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Behind by 2, 3 . . . 4 weeks?

LISBON, N.D. -- Randy Mairs and his son, Eric, are both realists. The worst thing financially for their farm today would be a "normal" frost, in the Sept. 23 range. The best thing? "The best thing, from the farmer's financial standpoint, is an ea...

LISBON, N.D. -- Randy Mairs and his son, Eric, are both realists.

The worst thing financially for their farm today would be a "normal" frost, in the Sept. 23 range.

The best thing?

"The best thing, from the farmer's financial standpoint, is an early freeze -- freeze right now -- or not freeze at all until at least Oct. 20," says Eric, 30, a crop consultant who farms with his father, Randy, 58.

If the frost came soon, insurance clearly would offset losses for a crop that was expensive to put in. Fertilizer costs were as high as 50 to 60 cents per pound of actual nitrogen, compared with 26 cents now.

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By Eric's reckoning, his corn crop on Sept. 1 was behind schedule by 250 growing degree units from a five-year average. That's 160 behind last year's plodding pace.

How far behind is it? Eric sees the crop as two or two and a half weeks behind. Randy sees it as three or even four weeks behind.

The question may be academic.

"Historically, when you get into September, you accumulate an average of 12 per day," day, Eric says. "If we do that for September, for a 93-day corn, we're still going to be 80 to 90" growing degree units.

Randy notes that it didn't freeze until "late, late," last year. "We waited and waited. If our corn had frozen at Sept. 23 last year, we would have been in deep hurt."

Eric notes that corn has to make about 50 pounds per bushel to work with it. Otherwise, it grinds up in the combine and doesn't store well. He figures only 30 percent to 40 percent of the area's corn might make 50 pounds if there is a normal freeze in September.

"That's what I see," Eric says. "People see the corn turning yellow now, and that gives them a sense that it'll make corn. But there's a lot of moisture in that corn yet. You have to have the husk open and the ears drop to get the moisture down. You just don't get those kinds of days from now on to do that."

Row crop history

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Randy's father started farming near Lisbon, N.D., in 1947.

Randy was born in 1950, the eldest of three sons. The family sold their dairy herd and oncentrated on beef and grain farming before Randy graduated in 1968. He went on to North Dakota State University to study vocational agriculture education.

"I wanted to farm, but vocational agriculture was a major in education and four minors in animal science, ag mechanics, agronomy and economics -- a good background for farming," he says. "Mom was an English teacher, so teaching was in my blood, too."

Randy started teaching in Gackle, N.D., and then in Lisbon, where he farmed part-time with his father. In 1979, he started farming full-time. Her married Susan Kempel, from nearby Stirum, N.D.

"When we first started, wheat and sunflowers was the big thing," Randy says.

Their cattle operation got up to 80 cows. They'd "background" feed up to 200 cattle per year, purchasing extra calves in the winter and feeding them until spring. Today, they have just a few head to go with some remaining pasture.

In the 1980s, Randy started moving into corn and soybeans.

The wet 1990s were especially good for row crops, but Randy often couldn't plant all of his acres due to wet spots. "Insurance is better now, so that's helped," Randy says.

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This year, Eric and his wife, Katie, joined his parents in the operation.

Born in 1979, Eric graduated from North Dakota State University in 2001 in crop and weed science. He went to work as an agronomist for Larson Grain Co. in LaMoure, N.D., and then for Sunrise Spraying Service in Lisbon, before starting Eric Mairs Ag Consulting this year. He does scouting and other recommendations for some 25,000 acres, including his own partnership.

Living history, now

Today, the Mairs family farms a total of about 3,500 acres. About 1,000 of that is corn. Another 1,000 is soybeans and about 800 in pasture or the Conservation Reserve Program.

They use minimum tillage, but plant some winter wheat each year no-tilled into wheat stubble.

The memorable recent years for crop failures include 2004, when a late August frost caused spotty damage nearby

"It was lighter test weight for us, but we didn't have to destroy any," Randy says. "A lot of people did, especially as you went north. A lot of corn didn't see a combine."

In 2008, the Mairses made history with their best wheat crop ever -- yields averaging 75 bushels an acre with good quality and exceptional prices.

Last year, the corn yield was above-average, in the 130- to 150-bushel-per-acre range. The soybeans came in at about 30 bushels.

"When the other two crops were that good the soybeans were kind of a let-down," Randy acknowledges. "I know the reason was that we ran out of moisture in August."

Eric chimes in that when you get enough moisture in August to "screw up the wheat harvest," that's usually good for the soybeans -- normally.

The Mairses got some of their fall field work last on wheat and soybean ground, but little on their corn ground.

"One thing leads to another," Randy says. "Lack of tillage in the fall sets you back in the spring. The ground dries out slower; you're fighting trash. Some of the cornstalks got burned. Some we tilled lightly to dry it out to get the beans seeded."

It was a cold, wet spring.

"We didn't get into the field until May, planting wheat," Randy says. "The problem is, you're planting wheat when you should be planting corn, and everything has to happen at once. When the ground gets fit, you've got to go plant the corn earlier to get the maximum yield."

They put in 85- to 95-day maturing corn -- some as high as 97-day corn.

"If we get planting done by the end of April, we figure we can stay with the longer-maturing varieties," Randy says. "As you get toward May 15, you think, 'We won't plant as strong; we'd better back off " on maturity dates.

Corn planting started on May 8.

"We were wearing coveralls," Eric remembers, referring to the cold. That ended May 20. Then they went to soybeans, and managed to get them in by June 5.

About 15 percent to 20 percent of their acres weren't planted at all, primarily because of ground moisture.

Golden glow?

It's been a strange summer -- deceptively normal in some ways.

"We're normally spraying all of the time for the weeds," Randy says. "We had to spray some aphids in soybeans, but we didn't have to spray corn borers. Most of the corn is 'Bt' but we didn't have to spray the corn refuge either."

But there's a slowly building uneasiness.

May, June, July and August were all behind normal for growing degree days.

"June was dry, but we were so wet before that that it wasn't an issue," Randy says. "We had a normal June for moisture. and now July and August were above normal for precipitation."

The result?

Who knows?

"If you looked at our corn and beans today, you'd say it would be the best crop ever had if it were on July 31, instead of Aug. 31," Randy says.

The Mairs aren't sure what's coming.

"I think the soybeans will be fine," Eric says. "The last ones that flowered are getting pods on. They'll be green, which will be another problem for harvest and storage. Storage is the big thing." The Mairs plant about three-fourths of their soybeans to non-Roundup varieties. The foodgrade soybeans get a $1.50 or $2 per bushel premium over local cash prices, but requires extra scouting, weed control and segregation.

They're getting nervous as the night temperatures creep into the 40s, but aren't confident with forecasts.

Value of forecasts

"They have trouble predicting weather for this week," Randy says. "It's hard to go by anything that's longer than five or six days."

Still, he has a funny feeling that the seasons are shifting -- later springs and more spotty, torrential rains in the summer.

The Mairses recently have heard about "frost insurance,"which is expensive and requires a farmer to predict when it's going to freeze -- the date and the temperature. The cost changes daily. On Aug. 24, Eric checked with one agent who said the insurance would cost $23 per acre, which would pay off $100 in return the farm were to get a 28-degree freeze before Oct. 1. They didn't bite.

"That's just gambling . . . just like Las Vegas," Randy says.

Revenue insurance alone should help keep farms together.

"When I started farming, it was pretty hard to collect on crop insurance," Randy says. "Today, we pay higher premiums than years ago, but the coverage is better. That's what you want."

As they approach an uncertain harvest, they're busy booking propane -- trying to read that market on price.

Propane hasn't moved more than a nickel per gallon for the past six weeks, they note. That's despite reports of late corn in places like Illinois.

"They say there's a whole lot of propane out there, but it's so hard to determine how much will be used, depending on the weather," Eric says.

"The Mairses put most of their land into the Acreage Crop Revenue Election program, an alternative to the conventional direct and countercyclical support programs.

Randy and Eric figure an early frost will trip the state trigger in the program as well as their own farm.

"It was a tough decision, but once you're in, you're in," Randy says. "You make the decision, and move on to the next thing. It doesn't pay to worry about what happened yesterday, really."

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