By Pamela Smith
Some people take leisurely vacations and others, like Chandra and Mike Langseth, use their "me" time to trek in the Rocky Mountains. Last week the North Dakota farmers hoofed the 10-mile round trip up Mt. Elbert, which at 14,433 feet in elevation stands as the highest point in Colorado and is the second-highest summit in the United States.
"The hike gains around 4700 feet of elevation. That's plenty high for someone used to looking at flat land all the time," said Mike.
That may be so, but in many ways, much of the 2023 crop season has also been an uphill battle for the couple. Drought has been an enduring theme this year as they've participated in DTN's View From the Cab project, a diary-like look at the crop season and other aspects of rural life.
Recent rains have prospects finally looking up for Langseth Farm, which is nestled in the southeastern corner of the state in the Red River Valley near Barney. Although half of their corn and soybean acreage is irrigated, those units have run hard to keep up this summer, while dryland crops struggled to hang on.
Also reporting in for these regular DTN updates is Zachary Grossman from Tina, Missouri, located in the northwestern portion of the state. He, too, has a crop that survived on sips of rain through most of June and July. Volumes of late rains in July and early August have restored a healthy look to the corn and soybeans, but questions remain as to how the crop will finish.
This week these farmers discuss the tenacity of the crop, despite limited rainfall. They comment on how they tend their own resiliency during less-than-perfect crop years. This is a generation that has always farmed with the safety net of crop insurance. Read on for more about their thoughts about that tool and how they operate in years of uncertainty.
ZACHARY GROSSMAN: TINA, MISSOURI
Whiplash season. Roller coaster season. Jekyll and Hyde season. Grossman isn't sure what moniker to bestow on this crop year.
"I can't believe I'm saying this, but it's going to be hot and humid here for coming week and we kind of need it," he noted. "We begged and begged and begged for rain and then ended up getting over a foot within the last 15 days. Now, we're wishing the rain would slow down and we're wishing for sunshine. Good grief ..."
DTN Ag Meteorologist John Baranick said there's no question about heat and sunshine through at least Thursday of the coming week. "Temperatures will be in the upper 90s and may crest above the 100-degree mark on a day or two. There will be a front sagging south into the region later next week. Models are still trying to work that out as of this writing. We could see a few showers out of it and temperatures falling closer to normal," Baranick said.
Lately the rainfall has come in such volumes that the 1.5 to 2 inches of rain that fell across his entire farm on Aug. 13 hardly seems worth mentioning. The hay fields have been particularly quick to respond. "I never thought it would happen this year, but we're probably going to do a second hay cutting around Labor Day," he said.
Some of that hay will go up as small square bales. "This is really good quality hay because it is all new undergrowth without stems and seed heads. I have several neighbors with horses that like to buy second-cutting brome hay and I'll keep some for my own horse," he said.
The first tinges of brown are starting to show in the corn crop in his area -- not from disease, but rather, from natural senescence. Grossman said the milk line is still far up the kernel, but it is starting to move. "We've had some beautiful weather for people of late, but these rainy and cloudy days have slowed the crop a bit," he said.
While reports of sudden death syndrome (SDS) have surfaced in soybeans in many areas, Grossman has not seen a hint of it in his own crop this year. ILeVo and Saltro seed treatments were used at planting to hold back the SDS fungus and so far, both seem to have done their job.
There's been some light insect feeding on soybean such as Japanese beetle, but the pest never reached threshold. "With all the rain we've gotten, it's been amazing to me to see how much more growth we've gotten.
"I was concerned about some of our early planted beans because they were starting to set pods when conditions were hot and dry. But this week I looked at a field of 3.7 RM that were planted on April 25 and they have pods starting to fill and they are still putting out flowers on top," he said.
The subject of crop insurance causes Grossman to pause because he finds himself conflicted on the topic. "Crop insurance is an absolute necessity in the world we live in now and where we farm. I'm a firm believer in it. It's a great tool," he said.
In earlier DTN reports, he's detailed how he likes crop share leases because it "puts the farmer back into the equation." As a young farmer looking to lease more land, those kinds of arrangements help spread the risk.
Crop insurance, in his opinion, sets a support level that encourages elevated bidding of cash rents. "As a young farmer it troubles me to see situations where land is rented and farmed for the insurance check.
"I look at crop insurance as a tool for when Mother Nature deals us some bad luck. We have too many dollars on the line not to use it. But I sometimes wonder what would happen to a lot of these inflated cash rent arrangements if it wasn't there," he said.
In addition to farming, Grossman works as an ag loan officer at a local bank. It gives him the opportunity to see farming from the other side of the ledger. The banker in him sees the beauty in crop insurance because it does allow farmers to put together a cash flow and know what's coming in, even if there's a crop failure.
"Crop insurance at least provides you with a breakeven," he added.
Surviving tough production years starts by acknowledging that you will have some, Grossman said. From there, he relies on these principles: Know exactly what it costs to put in a crop. Don't spend beyond means and have a financial plan.
Diversifying enterprises through cattle also helps spread his risk. Grossman also knows his breakeven is lower because he has an off-farm job that pays for living expenses.
"As a banker, one of the biggest mistakes I see full-time farmers make is they don't budget in enough for family living expenses," he said.
CHANDRA AND MIKE LANGSETH: BARNEY, NORTH DAKOTA
A couple of days in and around the Denver area was just what the Langseths ordered. It rained the day they left and again, while they were gone -- enough to give the irrigators a rest. "If I'd known it was that easy to draw rain, we'd left the farm earlier," Mike joked.
Rainfall totals over the days they were away came close to what they've seen for the entire season. "Everything looks a little happier," Mike said of the corn, soy and alfalfa crops. "Even the dryland soybeans on our better ground have that kind of frilly look at the top. They're throwing out little baby trifoliates and pods as fast as they can."
Prior to the rain, the crop had pretty much stalled. "With some moisture and now some 85-degree weather it should be kind of fun to see how many new pods they'll throw out," he said.
DTN's Baranick said a cold front will be bouncing around the area through Tuesday or Wednesday of next week. "We could see some rain out of it at times throughout the week and we're likely to see some cloudier skies if it's not raining. The front will sag south thereafter," he said.
"When they are south of the front, it'll be hot with temperatures in the 90s. If and when they're on the northern side of the front, temperatures will be much cooler, in the 70s or lower 80s," Baranick noted.
Farmers in many areas have reported seeing variable looking soybean fields. The Langseths have noticed this as well. Iron deficiency chlorosis (IDC) is always a challenge in this region. Chandra says that problem usually evens out, but this droughty year has left a few fields looking particularly scraggly.
"It been strange because you'll have one field that looks bad and another down the road that is perfect height and dark green," she said. "I'm attributing most of the differences I've seen this year to some unevenness in planting depth."
"Some of the beans that looked kind of ugly early are coming around with the recent rains," Mike observed. "We are seeing short internodes this year, though. There are plenty of pods, the beans just aren't very tall.
"It will be interesting once things start to dry down to see how aggressively we'll have to set our headers to get those bottom pods," he said. That's less of a problem in this area, perhaps. The land lies relatively flat and bean fields are typically rolled after planting, which evens out the field conditions. However, Mike noted that cutting close doesn't work well in wet harvest years since more trash gets pulled into the header.
The corn crop is still a question mark. Corners on sandy soils will be disappointing, Mike figured. But he said irrigated fields still hold plenty of potential with the kernels just beginning to turn color and pack on dry matter. "Big question now is how much tip back are we going to see," he said.
This week Chandra heads back to her full-time job as agriculture assistant professor at North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton, teaching precision agriculture and agronomy courses. Similar to Grossman, the value of this secondary income factors into their financial strategy when it comes to handling family living expenses.
However, the farm must stand on its own merits and that includes being prepared for an off season. "You can't let yourself get in a position where one poor season is going to break things," Mike said.
"It hasn't been that many years since we had a year where everything was mediocre. Every field was right at or just below federal crop guarantees. Corn was three bucks and the crop we did have was light and wet. It's a tough game, but you've got to be able to break even on a year like that," he said.Click here to see more...