Beans in coal country
September 01, 2003
Central North Dakota presents unique challenges and opportunities
Brent Petersen, Washburn, N.D., checks on the progress of his pintos.
Things look a little different on Brent Petersen's farm than on most Northarvest dry bean farms.
There's the Falkirk coal mine out to the west. You can see the big crane working north of the plant's smokestacks. Beyond the mine lies the Missouri River and the Garrison Dam. Blue bluffs line the horizon. Antelope graze beside the gravel road leading to Petersen's farm. And on Petersen's farm a dozen bull elk graze in a paddock behind an 8-foot high fence.
Petersen's dry bean fields near Washburn, N.D., look perfect on this early July morning. The one half mile long rows of pintos and small reds are straight, full and free of weeds. Ribbons of dark soil, still loose after being cultivated the day before, show between the rows. The earliest planted beans are beginning to canopy and blossom.
At one time, McLean County used to be strictly coal, cattle and wheat country. But in the past 20 years, dry beans have emerged as major crop. According to the North Dakota Agricultural Statistics Service, 24,700 acres of dry beans were harvested in McLean County in 2002.
Growing dry beans in coal country poses special challenges offers special opportunities, Petersen says.
The growing season can be short. Freezing temperatures sandwiches the growing season between late May and early September. The region always seems to be only few weeks after from a bad drought. Scorching heat in late July and August can cause bean plants to abort all but their first pods.
"We are always on the edge here," Petersen says.
Those who succeed in growing dry beans have mastered a balancing act. They are careful not to plant beans too early. Petersen doesn't put bean seed in the ground until after May 20. They do not waste soil moisture. Petersen practices minimum tillage. To prepare a field for dry beans, he applies anhydrous ammonia and herbicide and incorporates herbicide in the same pass in the fall. The rig broadcasts herbicide in front of the anhydrous applicator. As the anhydrous ammonia knives open a slot for the fertilizer, they mix herbicide granules with the soil. In the spring, Petersen works first only once with a field cultivator and coil packer. The field cultivator incorporates the chemical the second time. The coil packer firms up the seedbed and seals in the moisture before it evaporates. Some farmers in the region are no-tilling dry beans in small corn and corn stalks.
Petersen plants dry beans in 30-inch rows, cultivates them once. Petersen and his father, Terry, use 12-row cultivators equipped with tractor weights mounted over the cultivator shanks that run in the wheel tracks and in the future knife rows. The extra weight keeps the shovels in the soil.
"When it gets dry, our soils can get as hard as a gravel roadbed," Petersen says.
White mold is seldom a problem for Petersen due to the drier climate.
When beans are ready to harvest in late August and early September, Petersen first runs a knife through the rows. Then, just before harvest, he rod weeds them. The rod lifts bean roots out of the soil and shakes dirt out of the windrows. Petersen is careful not to rod more than he can combine in a day. A high wind can easily blow rodded windrows across a field. He picks up the windrow with a 30-foot head on a John Deere combine.
Best profit potential
Taking extra care to grow dry beans has paid dividends for Petersen. Over the past 15 years, his bean yields have ranged from zero twice during two severe droughts, to 2,800 pounds per acre.
Each winter Petersen uses FINPAK, a farm financial program developed by the University of Minnesota, to analyze the profit potential of all the crops he can grow. Even with the possibility of drought, dry beans come out on or near the top every year.
"Low yields of dry beans will generate more money than low yields of wheat," Petersen says.
If growing conditions are good early, dry beans will usually produce an above average yield if they get a shot of rain in late July or early August, he says.
This year, Petersen received about an inch of rain in early August.
To market dry beans, Petersen can choose between Eastern and Western markets. Processors in the Red River Valley and Colorado both have receiving stations in the McLean County area. That's good for bean growers in central North Dakota, Petersen says.
"Our prices use to be $1 or $2 (per cwt.) below the rest of Northarvest. Now, sometimes we are
the price leader."Brent Petersen, Washburn, N.D. checks on the progress of his pintos.
An antelope stands calmly in the road ditch near
Three bull elk come to the fence to eat grass
from Brent Petersen's hand.
Brent holds a 6 x 6 elk antler. In the velvet stage,
the antlers are prized in Korea for their medicinal properties.