Borrowed time: Cass County farm hopes frost holds off
BUFFALO, N.D. — The average first frost date for the western part of North Dakota's Cass County is Sept. 17, so Zane Erickson knows his family's growing season is on borrowed time.
"We're hoping for mid-October frost," Erickson says, studying the situation. "The beans would be fine. The corn would be a little light (weight) if we got a frost."
Zane is a part of Buhr Erickson Farms, a general partnership at Buffalo. The farm has grown to about 6,000 acres which supports three households — Eric, 59, and sons Zane, 30, and Reed, 27 — as well as hired help. Separately, Zane and his wife, Cami, since 2009 also have operated North Star Ag Inc., a short-line machinery dealership. They sell 18 different product lines, but notably seed tenders and grain bins.
The Erickson farm has been putting more of its equipment on tracks, to handle increasingly wetter fields in the past few years. Last year, they bought a grain cart and a tractor — both with tracks. This year, Zane traded in dual conventional tires on the primary combine for some new, low sidewall tires, hoping to get the promised 27% increase in floatation. He recently priced tracks for his combine but held off on that — $89,000 for a new set and $45,000 to $65,000 for used.
Zane said he expects that this year he'll be consuming more propane than in typical years, so has brought in a supply that is 25% more than he typically uses. "We think it's going to be fairly wet," he says. "I think it was 2015 when the (propane) supply was an issue and the price went through the roof. We wanted to lock in our price and hopefully have the supply."
The propane price when he bought it was $1.05 per gallon for the amounts smaller than 9,500-gallon "bullet" tank. The Ericksons have six, 1,000-gallon tanks. They considered buying a large-capacity tank, but wasn't in the budget this year. He hears the bullets have been "selling like hotcakes" though. The price per gallon to fill the bullets is 50 cents a gallon because they accommodate a full truck "transport."
The Ericksons live on the sandy "beach" soil of ancient Lake Agassiz, about 40 miles west of the Red River. "This spring was quite the nightmare as far as the weather, the timing and the wetness," Zane says. The family had nice run of planting weather in mid-May but then it rained on the 17th.
Much of the corn was planted in the last week of May, and was completed June 2. This was followed by four days of planting soybeans, ending with about 12% prevented-planting acres. After the prevented planting acres were identified, the Ericksons planned to dig it up in mid-July, and then plant a cover crop.
"Due to all the rain, we struggled to get across it," Zane says. One week in July, the farm received 10 inches of rain. He stopped adding up the rain totals because it's "kind of depressing," he says, with a weak smile. One of Zane's farming friends, west of Valley City, N.D., had received 25 inches of rain since early May, so there are always those who have it worse.
Pinto beans were seeded the last week of May. Edible beans have struggled with some fields at 15% to 20% drown-out. The Ericksons sprayed a dessicant on their first pintos the first week of September, just prior to Big Iron, and the rest since. They started combining on Sept. 18 and 19 and completed about 20%. Good areas were yielding well but there were many poor areas, Zane says, resulting in an average crop at best.
Soybeans looked poor until August, when rains revived them. "They really took off," Zane says. "It looks like we could have a decent crop. It's hard to tell on beans." The soybeans appear to be maturing. A start to soybean combining looked possible at the end of September, but it keeps raining. The farm picked up about 1.5 inches on Sept. 29.
The crops have been affected by white mold, but it isn't clear how much that will limit yields.
Zane is skeptical of his corn potential. As of Sept. 1, he ran a check of his corn that indicated it was 23 to 39 days to "black layer," indicating physiological maturity. The heat the week of Sept. 15 helped pushed it along. If frost holds off until mid-October, he thinks the crops will make grain it. "It'll be wet corn but I think it'll make it to maturity. "The next two weeks are going to be big," he says.