Rolling on corn harvest in the snow

Sam Ongstad of Harvey, N.D., is among the hundreds of North Dakota farmers trying to navigate between the deep freeze and thaw.

Sam Ongstad of Harvey, N.D., says snow has settled and melted some. He thinks about 15% of the crops in some fields have been lost on field edges. Photo taken Feb. 29, 2020, near Harvey, N.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

HARVEY, N.D. — It’s been a winter of harvest battles for farmers across the region — combines and equipment falling through snow and ice, battling fog and frost in the fields.

Sam Ongstad of Harvey in north-central North Dakota is among the hundreds of North Dakota farmers trying to navigate between the deep freeze and thaw. The Ongstad families have some 800 acres of corn to go before they can think about what might come next in the 2020 planting season.

Sam, 44, and his wife, Amy, farm in concert with a farm owned by his parents, Bill and Anne. Separately, his mother has run an organic farm, Whitman Ranch, near Robinson, N.D.

Sam Ongstad of Harvey, N.D., installed a rear-wheel-drive to assist his combine getting through snow-laden fields in an effort to get 2019 corn out of the field. Photo taken Feb. 29, 2020, near Harvey, N.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

“We got rear-wheel-drive installed on the combine this week, and so — hopefully — next week (March 2) we’ll be able to roll on corn and take some of,” Sam said, in a brief visit Feb. 29 at the Harvey operation.


The dealership removed the non-driving rear spindles replacing it with a new king pin and pivot apparatus, and a hydraulic wheel motor, with hoses, manifolds and valves.

Cost: $30,000.

Cleaning seed

Sam and Bill produce most of their wheat, some of their pinto beans and about half of their soybeans for the seed market. They were busy cleaning seed through the end of February, when some neighbors started making progress on corn.

Some of the corn is on tile-drained ground. The Ongstads will probably harvest the other corn first figuring that the tiled fields will be the easiest to get through later in the spring.

“Good theory, we’ll see how it works,” he says, shrugging and smiling. He thinks about planting but said the immediate concern is getting the corn “somewhere other than the field.”

Daily afternoon highs were in the mid- to upper-30s. “You take what comes with the weather, but if you got to pick, you might pick like 15 degrees, steady. When it gets warm, you get water and it’s so slippery during the day. It freezes and turns to ice. It’s dangerous just to walk across the yard.”

One for the books

The Sam and Bill Ongstad farming operations at Harvey, N.D., on Feb. 29, were busy preparing to get after about 800 acres of corn still locked in the fields from the 2019 crop. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

The Ongstads have combined in the winter before. They combined about two-thirds of the 2008 crop in June 2009. But the 2019 growing season is one for the books.


Snow in April. Dry in May and early June. “Then it rained for three weeks,” Sam said.

Too dry to mid-August. Flooding in September and 3 feet of snow in October.

“I’ve never seen that much snow in October,” Sam says. “It was melting from the bottom and the top, which was good because that got it melted and we could get most of the soybeans harvested.”


Sam Ongstad, 44, of Harvey, N.D., recently installed a rear-wheel-drive system into his 2011 John Deere 9870 combine so he can get after the 800 acres of corn he still has in the fields. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Farmers farther south had rain most of the summer, and tracks worked well for that. Sam has heard that the tracks didn’t work quite as well in the snow as in the mud, before winter.

“I’ve heard of a couple of guys taking (tracks) off and putting the wheels back on,” he said. “I don’t know. We think we’ll be able to get the bulk of it with the wheels and rear-wheel-drive.”

Sam said the Ongstads will get after the corn as time allows.

The Ongstads have a lot to do. They have customers picking up seed.


Fertilizer is coming in. And there is farm program signup.

“In between everything, we’ll be combining corn when we can, ” Sam said.

If the weather is good, he says only some spots may not be planted. But if it’s a cold, wet spring?

“There’ll be a lot more acres unseeded, if that happens,” Sam said.

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