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Published March 04, 2013, 10:20 AM

Bring on the moisture

Farmers stay optimistic as planting approaches.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

With weather forecasts for moisture unclear, farmers and ag input providers in the region are looking ahead and making counter-moves. Here is what a few of them told Agweek recently in conversations along the CropStop trail.

Watching for rain

ELGIN, N.D. — William Koepplin and his brother, Wade, raise registered Angus and farm wheat, corn and oats.

The 2012 crops were excellent, with stored subsoil moisture boosting spring wheat yields to the mid-40-bushel-par-acre range. Everything was seeded early and harvest came off perfectly. The nonirrigated corn crop ran 125 bushels an acre, with 59 pounds per bushel test weight.

“Now we should have a little more moisture,” William Koepplin says. The farm hasn’t had any measurable rain since early July.

Koepplin predicts pasture will be tough and the hay crop will be short, “unless the good Lord gives us a lot of water in the next month and a half.” The 2012 hay crop was a little short, but the Koepplins had a lot of carryover hay from 2011 and have a two-year hay supply on hand.

They sold a few open cows in early December and have 103 left. “We cut back the last couple of years. Usually we have around that 125 mark,” he says. They kept their calves until after Jan. 1, and sold two groups in January, into a good market.

Depending on weather, Koepplin figures he’ll be planting in mid-April. Last year, he was running on March 30, but he says that’s “out of the norm.”

Looking up and ahead

Lauren and Pat Russell farm and ranch from a headquarters seven miles south of Selby, S.D., on Highway 83.

Russell Farms is diversified in cattle and farming.

“We have a commercial herd of Angus cattle,” Lauren Russell says. “We’re concentrating on quality in a lot of the traits we think are valuable in the cow business. We sell bred heifers to neighbors and those in our area wanting to increase their herds. We finish our own as retained ownership in custom feedlots in-state and out-of-state and we buy cattle, as well.”

The Russells also have been no-till farmers for 16 years. They raise winter wheat, spring wheat, corn, soybeans and sunflowers, and have a certified seed wheat business. “We condition seed and sell spring and fall, so that keeps us busy and on our toes with new varieties and trying to keep track of what’s ahead there, as well,” he says.

Crops last year were surprisingly good, considering dryness. “Our concern is that we got by last year, but we are tapped out” of moisture, he says. Pasture, hay and cropland are dry, having only gotten about 10 inches of snow. “We’re going to be in need of timely rains to get through this next year,” Russell says. He says the farm will largely stay in a set rotation, and “not try to out-guess the weather.”

They didn’t plant winter wheat in the fall of 2012 because of the dry conditions, Russell says. “We normally plant a small amount of winter wheat because it takes the pressure off of spring planting. It also gives us another crop to sell as certified seed.”

Drought has affected the Russell operation, causing heavy culling. “We had a couple hundred head of cows out on shares and due to the drought, they were not able to sustain them because of lack of hay and dry conditions. So those cows came home into our operation this past fall,” Russell says.

The Russells don’t have the resources to handle them into calving and into pasture. “We’re going to be selling cows in the next 60 days,” he says. “We’ve been grazing cornstalks and supplemental-feeding and getting by, but with purchased hay and no resources to carry them any farther, we’re going to be selling a good portion. We’re going to try to let pastures recover and we don’t know what the moisture situation is going to be. We want to be on the conservative side and we’re hopeful that it is going to rain and that the price will stay steady or increase with the moisture situation close to calving.”

Leaning toward liquid

STRASBURG, N.D. — Bryce Weber is an agronomist at the Strasburg, N.D., North Central Farmers Elevator.

The Strasburg location opened a new fertilizer plant in 2012. The facility includes a dry fertilizer plant, seed tanks, a seed treater that is popular for bean and wheat producers and 80,000 gallons of bulk storage for liquid fertilizer. A typical producer will use 30 gallons of liquid nitrogen fertilizer and 7 gallons of liquid starter per acre.

“In the past five years, more and more farmers are going to a liquid starter, so liquid nitrogen is coming on more and more,” Weber says, comparing it with urea nitrogen that his company also offers, which still accounts for 70 percent of the fertilizer deliveries. His company doesn’t sell the anhydrous ammonia nitrogen, which is also common.

NCFE has been slowly growing to the north and south, Weber says.

The 2012 crop was good for most, he says. Wheat yields were 40 to 50 bushels per acre or more, while sunflowers ran about 1,700 to 2,500 pounds per acre. Corn often went 90 to 100 bushels, but yields were “patchy” with moisture availability, he says. Soybeans were nursed along by timely rains and came in at a respectable 25 to 35 bushels per acre.

Weber says some farmers held off on some of their fall fertilization because of dryness. Some producers are on the fence on how many soybeans they’ll plant, because of moisture concerns, he says. The crop has enough crop insurance protection that it pencils out, even with wheat at $8 per bushel.

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