Darren Hefty

Darren Hefty

A 15-minute telephone interview with Darren Hefty on Jan. 29 generates enough for a “Here’s How To Do It” handbook. Hefty is the ‘PhD’ seedsman at Baltic, S.D.’s Hefty Seed Company. Because of his vast agronomic skills, coupled with his grandfather’s diligent teachings, he agreed to share our conversation with readers of The Land.

The Land:  What is your crop outlook for this new season?

Hefty:  We look forward to this 2021 growing season. Farmers are excited for a lot of reasons.  Yes, the pandemic continues to be a struggle for many folks. The mental health of many is down. But being able to get back in their fields planting their crops will be the tonic boost for farmers everywhere. Obviously, these stronger commodity markets are the added touch.

Q.  Do you think we can continue to depend on China as a primary price booster for U. S. soybeans?

Darren, (without pause): Their demand is so strong. Even the combined totals of the next four buyers of U.S. soybeans don’t come close to China’s purchases. Yes, China has become an important player for U.S. farmers. They’re rebuilding their huge hog industry quickly. They have a huge population. And already this year on a global basis we’re short on soybeans. We need more acres; we need big yields.

We don’t know how long these market prices will last. But short term … once farmers have their input costs locked in they should also lock in some new crop prices. Farmers are excited about seeing where crop insurance prices break out. February markets will be a big deal in determining some of that.

Q:  Let’s say I’ve got 400 acres corn and 400 acres soybeans. How should I use those acres this year?

Darren:  I think for farmers already in a 50-50 rotation, stick with it. They’ve gotten to that 50-50 ratio for a lot of reasons, and those reasons still exist.  However, for a young farmer cash renting, his singular goal is making the most money on every acre this year! Right now on soils with good fertility, it appears corn looks like it will dollar out better. Also, it seems some younger farmers do a better job raising soybeans. I know for lots of North Dakota farmers, soybeans looks like a ‘no-brainer.’ On our farm operation just north of Sioux Falls, we’ll pretty much continue with our regular corn/soy rotation.

I suggest if you aren’t willing to lock in some of those fall prices right now, you’re taking a chance on what’s ahead. We see it happen so often … plant more soybeans and the corn market goes up. Come next fall we’d be wishing we had more corn.  It pays to be a contrarian; but unless you have a big reason to do so, diversifying your acres is still the good option.

Q:    I’m a nervous Norwegian. Should I contract 25 percent of my anticipated production? Or 50, 80 percent or the whole works?

Darren: About three-quarters of my background is Norwegian; so I’m a bit conservative I suspect. But my Grandpa Hefty taught me, “You can’t go broke if you’re taking a profit. So if you can lock in prices at profitable levels, go for it. Your ag banker gives good advice when suggesting to lock in a portion of your anticipated crop at a profit because that lessens your gamble on the rest. So determine what storage you have for new crop; then consider advance selling the remainder. The point being, we don’t have certainty on commodity markets.

I recall another story from my Grandpa. When young farmers would ask him about when to sell, he would tell them, ”I would sell 1/52nd of your crop every week throughout the year. Then you don’t need to worry about when to sell. Instead, you could spend all your time on the agronomics of how to grow more bushels per acre the next season.”

Then they’d ask, “So why are you sitting here at the elevator office every day?”  And he’d wink and say, “Because the coffee is free … and that’s how you make a few pennies also.”

My Grandpa’s advice was ‘be content selling for the average price.’ Those folks who study the markets say two-thirds of farmers sell in the bottom third of the market. So my Granddad felt if he was getting an average price that put him in the top third of all farmers. He added, “And if I’m in the top 10 percent on yield, how can I lose?”

Q:  Are treated soybeans a must anymore? And if so, what seed treatments are you recommending?

Darren:  Treated soybeans are an absolute must. I recall in the ‘80s and ‘90s when soybeans were like $10 a unit, cleaned and bagged. Now we’ve got $50 and $60 soybeans. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out you’ve got a lot of seed dollars out there. Yet for a few dollars we can protect that seed cost.

With soybeans, the fungicide is so critical — especially when looking at some of these new traits like Enlist soybeans and Extend Flex. These new beans yield really well; but in some cases, they have some defensive weaknesses. Protecting them with a fungicide or insecticide seed treatment is absolutely critical.

On our farm acres, and for other farmers, we’ve found additional treatments really helping. I’m talking about beneficial microbes. We’ve been putting inoculants on soybeans for years to help produce more nitrogen. Now we’re seeing real benefits from other microbes that help bring in additional nutrients for your growing soybean plants. We’re seeing faster and healthier early growth and net result is more yield.

Q:   So will you have enough of this new seed to meet expected demand?

Darren:  That’s a great question. At the Group 1 and Group 2 levels (southern Minnesota and South Daktoa) we have plenty of these new soybeans. For North Dakota and northern Minnesota, seed supply might get tight. At this point, supply is still good. But there are more acres competing for these seeds this year … and perhaps more corn, edible beans — even perhaps some new hemp acres too. Our advice: get your soybean seed locked up now.

Q:  I’m hearing talk about planting soybeans earlier … even ahead of corn? Explain.

Darren: Earlier corn planting gets talked both by University folks and farmers; but think additional seed treatments if planting corn into colder soils. That is why some farmers are planting soybeans first if their ground is still too cold for planting corn. They’ve found soybeans to be much more resilient. Also, when you’re planting five times as many soybean seeds compared with corn seeds per acre, you’ve got more flexibility if you lose a little bit of stand.

The 2019 South Dakota soybean yield champ credited some of his exceptional yield was because he planted ahead of his corn planting. That works because we’re growing indeterminate soybeans which start flowering when day-length starts shortening. So June 21, the longest day of the year, your beans are into full flowering. This South Dakota grower also noted planting earlier produced a larger soybean plant. So his soybeans enjoyed two weeks of ‘longest day length’ benefits. Net result: More key blooming days and 10-bushel more yield compared with the other half of the same field which he planted after he finished planting his corn.

Q:  2020 was an exceptional season in Renville County. But the season pretty well drained soil moisture too. Are April rains needed to recharge for 2021 season?

Darren: On our farm we wrapped up 2020 season with the driest six months in 130 years of records.  Fortunately, April and May rains were abundant in Spring 2020 — and thank goodness! Because essentially it quit raining after the first week of July. So naturally we’re again counting on spring rains for 2021. Those April/May rains last year saved us because of our heavier soils.

Note that for each 1 percent soil organic matter, your soil will hold 4 percent more water! So if you can increase organic content of your soils by two-and-a-half percent, you’ve got 10 percent more water-holding capacity. And that is why land that farmers own often outperforms land they rent in stressful years.

Q: Do you see more emphasis on reduced tillage and/or no-till as a way to build organic content of our soils?

Darren:  There are challenges with each system. On our farm we’re into strip tillage. We’re leaving the root mass intact from our previous crop between the rows as we plant.  That gives the corn stalk root mass another year to decompose naturally. We’re finding spoil organic levels rising, yet we still have a ‘black dirt’ space in which to plant. Some farmers prefer full-scale no-till; some like to use cover crops.  Those practices also will accelerate the building of organic content.

Q:  Are there optimum organic content levels? Can you have too much?

Darren:  Yes, you can have too much … like in some of the peat soils of Minnesota for example. We like  our soils to be around 5 percent organic matter. Check soils in your old pasture fence lines and you’ll get 5 to 6 percent readings. Why? Because these are untilled soils. Check soils with 100-plus years of tillage and you’ll find organic contents down to 2 percent or lower.

Q:  Can you shed some light on the ‘nitrogen for soybeans’ debate?

Darren: Additional nitrogen fertilizer for soybeans is always a hot debate. We look at corn and soybean rotation ground a bit differently than first-year soybeans. Why?  Because in your rotated soils you’re building rhizome bacteria. That’s why we recommend adding nitrogen … 25 to 55 pounds at planting time. Soil moisture activates nitrogen utilization by the soybean, so that’s why the importance of adding nitrogen when planting; rather than the risk of drier soils with later nitrogen apps.

So the typical corn/soybean rotation guy is probably now wondering, ‘Can I bump my soybeans to 80 bushels with additional nitrogen?’  The answer is maybe — depending upon your current fertility levels.  And always check organic content of your soils. On our farm we figure 20 pounds of free nitrogen each year out of each 1 percent of organic matter. So on our 4 percent organic content soils, we figure we’re getting 80 pounds of free nitrogen.  That’s quite a bit of nitrogen already; but if striving for high yields, how much nitrogen is needed?

Soybeans actually need a lot of nitrogen because it’s a high-protein crop. If you figure 100 bushel soybeans, it takes roughly 435 pounds of nitrogen to raise that 100-bushel soybean crop. Yes, soybean nodules produce up to 70 percent of the nitrogen needs of that crop — or about 300 pounds of that 435-pound requirement. So you still need another 135 pounds of nitrogen. Credit your 4 percent organic matter soils with 80 pounds of nitrogen. This means another 55 pounds of nitrogen to meet the appetite of that 100-bushel yield. 

So there you have it. Start with the correct soil elements, then pray for good soil moisture; also proper soil temps and toss in that additional 50 pounds of nitrogen. Why won’t there be good money in 100-bushel soybean yields with $15 markets? 

Perhaps this final touch: Wrap your growing season in prayers and thanks to your Lord.   

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