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Cold Rush: Corn Belt's Northern Prairies of Canada & ND

On a June drive from Grand Forks, North Dakota, to the Canadian border, dawn light glints from shiny new grain bins scattered along the northern Red River Valley. 

This bright frontier for corn helped the state double the crop’s size in a decade – even after a long winter, dismal corn prices, and the soggiest spring since 1995 made farmers plant 800,000 fewer acres than in 2013. North Dakota’s 103% 10-year growth in corn acres still tops all other states. 

At Northwood, a few miles from Grand Forks, Rick Ostlie didn’t grow corn at all until 2006, even though he pioneered local soybean farming in 1980. His son, Richie, urged them to start.

“I told my son, if we’re going to get into corn, we need the infrastructure to match our acreage,” says Ostlie, who is past president of the American Soybean Association. That first year, they grew 80 acres; by last year, they were at 2,450 acres. They added drying in 2007 and storage each year. This year, they’ve cut back to 2,050 (with more acres in beans) on a farm that also includes his son-in-law, Tom Metz. 

The good years helped pay for their 300,000 bushels of storage. Today, after railcar shortages drove the winter basis over $1 below futures and with costly commercial drying, “if we didn’t have the infrastructure in place, I’m not sure we could make a profit at $3.00 corn,” he says.

Will it stick?

To the southwest, near Carrington, North Dakota, Dave Swanson has grown corn since 1978. Once a durum wheat area, a more humid climate favors corn. During the recent boom, “with cash rents going up, a lot of guys had to do corn just to compete,” says Swanson, who sells seed for DuPont Pioneer. “Guys invested in their bins and driers and equipment, and that’s an investment that’s going to make corn stick. I hope so, anyway.”

Some will. Perhaps not all. North Dakota State University (NDSU) economist Frayne Olson lists at least eight other crops that compete well with corn and soybeans, including canola, flax, and dry beans.

“When the world doesn’t need more corn, we can switch back pretty quickly,” he says. Soybeans, which cost less to grow, have expanded faster than corn, which has been uneven.

The now-missing $6 corn prices helped drive the boom. The other factor is yields that make Swanson’s seed appeal to his neighbors.

“We do grow 200-bushel corn every year to the Canadian border in small plots,” says Zach Fore, a DuPont Pioneer agronomist working in the state. Growers in Swanson’s area shoot for 150. 

Dan Sletten, a young farmer west of Grand Forks, has seen yields rise from 110 bushels when he started 10 years ago. “I like to plan on getting in the neighborhood of 140. It can be higher than that; typically, it’s lower,” he says. All that is above the state average of 110 last year and 122 in 2012.

Public research led yield gains. For 15 years, corn breeder Marcelo Carena of NDSU has pushed yields on early-maturing varieties. 

“Our job is to be strategically located to screen and discard unstable corn products in marginal conditions and not to breed under ideal conditions, as most industry does,” says Carena, whose work is supported in part by Corn Growers of North Dakota and of Minnesota. “We work with unique genetic diversity and large samples to obtain largest productivity in very short-season unique corn. The future relies on short-season corn carrying unique genetic diversity, and we are the only program with tropical corn adapted to the north,” Carena says. 

In commercial hybrids, “in the last six to eight years, the genetics lower than 80-day maturity are greatly improving,” says DuPont Pioneer’s Fore.

For Jerad Liedberg, an Asgrow/Dekalb field agronomist with Monsanto, it’s an exciting time.

“When I started seven years ago, I know we weren’t selling the corn near what we are now,” says Liedberg, who covers the northern half of the state and part of Montana. Maturity dates vary by area, from about 90 days in balmy Fargo to 80 to 85 days in the northern valley. For yields, “most progressive people who are serious about corn are hoping for 150-bushel average corn,” he says. Heading west, less rainfall, not genetics, lowers it to 100.

Getting better at growing corn

As all farmers know, just buying good seed is no guarantee of success. Liedberg and others see an infant industry becoming more sophisticated. “As you go west, the growers there are just really hungry for information,” he says.

More North Dakota farmers are trying side-dressing nitrogen instead of, or in addition to, fall-applied anhydrous ammonia, for example, to avoid losing N in wet soils in the spring.  

“That’s where the yields are increasing. They’re just becoming smarter,” Liedberg says.

Farmers in western North Dakota haven’t made the investment in grain bins that you see in the northern Red River Valley, however, says NDSU economist Olson. Growers in the eastern part of the state may cut back on acres, but to the west, “they will literally jump in and out,” he says.

Paul Anderson, who farms with his father, Richard, north of Bismarck in the middle of the state, is getting serious about corn, but he understands the caution of the past. 

“Over the past 25 years, my dad has sold three corn heads and sworn off corn three times,” says Anderson. 

He has put up grain bins, too. Unlike his eastern counterparts, he bought used ones from a soybean seed business. He has plenty of options if corn proves less profitable. 

“There are 16 different crops I can grow in this area. It’s not just corn and beans. I try to keep it to six or less,” he says. This year’s crops include sunflowers, spring wheat, yellow peas, and corn. 

He’s not growing lentils and pinto beans in order to allow more time to prepare for corn harvest. This year, 1,300 acres of the farm’s 4,500 are in corn.

With the help of a crop consultant from Iowa, Anderson is perfecting strip-till, which does a better job of breaking up compaction than no-till. (To prove it, he compares a root-ball from a poorly tilled edge of the field with a bigger one from the tilled row.) It still offers no-till’s advantages in a drier climate. 

“The water will run down the strips, so when I get 1∕3 inch of rain, my corn is getting 1 inch,” he says. He hopes his 84-day corn will hit 180 bushels.

Despite such determination, many northern farmers have soured a bit on corn. Darren Kadlec farms near Pisek, 50 miles south of Canada and sells corn seed for Monsanto and Syngenta. With better soybean prices and after a tough 2013, “orders were down significantly,” he says. Then, when frost stayed in tiles until June and rain seemed endless, 50% of his seed was returned.

Like others, Kadlec has food crops: spring wheat, pinto and navy beans. For his corn and soybeans, “what we need in this state is a lot more livestock,” he says.

It’s possible for corn acres to rebound and grow, he believes. “I think it will come back, but it’s going to take time and maybe a rally a year from now,” he says. “If it’s profitable, it will get planted.”

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