Study in extremes

Rains have hampered planting progress for much of the region, but most of the farmers and ranchers in central North Dakota say it took excess moisture to break the drought that they'd expected.

Bill MacDonald
Bill MacDonald, MacDonald Ranch, Bismarck, N.D., photographed June 1, 2013, at the ranch. (Agweek/Mikkel Pates)

Rains have hampered planting progress for much of the region, but most of the farmers and ranchers in central North Dakota say it took excess moisture to break the drought that they'd expected.

Farmers and ranchers on a recent Agweek CropStop tour were largely upbeat about the moisture, even though it has slowed them down.

BISMARCK, N.D. -- Bill MacDonald says the winter was mild -- average temperature, but short snowfall -- at the ranch, just south of Bismarck. The MacDonalds' main business is Saler cattle.

"We never fed cattle hay until about Jan. 5 -- had 'em on corn stalks until then," he says. "I'm glad our spring (precipitation) came in the form of rain instead of snow in March."

The family had a successful sale March 12, selling 140 bulls, with the best average ever. MacDonald says he was pleasantly surprised, considering a threatening drought and the lackluster cattle market since Jan. 1.


MacDonald, his wife, Linda, and his son, Will, raise crops on about 1,100 acres, including two center pivot irrigation units, covering about 340 acres. The irrigated land offers less risk. One of the pivots is alfalfa and the other is corn, which was planted by May 13.

"I won't plant anything a cow can't eat," Bill MacDonald says. "We don't raise sunflowers. I don't have the equipment, and I'd only plant 150 to 200 acres -- you can't afford it.

"You plant a day and you wait about five days, if it rains," MacDonald says. "I'm not complaining about rain. That's something I don't do and won't do. We have grass and we would have had no grass if it hadn't rained."

The ranch received 8 inches in the last half of May, he says. "Sometimes we don't get that the whole year," he says. The family got about half its expected corn acres planted.

"We raise some small grain -- oats, for feed," he says. "We're going to plant silage corn last. That way, it'll work because it doesn't have to mature and be ready to put into a grain bin." He thinks there may be two fields, totaling 75 acres, that might not get planted.

But MacDonald is steadfast in not complaining about rain. "As far as I'm concerned, it's a sin to complain about rain because God sends it to us," he says. "We don't have any control over it, and I'm always thankful to get it. You have more with (rain) than you ever have without."

A life-giving rain

BISMARCK, N.D. -- Jim Irvine, astride "Hiccup," and his friend Jenn Mickelson of Mandan, N.D., on "Mia" on June 1 were taking a quick horse ride into pastures where bulls had been put in with cows, about 15 miles southeast of Bismarck, N.D. Mickelson works part-time at Interstate Veterinary Clinic in Mandan and part-time at the Irvine ranch.


"Exercising some of these fat horses that haven't gotten rode for awhile," Irvine explains to a passer-by. Irvine, 59, acknowledged his mood is a lot better than it had been in early May, before nearly 8 inches of rain had fallen.

Irvine had been very worried about drought.

"We had less than 100 bales left," he says, so if it hadn't rained, he'd have had to cut back the herd. "We were going to be out of grass and hay."

And now? Abundant rain has given the ranch a new lease on life. "Everybody's talking about, 'Maybe, shut it off,'" Irvine says. "But it's going to give us a good first cutting of alfalfa. It'll start a second cutting. It's going to happen here in the next couple of weeks -- this hay cutting deal. It's going to start."

Irvine's cow-calf operation has Angus cross cows with Simmental cross bulls. He has about 200 cows. His brother, Richard, has some cattle at Jim's ranch, but also has others elsewhere. Irvine says the ranch had good luck calving this spring, but acknowledges spring was a long time coming.

"We didn't lose a lot of calves, really, like some did. We calve a little early and we have barns to take care of them," he says. "You still fight a few sick calves. But we were able to treat them."

Irvine usually raises some oats for feed, but that will probably change to millet because of the lateness. He also plants some Sudan grass for silage.

"I'm not a real good farmer to begin with and I've just kind of got behind," he says, with a chuckle. "We got cattle out to pasture and about (May 28) was the first day I didn't have to feed anything here."


That was a good feeling.

Frenzied farming season

HAZELTON, N.D. -- Colby Nordstrom works for Central Dakota Frontier Co-op in Hazelton, N.D. The co-op, based in Napoleon with locations in Hazelton, Wishek, Steele and New Salem in North Dakota, normally covers a lot of acres, but the rain had slowed things down as of June 1.

"I couldn't even tell you what day it is now," Nordstrom jokes. The frenzied week, with Sundays off. He was working on a Saturday evening with intern Casey Schu putting some urea on last year's corn land that will grow another corn crop in 2013.

Initially this year, farmers were planning to plant more corn, but with the rain delays, some customers were shifting acres to sunflowers and soybeans, he says.

Nick Breidenbach, general manager of the co-op, estimated field applications might have been 21 days behind schedule this year.

"Typically, we'd be 99 percent done today, as far as fertilizer and seed inputs," Breidenbach says on June 4. "I'd say we're about 70 percent done." He says corn acreage had been growing by double-digit percentage increases in the past four years. "This year, as it stands it'll be about break-even as far as acres planted," he says.

Nordstrom acknowledges it's been a lot of hurry-up-and-wait this year. "We have a lot of different soil textures around here," he says. "Sands will dry out quicker than the loams, but right now we're just managing what we can get done, around whether its wet or not. Some days you just have to sit (and wait)."


The farmers in his area are asking for a lot of the straight urea -- 30-12-7-2 blend, referring to nitrogen phosphorus, potassium and sulfur percentates. There's a lot of straight "MAP" or monoammonium phosphate fertilizer for soybean starter. "We haven't gotten to the sunflowers yet," he says.

Fishing amid the farming

FREDONIA, N.D. -- There's been so much water on his farm this spring that Jon Burkle took a Saturday evening off to go fishing.

Burkle and his sons, Michael and Cory, farm eight miles north and five west of Fredonia. Their land had 5 inches of rain since mid-May so on June 1, Jon and Michael took a short drive to nearby Marvin Miller Lake, near Gackle, N.D., where they picked up a few walleyes on jigs. The bright orange ones were working, Burkle says.

The Burkles raise a little wheat, along with soybeans and corn. "We've got the wheat in, got the corn in," Burkle says. He has 550 acres of corn and 400 acres of soybeans planted, but 350 acres were still unplanted. He got another 75 acres planted June 2, but isn't sure how many of the soybean acres might go unplanted.

"We've got spraying (to do)," Burkle says. "Next thing you know, we're going to be making hay -- hopefully."

The Burkles have 300 cows in a cow-calf operation and have started getting them on pasture, later than they'd wished.

The family had been worried about drought going into the 2013 crop year, so the recent rains have helped considerably.


"Oh yeah," Burkle says. "At least the cows have grass to eat." Alfalfa fields in the area that had been fertilized have been looking good, he says. Pasture grass is really growing.

Burkle says it would have been awhile, but he had started thinking about cutting back the herd if the pastures had been affected by drought. He had some stored hay. Now that the pasture is looking good, he'd be pleased to see some sunshine.

"The weather's gotta break pretty soon," Burkle says. "It's a blessing the water came. But it'd be a blessing if it'd quit too -- at least for awhile."

Meanwhile -- hey, the fish are biting.

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