April 24, 2003
You can't grow dry beans much farther north than the John Dunnigan family does and still be in the Northarvest region.
The Dunnigans - John and his wife, Sharon; their, son, Patrick, 27; and daughter, Kelly, 18 - grow dry beans in the Walhalla, N.D., area. They rotate dry beans (pintos, navies and blacks depending on the year) with wheat, canola, sunflowers, corn and soybeans.
Part of the Dunnigan farm lies adjacent to the North Dakota-Manitoba border.
"We have a lot of challenges," says John, who serves as the treasurer of the North Dakota Dry Bean Council, "but over the years, dry beans has been one of our best crops."
The most obvious challenge is the short season. The Dunnigans try to begin planting dry beans by mid-May if soil conditions are right. Most years, they need to have all their dry bean seed in the ground by the last week in May to reduce the risk that there will be a frost before the beans mature.
They also are careful not to apply too much nitrogen (N), otherwise some varieties tend to stay green too long in the fall.
"If a soil test calls for 20-30 pounds of N per acre, we probably won't add any," says Patrick, who farms in partnership with his parents.
The soils that the Dunnigans farm present both challenges and opportunities. They farm land in all directions from Walhalla, some of it is 30 miles away, and they encounter a wide range of soil types. Dry beans do best on the light, sandy soils, which warm up more quickly and have better internal drainage than the heavier clay soils. But the light, sandy soils are highly erodible. The Dunnigans must follow a rotation prescribed by the Natural Resources Conservation Service and grow two years of a high-residue crop preceding a low-residue crop. They also must follow a low-residue crop with a high-residue crop. On these soils, they rotate corn, wheat and dry beans.
On their heavier clay soils they rotate wheat, soybeans and sugarbeets. They rent out the land for sugarbeet production. On gravelly soils they plants canola, sunflowers and wheat.
Field windbreaks protect the light, sandy soils from wind erosion. As a result, many of the Dunnigans' dry bean fields cover only 30 or 40 acres.
John, who served many years on the Pembina County Soil Conservation Board, doesn't believe in bulldozing trees to create larger fields that could be worked more effectively with their 44-foot air seeder.
"I hate to see the soil start moving," he says.
The Dunnigans plant pintos at 50-55 pounds of seed per acre. Some years, they condition and plant some of their own seed. When the quality of their seed is questionable, they buy western or North Dakota certified seed.
They use Sonalan as the foundation for their weed control because kochia is present in some of their fields. They follow up with post-emergence herbicides as needed and cultivate once or twice depending upon the season.
The Dunnigans knife their dry beans. They don't use a rod if they can get by without it. The rod often leaves the soil fluffier and more susceptible to wind erosion. They combine dry beans with a John Deere all crop head.
One of the things that stand out about the Dunnigans is their attention to detail. Patrick takes extra care to be as precise in planting and other field operations as possible. Last spring, he pulled the planter into the shop and calibrated it to correctly space different sizes of dry bean seed. The result was improved stands.
The Dunnigans also switched from 54-inch to 60-inch knives on the cutter. The longer blades do a better job knifing because Patrick has a little more margin of error when trying to keep the cutter centered over the row.
Patrick handles most of the fieldwork. He gets help from Kelly and some seasonal employees. Due to a back injury, John is unable to spend much time doing fieldwork. He takes care of business matters and helps Patrick by moving equipment and running water, fuel, seed and fertilizer.
Before the injury, John didn't have enough time as he would have liked to devote to business matters because he was busy in the field. Being able to spend more time on the business side of farming has help improve the operation, he says.
Sharon brings the attention to detail record keeping. She breaks costs and income down by crop and farm. She balances the books each month and tracks how close they are to their budget so don't get caught by surprise at the end of the year. She regularly calls the family together to discuss how closely the farm is tracking to the plan for the year.
"Her records have really helped us improve our management and grain marketing," John says. "We know what our costs are. We can see how each crop is doing and how each farm is doing. We feel more comfortable about our decisions. Our banker is impressed with the level of detail she provides, too."
Such attention to detail takes some of the guesswork out of farming. "We don't like surprises," Patrick says.
It also has confirmed that dry beans remain one of their most profitable crops.
"We can put in a dry bean crop for about the same amount of money as wheat, and usually have the opportunity to gross more," Patrick says.
It also confirms John's career choice. In the late 1980s, John left farming for two years. He returned to the profession because he missed it, and believed it offered a good future for their family.
"I love farming," John says. "I really enjoy what we are doing."
Patrick Dunnigan keeps track of tractor and truck
maintenance on a dry erase board in the shop.
Sharon Dunnigan tracks the farm's income and
expenses, breaking down expenses by crop and farm.
John and Patrick Dunnigan refer to a map of their farm Patrick drew on a dry erase board that hangs in their shop. The map helps the two men coordinate fieldwork.