Greener pastures ahead in southwest North Dakota after blizzards and tough calving season
The Leingang family of St. Anthony, North Dakota explains how their cattle and crop farm-ranch operation weathered the April blizzards and how planting season has been delayed, but buoyed because of the resulting moisture.
ST. ANTHONY, N.D. — In southwest North Dakota, the spring of 2022 will be long remembered for an April blizzard that has added to optimism for an end to a multi-year drought but also is delaying planting.
George Leingang says the moisture the family got from the mid-April blizzard was uneven, but added to what was already in the soil after 5-inch rains last fall. Leingang, 56, farms with his wife, Rhonda, and their son, Joe, 20.
“Honestly when it was done blowing, most of the fields had no snow in them at all,” said George, chatting while planting on May 24, 2022. “Most of it was in the trees and the creeks and the corrals.”
But he figured the moisture also came from about 5.5 inches of rain that came last fall, which has contributed to subsoil moisture. The winter was dry, but since then they’ve had lose to 7 inches of moisture. After the snow storms, U.S. Drought Monitor has reduced the level of dry conditions to a small part of northwest North Dakota.
George is optimistic he might harvest strong yields despite the planting delays. “Last year, we got it in fairly early, but it didn’t really matter because we didn’t have enough moisture,” he said, philosophically. “Moisture heals a lot of ills. With the price (commodities), even if we do get a lesser crop it’s hopefully going to be pretty good.”
The Leingangs are farmers but cattle ranchers first — maintaining a herd of 320 beef cows. They seed wheat, millet and sorghum — 600 acres of cash crops and another 300 acres in forage crops.
On May 24, George adjudged them “still behind” on spring wheat. They’d need a day and a half of seeding to finish, hoping to beat weekend storms. The Leingangs started seeding on May 14. Over the years, his planting starting dates have varied a lot, but many times he’s planted all of the spring wheat planted in April. This year they seeded for three days straight and then were delayed until May 23, due to wet weather and breakdowns.
The big effect of the April 2022 blizzard was that it made for the worst “one-night” calving episode ever. The previous biggie was April 4-7,1997, when a storm dumped 2 feet of snow and killed 100,000 head of cattle. The Leingangs — interviewed by news reporters for that one – have since delayed their calving schedule to start April 1 and run to June 1, to avoid being caught again.
This year’s storm came April 12-13, with winds up to 60 mph.
“We had some calves buried, some trampled,” George said. “Some just straight-out froze to death. We had about 17 calves that night and we missed three of them, where they just froze — didn’t catch it in time.”
The Leingangs compared the storm to the 1997 blizzard: “This one was worse because it was right in the heart of calving.”
The aftermath pneumonia and scours diseases sometimes often claim calves after such storms, he said.
“We did give a lot of preventative shots and did things a little different this year,” he said. Feed is short, so he’s hoping to get the first cattle on pastures by June 1. Pastures are recovering quickly, but he’ll haul some hay to cattle in the worst of the pastures until June 7. Hay has been costing $150 a ton.
Better than 2021
The best news of all is that pasture conditions are “really good” so far, George said.
“We’re hoping the lateness of the spring wheat seeding is not going to hurt us for yield,” George said. Some years it takes up to 14 days for wheat to germinate, but this year some of the wheat they’ve planted has germinated in only five days, so the soil temperature is favorable. “Everything is going to germinate fast. I think it’s going to have a lot of vigor.”
George cited an agronomist who said only 3% of the “growing degree days” for corn are in May. “You’d like to have it (emerged) in May, so you could have all of those growing days in June,” George said.
When wheat is planted late it could reduce its capacity to “tiller,” or make additional stems off of the main shoot of the plant. To counter that, they’ll increase the population.
The Leingangs plan to buy “puts” in the market.
“It would be nice to contract some of this, but we’re really not big enough,” he said, of his farm size. “The crops are pretty close together so one hail storm could take it out.”
George took that risk one year, sustained hail damage and had to buy out of the contracts. “I’d rather hedge them than direct, forward-contract,” he said.
There has been pressure on the cattle price because of the high corn price. Planting corn may be a hedge against high corn prices.
An overarching concern is the rising cost of “everything we touch” including fertilizer and fuel. Leingang said there is a good price year one every seven years, but when the costs rise, they seem to stay up.
They pre-purchased fuel, chemical and some fertilizer. Repair costs are hard to anticipate and can be unavoidable. One delay came when the Leingangs got stuck with the seeding drill and tore the hitch off. “We had to make a new hitch and unplug everything and unclog everything,” George said.