toxin resulting from fusarium head blight. Plump has been 70 or better. Pederson thinks it will be a pretty good crop.

He had seen no wheat samples at all.

HARVEY, N.D. — Jerry Fix raises corn, soybeans, barley and wheat, east of Harvey, N.D.

His barley will be harvested in another two weeks or so, he said on July 18. Another flush of kochia weeds is coming on strong, especially on low ground, after a second herbicide treatment, although he isn’t sure whether it is because of resistance issues. He usually looks for a 60- to 70-bushel yield and is planting Lacey variety, marketing through local elevators to Rahr Malting and some with Cargill Malt.

Spring wheat is looking OK, he says. He is hoping for 40 bushels per acre, but was surprised by last year’s poor yield. “It looked so terribly good — thought it was going to be 60 to 70 bushels and it only ran 25 to 30. Until you start combining you don’t know. Last year, we had terrific straw. I think the heads are filled better this year, but I don’t know.”

He aims for 100-plus bushels of corn, depending on the price. The crop was “OK for the time being” on July 18 but was in a mixed tasseling status, depending on varieties. His land varies from heavy to sandy soil.

All of Fix’s soybeans look at least fair, some very nice. They’re just starting to make pods.

“Weed control is terrible,” he says. “Some have weeds again, and we already sprayed twice. You can only legally spray it twice.” Some of what he’d prevent-planted in 2011 was still unplanted in 2012. Acres that weren’t planted last year were planted but are stunted. “It’s short in there. I don’t know if the ground is salty or what.”

Corn is the big question mark. “If it yields like it looks like it could yield, with the price being where it is, it could be a money-maker,” he says. He’s worried that an early frost it would make filling a contract difficult, so he’s not marketed that yet. He did sell about half of what he expects of the soybeans. Barley contracts are act-of-god contracts.

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