View From the Cab
North Dakota Farmers Blend Farming and Teaching Ag
DECATUR, Ill. (DTN) -- There's a practiced patience that comes from living in a state where snow still fills the ditch banks while all the rest of the farming world seems to be finishing planting season. Barney, North Dakota, farmers Mike and Chandra Langseth busy themselves during this itchy period by getting equipment lined up and ready.
Winters are long in the Dakotas, but the wheels were beginning to turn on Langseth Family Farms as the calendar flipped to May. Situated on the edge of the Red River Valley in the southeast portion of the state, the farm grows corn, soybeans and some alfalfa. Mike is employed full-time on the farm. Chandra pitches in when she's not tending her job as an agriculture assistant professor at North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton, teaching precision agriculture and agronomy courses.
The husband-and-wife team will report throughout this growing season as part of DTN's View From the Cab series. This weekly feature focuses on crop growing conditions and takes a bird's-eye look at many aspects of farming through the lens of farming correspondents from two geographically diverse regions.
Zach Grossman from Tina, Missouri will also give reports this season. Besides growing corn, soybeans, wheat, forages and raising cattle, Grossman juggles a job as a loan officer at a local bank. Find the profile on his operation here: https://www.dtnpf.com/….
The Grossman and Langseth farms may be 600 miles apart on the map and experience different weather patterns, but there are some similarities that go beyond the crops these farmers grow. Both farms combine farm and off-farm occupations and are examples of the career choices this next generation weigh. View From the Cab, a DTN feature since 2005, brings a diary-like look at the rural condition of farmers and their communities.
RED RIVER VALLEY BEGINNINGS
Langseth Farm sits along the Red River Valley bordered by Minnesota and South Dakota -- about an hour south of Fargo.
It was here that Hans Langseth, Mike's great-great-grandfather, a Norwegian immigrant, moved after beginning his farming career in Iowa. "He was a bit of character," Mike said of this eclectic ancestor who holds the world record for growing the longest beard of 17 ft. 6 inches.
Hans first homesteaded in Iowa and moved a few times, setting up farms for his older sons before moving on, eventually settling in Barney where he set up his youngest son in farming.
Mike, the fifth generation of farmers to tend these soils, is surrounded by heritage. He and Chandra's home was built by Hans. Illness and tough times in the 1920s scaled back some of the original homestead. But the family held on and Mike's father, Paul (fourth generation), has been able to build back the farm, despite launching his farming career during the notoriously tough late 1970s and early 1980s.
Farming was not always Mike's long-term goal. In fact, his degree from the University of Minnesota is in journalism. "I've got cousins and friends that could tell you everything that was going on at their farms. When they were 10, they could tell you the details of their chemical program. I was not one of those kids," he admitted.
Sure, he helped on the farm when needed, but he played baseball and other sports. He figured on getting a four-year college degree and working off-farm for at least several years. However, he started coming home during college to help and found he really loved the job.
"When it was time for graduation, Dad indicated he was ready to start transitioning the farm and it seemed right for me," he recalled. His sister was a partner for a time, but he's since bought her share of the farming operation. Paul is what they call "lightly retired." He's still active, especially during peak farming periods, but when that's over, he likes to head to the lake. The farm also employs one full-time and two part-time employees.
Chandra didn't grow up on a farm, but she developed an affinity for biology and in particular the intersection of plant and soil science. She received a bachelor's degree in biological science and a master's degree in soil science from North Dakota State University.
When school isn't in session, Chandra heads to the field to help with field operations. Last year she planted a good share of the soybean crop. During the summer she does most of the farm crop scouting and all the soil sampling.
"We like to throw ideas around about the farm and we have great discussions about agronomy," said Chandra. "At the same time, Mike is great to help give me practical ideas for my classes."
She is currently teaching introduction to precision agriculture -- a class that covers all the basics, including writing crop prescriptions. She also teaches a few agronomy courses.
"The majority of my students are in those classes because they love agriculture and have identified it as what they want to do," Chandra said. "The workforce is hungry right now and our program condenses a lot into two years. There's an even split between students who want to farm and those who plan to work in industry."
CROP ROTATION AND CONSERVATION
Sugar beets are an important crop in this part of North Dakota but are mostly grown under contract. Langseth Farms prefers to stick with a 50-50 corn/soybean rotation. They devote a few acres to alfalfa, which is harvested by a local dairy. Corn is marketed to a local high fructose corn sweetener processor. Historically, the farm has raised specialty soybeans, such as non-GMO food-grade varieties and seed beans.
"If you look at a map of the Corn Belt, Richland County is just barely in it," said Mike. Wheat, once a mainstay, has been replaced by corn and soybeans, as the area has gotten warmer and wetter.
"We can raise much better corn in this corner of the state than we can wheat. Go 75 to 100 miles north and west of here and you're in heavy wheat country again," Mike said. The farm is a mixed bag of soil situations. "We're kind like the beach shore -- we farm a little bit in what is an old river delta, and we have some sandy hills."
About three-fourths of the farm's 2,500 acres is owned, and the remainder leased. Most of the operation is dryland, but center pivot irrigation waters six quarter sections where the soils are sandier. About half the farm is drain-tiled.
"It's really flat here. Excess moisture is tough to get rid of because we just don't have that much slope. Drainage is by far our biggest challenge," he noted.
Corn is strip-tilled in the spring and soybeans are no-tilled. The farm has played around with cover crops with varying success. Limiting both soil and wind erosion remains top of mind.
"We tried no-till corn and think we gave it a valiant effort, but we were missing top-end yield," Mike said. This is not a heavy-duty strip-till rig that builds a berm, but what he calls a strip-freshener. There's no shank, just coulters to do the tillage and some rolling baskets to lightly cover the row. Liquid fertilizer goes down while making the strip and corn is planted into the strip two-to-three days later. Anhydrous is applied as a sidedress operation between the strips starting when the corn is about 4 inches tall.
"We just loosen up that little bit of dirt and give the corn a little warmer place to start," he said. "The strip freshening dries the soil out a little to help avoid soil smearing during the planting operation."
On May 5, the farm had yet to drop a seed. Soil temperatures were running mid-50 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and dropping to mid-40s at night. Some snow still lined the ditches.
"You could probably plant something right now and not feel awful about it. Soybeans are probably safer than corn here at this point. But we've had some projects to finish up that were left over because the ground froze last fall, so we've been concentrating on doing those and spreading some fertilizer," he said. With rain forecast for the weekend, they hope this prep work will pay off so they can hit it hard when things dry out.
They typically plant corn varieties that fall into the 90-day maturity range. "We used to roll the dice on some 100-day corn, but the yield drag just isn't there anymore. We can get a 95-day corn that will do just as well and not have to worry about it as much in the fall," Mike said. Corn yields in this region typically average somewhere around 185 bushels per acre (bpa).
Soybeans generally make 45 bpa or slightly better, he figured. Relative soybean maturity ranges around 0.7 to 0.9 relative maturity. "We've raised from 0.5 to 1.4, but something under a 1.0 is normal," Mike said.
Southern growers might wince at that short growing window, but the Langseths point to a clear advantage to growing crops in this climate. "An interesting feature of sitting here is we get to watch new diseases and other issues unfold in slow motion," Mike said. "Hopefully by the time a pest gets here, we can look to our southern neighbors to help us understand how to manage it."
Pamela Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow her on Twitter @PamSmithDTN
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