Dry, dry, dry

A swing through northeast North Dakota in late July shows a crop that is hanging in there with great potential, but only if it rains. Farmers Agweek talked with are grateful their crops aren't firing like they are in the Corn Belt.

North Dakota crop stop

A swing through northeast North Dakota in late July shows a crop that is hanging in there with great potential, but only if it rains. Farmers Agweek talked with are grateful their crops aren't firing like they are in the Corn Belt.

Still, they're skittish about counting bushels before they're in the bin -- certainly not marketing them when the crop is uncertain and prices are volatile. Here's what four farmers and handlers tell Agweek:

No-till saves us

RUGBY, N.D. -- Brian Blessum operates Blessum Farms, just east of Rugby, N.D., with his brother, Jim, and his son, Nathan, on a five-generation farm. They raise corn, soybeans, pinto beans, peas and barley -- no wheat this year. Last year was prevent-plant on 20 percent of the farm and this year about 2 to 3 percent. Last year's prevent-plant acres appear to be doing well this year.

"We raised barley instead of wheat," Blessum says, crediting a good barley contract, growing Tradition variety barley for Rahr Malting through the local elevator.


Some soybean acres were put into pinto beans, responding to price within rotations. The farm has 300 cow-calf pairs. "We background them to January or February," he says. After the spraying season, Blessums were busy moving cattle around in their rotational grazing program, fencing and getting the combines ready.

Small grains are going to be OK. They hope for 60 to 70 bushels per acre. Combining started last week.

Corn, soybeans and pinto beans all need rain. The 78 to 80-day maturity corn was just starting to tassel on July 19, and soybeans were just starting to flower. The corn was planted May 6 and 7, on no-till. The Blessums look for a 100-bushel yield in most years.

"We've had about 6 inches (in the growing season) but it all came in just a few hours," Blessum says. "Over a week's time we had that, but most of the rain came in a three-hour time span, from June 7 to 17. "It filled our potholes back up." On July 19, he said the pastures were drying up and the brome/alfalfa hayland was producing half a crop. "We have silage corn and hopefully that's OK."

Blessum grows peas for the seed market and has been producing seed peas since the early 1990s.

"We've been in no-till since the mid-1990s, and if it wasn't for that our crops would be shot by now," he says. He thinks 40 to 50 percent of the area is in no-till programs, probably tempered by the wet years. The Blessums have a disk drill and occasionally run a coulter on some crops. "It's helping this year, so far," Blessum says. "We have lighter soils here. Water is always a problem."

He says the marketing of the crop is difficult. "You don't dare sell when you don't know if you're going to get anything. We forward-contracted some on the corn and bean side. The barley's contracted with an act-of-God contract, and so are the peas." He hasn't bought out any contracts yet.

"This corn could run 100 (bushels per acre) and this corn could run 40," he says. "That's where we're sitting."


High-pro winter wheat?

LEEDS, N.D. -- Kim Thompson works the harvest for his neighbor, Reggie Herman, on the Hermansdale Farm, west of Devils Lake, N.D. The farm was in its first day of harvesting winter wheat on July 19, just east of the BTR Elevator near the village of Niles, east of Leeds, N.D.

The crop was running 15 to 16 percent moisture, so a bit of drying was needed to make 13.5 percent storability level. "I guess it looks pretty good so far," Thompson says. "If you've got corn, too, you're going to need some rain." Thompson referred questions to Herman, who farms with sons Justin and George.

Herman says three winter wheat fields averaged 60 to 65 bushels an acre, which is good for this year. He says winter wheat test weight was about 60 pounds per bushel, with proteins 10.5 to 12 percent.

"There was a big difference between the re-crop and (winter wheat planted on) prevent-plant" acres from 2011. Herman says it seemed there was more winter wheat in the area this year, perhaps planted on the large number of prevent-plant acres from the 2011 crop year. But he noted it was tough to get it seeded by Sept. 15. "There was a terrible rush with harvest because it was a late year," he explains.

This year's spring wheat early crop may be good, Herman says, but test weight and yield are threatened by the heat. He thinks harvest will take place the week of Aug. 6. He plants Celebration, Tradition, Lacey and Quest barley varieties for seed production. "I think it looks good, but that's in the context of the production year we're in -- average below-average yield, I'd guess in the upper 60s," Herman says.

Soybeans needed water on July 23, but everything is there for a good crop, if they get rain immediately. The corn crop looks good, but farmers are debating whether they've lost the top end of the yield potential. Canola looks good, but he wonders whether it'll fill. Pinto beans are a dry-weather crop. "I think we'll get rains, of course. The crop looks good, the stands look good."

Shuttle loader takes off


LAKOTA, N.D. -- Kalyn Luehring is site manager of the Lakota, N.D. sub-terminal of Lake Region Grain, a cooperative based in Devils Lake, with other locations at Rohrville, N.D., and Starkweather, N.D.

The Lakota elevator holds 1.1 million bushels and just this summer loaded its first 110-car shuttle train. "We've loaded two shuttles so far," Luehring says, noting the first one was in June and the most recent was in late July. Up until this year, Lakota had been a storage facility for the Devils Lake elevator, which also has shuttle loading capacity. Lakota only had loaded spot cars, groups ranging from one to 10 cars. The sub-terminal expanded its track to the west about a mile and added a new conveyor under the annex, a new shipping leg and a new bulk load-out system.

"Everything's brand new," Luehring says, noting that the main elevator was built in 1982 with an expansion in 1998. "They worked on it for about a year and we loaded our first shuttle in June."

The Lakota elevator handles pretty much everything but pinto beans and barley. "We handle a little bit of durum, a little winter wheat, and mostly corn, beans, spring wheat and canola," Luehring say. As of July 20, the elevator had just started taking in winter wheat. Protein had been about 11 to 12.5 percent, with 60 pounds per bushel test weight.

Spring wheat was in early and the area caught some rains early. "I'm expecting not a huge crop, but a nice crop, probably a 30 to 40 bushel crop and in some cases higher. I'm suspecting protein levels will be high."

Row crops look good, but fields to the south of Lakota were showing more stress than fields to the north. "Overall, we're okay," Luehring said on July 20. Corn yields often are in the 110-bushel per acre area, while soybeans are in the 30-bushel per acre range. Farmers sprayed for leafhoppers in spring wheat, but soybean aphids haven't caused much problem. There had been scab disease early-on, but overall disease has been pretty minimal.

Marketing plans have been difficult. New-crop corn on July 20 was about $7 per bushel, while new-crop beans were $15 and wheat was $9.

"There was a fair amount of marketing in the middle part of winter, toward the end," Luehring says. "With the recent run on the market it, hasn't been as much as I had thought it would be. I think guys have sold what they want to sell and are just waiting to see what the crop is going to do."


One dry, wet cycle

HILLSBORO, N.D. -- Spring wheat harvest started July 20 on the Tom Bryl farm, just north of Hillboro, N.D. "It's variable. This is on old soybean ground," Tom says, taking a break from his work with his son, Ryan, as they opened their first field. The Bryls' other crops are sugar beets and soybeans. They don't grow corn.

All were in need of water. Spring wheat yields varied significantly, with a high of 70 bushels per acre. "That's an excellent crop. I never thought it would be this good, considering the weather and everything else." It had been hot through spikelet and tiller formation, so he didn't know what to expect. "Looking at head count, it looked on the thin side," he says. Test weight is 62 pounds and 14.7 percent protein. The protein has been lower the past few years, but the high protein isn't so surprising because of the stress factors.

"We've been fortunate in this area," Tom says. "We've gotten some timely moisture in this region. We had some good subsoil moisture that's taken us a long way this year. But it's getting to be that the crop growth is such that it requires a lot of water. With these warm temperatures, they're using a lot of water daily."

Sugar beets tap down deeper and rooted down deeper because it was dry from the get-go. "The formation of the roots has been good to get down into the moisture and follow it down," he says. "With the good subsoil moisture, they've been able to keep going." When beets get short of water, their growth slows and when they get water they'll continue on, while water timing seems more critical with corn and soybeans.

Tom says the dry years he remembers are 1976, 1980 and 1988. "All three of those years, we didn't have a lot of subsoil moisture like we did this year," he says. "A year ago, we were absolutely saturated in the soil profile. I remember guys started combining on Aug. 10 last year and that's about the last rain we got -- Aug. 10 or 12. The first guys who started combining wheat last year had tracks on their combines. So that tells you how wet we were. Rivers were still at flood stage until the end of August."

Tom says it's funny that the region is still technically in a wet cycle, even as the spigot has shut off. Ryan says there was a dry spell in 2006, but farmers here didn't fight the constant 90-degree temperatures -- pushing the crops so hard.

"We need a rain now," Ryan says.

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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