Todd Frank

Todd Frank

OLIVIA, Minn. — Like many in this business of being an ‘ag writer,’ no ag meetings gets to be a real drag. So, initiative to the rescue.  And how convenient in my home town of Olivia on Saturday morn, April 25.  I simply got in my auto and scooted down ‘seed corn row’ alongside Highway 212.  

My first stop was to Beck’s Seeds. It was a beautiful day and every farmer within a hundred miles of Olivia was planting.  And the going was good with mellow soils and soil temps at 48-50 degrees at two-inch depth.  Dr. Todd Frank, Research Director of Beck’s Seeds western division was diligently placing seed envelopes into special containers for his planting crew. Later that afternoon they would be using their 8-row plot planter to dispense these hundreds of seeds into precise rows on research plots in the immediate Olivia area.

When research directors and their crews are ready to plant, it’s planned even down to the starting minute! And that is because conditions have been virtually ideal for getting seed into the ground this spring.  Frank reflected, “Last spring we finally had to abandon some of our plots in South Dakota.  It never did get dry enough to plant out there.”

This year you could almost sense the joy of Frank and his crew as they prepared to head out after lunch for that 1 p.m. start with their 8-row planter — equipped with GPS technology. “This year off the top of my head I believe we are at 14 locations through southern Minnesota and into South Dakota.” 

The GPS allows Becks to adjust populations on the go — even row by row.  Frank said he hadn’t measure toil temps April 24. But he did comment, “Because of the seed treatments we use on Beck’s hybrids, I’m very comfortable putting seed in the ground even though I haven’t measured soil temp this morning.”

At the elevator in Olivia, corn market price was at $2.71. So I asked Frank if farmers were still encouraged about getting seed corn into the ground? “I think the early spring planting this year is significant,” Frank replied. “We need to keep looking at the positive sides of agriculture and this year’s early spring planting is certainly a positive approach to the start of this 2020 crop year.”

Beck’s Seeds moved into Olivia three years ago, purchasing what used to be the Olivia Sweet Corn canning facility and converting it into huge warehouse space with offices for various Beck’s personnel. “Yes, we’re finally settled in,” admitted Frank. “Always a bit longer and a tad more work than originally envisioned.  But living and working right here in Olivia is a pleasure. When this town was officially christened ‘The Corn Capital of Minnesota’ it was certainly fitting. Tremendous soils in this area made even more productive because of a tremendous investment in tiling and ditches to handle sometimes abundant rains. But most importantly, you quickly note the ‘can do’ attitude of farmers around this area.  They pick up on new technologies quickly. They ask challenging questions either in on-farm visits or at information meetings we put on for customers and would be customers.  Just a whole bunch of fast learners around here which tends to keep our various research projects — both corn and soybeans — on the front burner.”

Right behind yield improvements, what’s next on the research agenda of Frank?  “Agronomics,” he replied, which means continual emphases on the total corn plant … root structure, stalk strength, ear size and position, and of course increasing resistance to the various diseases and health challenges to a corn plant.

Does Frank sense more interest in non-GMO corns because of consumer interest in non-GMO foods?  “Yes, what the customer wants is what drives today’s markets — both in the grower’s fields and the consumer’s kitchen,” Frank said. “So yes, some companies will put more effort into making non-GMO seed available. At this stage, this is not a high priority with Becks hybrids.”

And Frank is concerned about today’s economic crunch facing farmers. “We don’t want to see competitors get hurt. We certainly don’t want to see our farm customers struggling to make ends meet.  This Covid-19 crisis is the worst disease at the worst time for our entire agricultural economy. However, we have been blessed with a great number of new customers this year and new sales.  We hope that continues,” summed up Todd Frank.

Next stop is a few blocks down Highway 212 to Hefty Seed Company and agronomist John Scheibel. 

My first question to Scheibel, “What’s the most frequent question you get from your customers?”

His quick response, “Are seed treatments still worth the money on soybeans? Also, should I back down on fertilizer on my corn to save some money? Yes, we still want to grow a good corn crop and good soybean fields too.  No, don’t push for 250-280 bushel corn yields because your ROI (return on investment) might not be positive. So I’m suggesting shoot for 220-240 bushel yields and fertilize accordingly. This year we’re getting early planting, so potential is there for a very good crop. But don’t overspend so you’re farming just to see what you can collect on crop insurance.”

Are farmers talking about cutting back on plant populations? “Yes, we’ve had a few farmers talk that way,” Scheibel said. “We don’t advise lowering seed corn populations — especially with such a good early start this year. But on soybeans, we’re seeing some studies with little yield loss at 125,000 seeds per acre vs. 140,000-150,000 seeds. So some guys are backing off on their soybean planting populations. Beans can compensate for these lower planting rates also.”

“A few guys buy our soybeans without seed treatment because they’ve done some side-by-sides on their own farm and don’t see the added value,” Scheiber went on to say. “Also, some plant with a drill and treated seed doesn’t flow as good.”

“Our Hefty complete seed has three different fungicides, two different insecticides, a biological product we call ‘Nutri Cycle’ which has 26 different strains of bacteria and fungi to help breakdown soil nutrients making them more available to the growing soybean crop. It’s also got a product called Heat Shield which is a fungal deterrent that allows the plant to better tolerate stresses.  University of Washington Researchers found this fungal fighter at Yellowstone National Park which has lots of really hot soils.  Plus we have an inoculant and inoculant extender in this seed treatment package.”

“Inoculant extender is basically a sugar,” Scheiber continued, “which feeds the rhizobia bacteria in our Rowtastic inoculant allowing it to live on the seed for a longer period of time so can even delay planting up to 10 days with no drop off of inoculant impact.” 

He also noted, “I have seen these insecticide treatments hold off soybean aphids a week to two weeks compared with untreated soybeans. Last year we had very limited aphids. This past winter wasn’t super cold, so maybe more overwintering of the aphid eggs and that could mean more aphids. I’d suggest staying in touch with Bruce Potter at the Lamberton Research Station. Or pay attention to the aerial applicators at Olivia air port! If they’re flying, we’ve got aphids! I’m looking at moderate pressure; nothing like the heavy pressure we’ve seen in recent seasons.”

My next stop was just a bit farther west to 3MG North — the aspiring seed firm of Ed Baumgartner and his ambitious crew.  Yes, this crew was also busy getting seed packets ready for plot plantings. I got a few minutes with Susan Johnson, corn breeder and an Iowa State protégé. “Yes, this is one of the best spring I have experienced. We will be putting in 17 plots in three states and it looks this year like we’ll get the job done. This is the earliest we have ever been in the ground,” said Johnson.

Besides corn, 3MG also does plot work on soybeans because the ‘soybean belt’ keeps expanding west and north into North Dakota, Montana and the Canadian provinces.  Now into its 14th year, the firm is marketing 27 corn hybrids this year with maturities ranging from early 80-day to full season 120-day hybrids.  And all seed bags tote the BASS label (Baumgartner Agricultural Science & Service).

All BASS hybrids are non-GMO. Why? Johnson related, “Because of the growing non-GMO market in America plus most of Europe is still non-GMO. Also because Mother Nature is different every year. We are continually exploring how our testing materials react to the different environmental stresses of Mother Nature.  Our goal is to visually observe on our various research pedigrees how each reacts to the many challenges … be it cold, wet weather or scorching hot, dry weather. Today, with the sun shining, our plots could pick up 10 degrees in soil temps at two-inch depth. So it’s time to be getting on with our work.”

That’s a good clue that I should be leaving. Right now they have an 8-row planter going. This afternoon Johnson and crew member Matt will be heading out on a 4-row unit planting some inbred increases. “And when it’s time to get our research seeds in the ground it could be an 8-hour day or an 18-hour day. But I sit in my office all winter; so I look forward to this spring planting session. When it’s time to plant I want to be out there planting. It’s April 26 and we’ve already got over 40 acres in the ground so that’s a good feeling,” summed up Johnson.

Next back up Highway 212, south side, to Renk Seeds and Darin Stranberg. He’s been with Renk Seeds since 2007.

This spring, Renk is sowing about 37,000 two-row, 20-foot row research plots in the Olivia area. Another 35,000 are planted at the organization’s headquarters at Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.

I was a bit amazed at those numbers.  Stranberg noted, “I’ve always waited till April 25 to start planting these test plots. But this year we started earlier … Monday, April 20. We planted 12,700 plots south of Bird Island last Wednesday and Thursday. We did two of our off-station plots yesterday at Belle Plaine and one at Plainview down by Rochester.  Right now we’re planting at Worthington and Brewster. Hoping to go to St. James today; but they got some rain yesterday so we’ll probably end up out in South Dakota this afternoon. Just got some seed in yesterday so I’ve got to get delivered now to South Dakota; that’s why you caught me back in the shop right now.”

My last visit on this Saturday morning jaunt was Corteva Agriscience — virtually next door to Renk Seeds. I was introduced to Jonathan Mikkelson, Research Operations Lead at this Olivia facility.

“Yes, great weather for getting our research plots planted; but we’ve experienced some logistical problems in getting our seed returned from South America and other production sites because of the coronavirus disrupting logistics between our various  research and production locations,” said Mikkelson, adding that social distancing amongst their own employees here at Olivia has been a bit cumbersome also.

 “We have corn and soybean plots two to three hours out from Olivia … and probably 70 to 100 locations. We have 8-row planters. We have two breeding programs for corn out of our Olivia station.  We work primarily 90 to 95-day maturities; but we also test 85 to 100-plus maturities and always concentrating to advance germ plasm and creating better hybrids that not only yield better but more readily withstand the summer environmental challenges of this region of the corn belt.

“We also offer a complete lineup of soybean varieties with various packages of seed treatments and trait combinations.  That includes Roundup Ready Extend and E3 which we’re excited to launch with our customers this season.”

Does Mikkelson have concerns about commodity prices? “I also farm, so I pay lots of attention to market prices, crop rotations, marketing plans and the meat industry.  All these packing plants suddenly shutting down throws lots of dynamics into this entire farming industry. The markets available for our livestock guys is now a considerable crisis.”

Because of multiple years of financial challenges for farmers, he too is concerned about who will be the survivors when things finally settle down. He said there were lots of prevent plant acres around his Benson area last year and much of what did get planted was planted late so yields took a beating also. He’s aware of some of his North Dakota farmers who didn’t harvest last fall and were still waiting to get into their fields to harvest this spring. “The misery and financial crunch they faced is unbelievable.”

Mikkelson grow up in the Benson area; went to Concordia College, Moorhead, for four years; then to North Dakota State University for his master’s degree in Natural Resources Management with plant sciences emphases. He cautions that the days of Roundup Ready as the ‘rescue treatment’ when weeds are threatening your crops are pretty much over. “Just too many consumer hassles,” he reasons to keep it a common weed control product.

And his take on the future of non-GMO seeds? “An interesting question these days; but this sudden corona crisis and possible disruption of the food chain is a bigger concern right now.  People appreciate low-cost food. And yet today many people are tremendously short of steady food supplies.  I would say that, as a new company to the agricultural world, Corteva is much more consumer focused. So not only do we focus on new seeds for a better agriculture, but also seeds that contribute to the overall nutrition of the foods are people eat. I think now is a most interesting time to say the least! I think it will get many people to revaluate their lives and get a new appreciation for the importance of agriculture in their daily living.”

So in view of the economic crunch facing farmers this year, does Mikkelson believe farmers will be reducing their planting rates to save seed costs per acre?

He’s skeptical — suggesting that if you look at trends, farmers have been increasing like 200 to 300 more seeds per acre each of the past several years. “I think those trends will continue. But obviously, seed costs are significant these days, so some consideration of backing off one to two thousand seeds per acre might be logical — settling in at 32,000 to 34,000. I see a lot more variable rates of not only seed, but fertilizer too — thanks to the convenience of today’s GPS systems for on-the-go changes as you plant. Farmers today are so adept at picking up on new technologies as a means of improving their crop production efforts. They are very resourceful people out there.”

Not trying to be a prophet, but Mikkelson wonders if this might be sort of a ‘bounce back’ year for soybean aphids in view of the moderate winter and early snow pack. How to manage the different technologies now available? Because when farmers choose a particular platform of technologies, they want to be all-in rather than just a partial entry. “Herbicide control choices could be one of those challenges again this year because weeds are always an issue. And we and other seed providers are continually coming up with new products and new systems on how to use these products,” summed up Mikkelson.