Do Farmers Harvest 24-7?

This is a question I’ve been asked on several occasions: during harvest, are we running 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to get the crop in the bin? The answer to that is unequivocally no.

While harvest is an extremely busy and stressful time of the year, and getting the crop off as quickly as possible is our primary goal, there are limits to what we can do. There are actually a number of reasons why we cannot harvest all day and night.

  1. Weather conditions – Essentially, combines thresh and separate grain from straw. That’s pretty much the long and short of it. The header collects the crop in front of the combine, and it is pulled inside, where it is smashed against steel concaves that allow grain to fall through. To be able to do this, the crop cannot be wet; how would you break it apart if it isn’t dry? As the sun falls beyond the horizon, humidity goes up and temperatures usually go down. As this happens, the crop becomes “tough” and simply will not go through the combine. As the evening wears on, the straw usually becomes more and more difficult to process, until combining becomes all but impossible. Now, this doesn’t always happen, as a windy, dry night does pop up now and then, and you could actually go right through the night. So what do we do in those situations?dsc_0392
  2. Human limits – We all need sleep. There is no getting around that fact. No matter how hard you push yourself; no matter how determined you are to stay awake all night; if your body decides you need to sleep, you’re done. It’s as simple as that. You may run late a night or two and battle through with 3 or 4 hours of sleep, but that will catch up to you in a hurry. And besides, it’s not just you out there.
  3. Employee needs – Just like us, our employees need sleep too. They didn’t sign up to go a month without sleep! It’s one thing to have a tired manager; it’s another to have a tired crew. And that leads to…
  4. Safety – When you’re tired, your brain just doesn’t function the way it should. You think slower, you react slower, and you don’t notice things you should. Sure, you can run on limited sleep for awhile… but what’s the risk? Harvest involves a lot of heavy, dangerous equipment in the field and semi trucks on busy roads. Pushing too hard doesn’t just risk your life – it can impact the lives of many others.

No matter how much you want to, harvesting all day and night simply cannot (and should not) be done. It’s dangerous, it’s very hard on equipment, and all it takes is one mistake to ruin a life (or many lives) forever. Harvest is a long, busy and stressful operation, but overdoing the hours does more harm than good.

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Another Wet Harvest

There are few things more frustrating to a farmer than having a crop out in the field, ready to harvest, and not being able to go get it. At this point, all the inputs are in. All the dollars are spent. The equipment is ready, the bank account is empty, and it is time to harvest everything you have worked for for more than a year – but you just can’t get out there and get it done. That, my friends, is why farmers complain so much about the weather!

This was supposed to be a dry year. Winter was absent, spring came in March, and we started seeding in mid-April. All the forecasts I read had the Canadian Prairies in a drier bias this year, with the general gist being that whatever rain we got, we should be happy to see! That has not turned out to be the case, with some of our fields seeing substantial rainfall throughout the growing season, challenging the survival of some of our crops.

Despite the excessive rainfall, most of our crops fared well – just not our lentils. Lentils do not like wet feet, and persistent rainfall took a hefty toll on them this year. Unfortunately, mature lentils also don’t handle water well; severe losses can result from quality declines.

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Waiting for another shower to pass so I can finish pre-harvesting a field of lentils. Weeds, flooded out acres and variable staging make timing difficult.

We have now been harvesting for about 3 weeks, and it has been a struggle. The winter wheat came off fantastically well, with a nice dry stretch to harvest it and tremendous yields. It was when we started the peas that the metaphorical wheels fell off. It took us nearly two weeks to grind through a crop that should have been in the bin in five days. Shower after shower rolled through, plus a hurtful little shot of hail that peeled some yield off. Peas like to pod very low to the ground, and the ones that don’t pod low just tip over and lay the pods on the ground anyway. Suffice to say, you need the header on the ground. While combine headers today are marvels of engineering, even they struggle with mud.

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It may be hard to see from the photo, but these lentils are flat on the ground. These MacDon flex headers are amazing – they shave the ground with no human input.

Nevertheless, we fought through them and pounded through as many lentils as we could before the next rainy spell arrived (which happened to be today). So, we sit again.

Here’s the thing: while this harvest has thus far been frustrating, it is nothing compared to the extremely wet conditions we saw in 2014. We sat for weeks that year, waiting and waiting for things to dry up. And, unfortunately, it seems that some other areas are experiencing those very conditions this year. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.

One thing I’ve learned over my farming career is that moderately dry years tend to work out better than moderately wet ones. When it’s dry, harvest is quick, quality is good, and equipment sees smaller repair bills. When it’s wet, harvest is long, quality disappoints, and equipment is tortured. And, yields are never quite as good as you think they should be. One other factor: stress is much lower during dry harvests.

We farmers all know what we signed up for when we decided agriculture was the place to be. We know weather isn’t perfect, and we know the risk we take gambling on Mother Nature. In spite of this, it is still very frustrating to watch your crop downgrade from rain after rain. On a moderate-sized farm, a drop in grade on a cereal crop like durum can cost tens of thousands of dollars, and lentils can be even worse.

All we can hope for now is for the weather to change for the better so we can get back out there and get the crop in the bin. The forecast looks good – here’s hoping it verifies!

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My Experience Attending Table For Twenty

On July 5th, I was invited to attend an event called “Table For Twenty”,  a celebration of twenty years of biotechnology in crops. Too often, we spend our time defending GMOs, pesticides and the like, and not enough time is spent in recognizing the amazing achievements this technology has allowed. Twenty people from all different occupations were invited to the event, with representatives from CropLife Canada (the host of the evening), the government of Saskatchewan, universities, industry professionals, students, and of course, farmers.

My wife and I had the pleasure of attending the event, and as one of the very few full-time farmers at the table, I was asked to say a few words. In the nature of the transparency I try to practice in this blog, I felt it was important to share with you what I spoke about. Here it is in full:

Hi, everyone, my name is Jake Leguee, and I farm about 3 and a half hours southeast of here. I have to admit, I am humbled to be here, and it is an absolute honour to speak to you about my experience in growing biotech crops. Our farm operation is a family one, with my parents, my older sister and my wife all heavily involved. We farm about 12,000 acres of cereals, pulses and oilseeds and yes – some of those are GMOs, and no – I’m not on Monsanto’s payroll.

For a long time, I watched as our industry was continually attacked and derided for many of our production practices. I watched as pesticides were blamed for all sorts of terrible things, like cancer, destruction of the environment, and more health conditions than I can count. I watched as genetic engineering, one of humankind’s greatest achievements, was labeled as “Frankenfood” and was incriminated for a medley of problems every bit as broad and as devastating as pesticides had been.

I watched as an industry that feeds the world, that provides a living for thousands of farmers just like me, was ostracized by what seemed to be a majority of the public. I knew these products were safe; I had used them for much of my life. My father has been farming for 40 years, as his father did before him. We grow genetically modified crops, we use pesticides, we use fertilizers, and I know firsthand the benefits they bring to the table.

So, I had to ask myself, what could I do about it?

I don’t have the ability to talk to every person on the planet one by one, and I certainly don’t have the money to run advertisements during the SuperBowl. But, I could write, and people might be interested in reading the perspective of a farmer. So, for the last 3 years, I have been writing about the life of a farmer, and I am continually amazed at how interested people are in just what it is that farmers do. They seem fascinated by why we grow GM crops, why we use pesticides and fertilizers, and how we make our decisions.

I grow genetically modified crops because they bring value to my farm. They allow me to control a broader variety of weeds with lower application rates. Because of the success of these crops, agriculture companies are able to generate profits from them, and as a result, inject more money into breeding better varieties. This generates a cycle of better and better varieties being developed each and every year, which further increases my ability to grow crops in a broader variety of weather and climate challenges. The phenomenal success of herbicide tolerant canola has been a game-changer for our farm and many others, and the continued investment in soybeans and corn will enable us to have success with these crops, despite their limitations due to our short growing season. This would never have happened without genetic modification.

The exciting part about all this is the reality that we have only scratched the surface of what we can do with genetic engineering. With the emergence of new technologies, such as gene editing, the future is wide open. Drought and frost tolerance, insect and disease resistance, improved photosynthetic efficiency; these are all traits that would make my farm more resilient and less susceptible to weather shocks.

But to be able to take advantage of these exciting new prospects, we need to get the consumer on our side. We need people to understand why we farmers need access to these products. Farming is a challenging and extremely risky business. One bad weather event, one storm, one cold night, can impact the very survival of our family farm. We need access to new technologies that can help mitigate the weather extremes that have had such an impact on our family.

I was born in 1988, a year that many farmers would like to forget. Dad talks about the 80’s a lot, and not too fondly – well, except for my birthday of course! It was a decade of drought, with searing heat waves and limited rainfall. To say it was a challenging time is a severe underestimation of the difficulties farmers faced.

We will see another decade like the 80’s, and the 1930’s too. But this time will be different. With the rise of pesticides and the release of GMOs, we have been able to virtually eliminate tillage. There won’t be another dust bowl. No-till is the saviour of dryland agriculture – but it only works if we have access to pesticides and GM crops.

I believe public perceptions are starting to change; I believe we are getting the message out. But we must continue to advocate for agriculture and tell our story. Because our story is a great one. It is a story of families, of generational farms, of environmental stewardship. My goal, and I suspect the goal of most farms, is to someday leave this land in better shape than it was in when I started farming it. To allow my children to farm in an even better world than we do today. Biotechnology is the key to achieving this goal.

Thank you.

I want to extend a huge thank you to CropLife Canada, and all of its staff, for doing an outstanding job of promoting a positive conversation about agriculture; from the work they put into producing the video I was apart of (see it here), to hosting the Table For Twenty events, and everything else they have done.

One more thing I want to add to this: to all of you who have read, shared and talked about my blog (good and bad!), thank you. My goal in doing this is to try and create a conversation about agriculture; not arguments, not insults and finger-pointing; a constructive discussion that broadens all of our views on such a controversial subject. I have had an amazing ride in this project, and I am excited about what the future holds.

Thank you!

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Going From One Extreme To Another

Every year is different. Generally, you can classify years by how their weather patterns. Last year was dry, 2014 was wet, 2013 was cool and wet, 2012 was hot and wet, and so on. This year… this year doesn’t seem to fit any sort of normal pattern. We had one of the driest, warmest winters of the past couple decades, followed by an abnormally warm and dry spring. Seeding started in mid-April, earlier than ever, and we were seeding into progressively drier soil.

Day after day the wind blew dust in our faces and whipped around any unprotected soil. Vehicles and equipment were layered with a dust so fine and so thick you could hardly stand it. Forecasts were calling for a hot and dry summer, and the unceasing wind drove what moisture we had out of the ground. We were on the brink of a drought unlike anything we (in this area, that is) had seen in many, many years.

Six weeks later, I spend each day looking at the sky, hoping for just one more day without rain! What the hell happened?

Somewhere around the middle of May, something changed. A freak rainfall event, one that should never have occurred in our persistent dry pattern, gave us a much needed rainfall, one that got our crop out of the ground. Ever since then, we just keep getting more and more and more rain. Over the last month, we have gotten more rainfall than we got in the entire 2015 growing season.

Is this an improvement? Unquestionably, yes. We were getting close to a pretty dire situation. If the crop didn’t get rain soon, it was going to be in real trouble. Our canola desperately needed moisture to get out of the ground. The crop emerged, the dust settled, and we have the makings of a large crop; unlike anything we’ve seen since 2013, a record year.

So what exactly am I complaining about then? Well, sometimes too much of a good thing isn’t a good thing. One of the problems with such a dry winter and spring, combined with a forecast for a hot and dry summer, is that you tend to strategize for that type of weather. It’s hard to change gears once the year has already started, and pretty much impossible to change your cropping mix once it is already planted.

Wet weather like this is rough on dry-season crops like lentils and peas. While peas are fairly resilient and will likely bounce back from some early-season excess moisture stress, lentils simply cannot. Once they start to become water-logged, they really don’t recover well, even if the weather turns around. And, once they reach what is now a very fragile state, all it takes is a little push to sent them over the brink.

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Although it might be hard to see in the photo, that yellow spot up ahead is in very bad shape. As the roots become infected with pathogens, they quickly begin to fail and will not recover. A substantial number of our lentil acres look like this.

One more big rain. That’s all it will take to destroy an enormous amount of our lentils. They are already under tremendous stress, with pathogens attacking their roots and their leaves, and they just can’t take much more. One storm can change everything.

For the past week we have been anxiously watching the skies and the forecasts, awaiting the near-certainty of heavy rains. Forecast maps published by numerous meteorologists painted a grim picture of the weather ahead.

But, despite all the forecasts and all the doom and gloom, the rains didn’t come. Each storm system that was supposed to hammer us with inches of rain didn’t materialize. They moved south, they moved east, and they just kept missing us (on that note, some areas did see that forecast verified – and it is not a good situation for them).

We just might have made it. The 7-day forecast is for nothing but sun and heat, perfect weather to set up a recovery. Don’t get me wrong; the lentils still stand upon the edge of a knife, but if the forecast verifies, they might still turn out alright.

And, in all honesty, these are a lot better problems to have than if the rains never did come. By now, the crop may well have been written off, dried up to nothing and wilting in the fields. Instead, we have a crop of wheat and canola unlike anything we’ve seen in years, one that looks absolutely remarkable. Bad weather for lentils is perfect weather for wheat and canola; and that is why you always keep different crops in the rotation around here. You just never know what kind of weather you’re going to get.

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It is rare for canola to be flowering like this in June, but with such an early start, it is well advanced and enjoying all the moisture.

The fact is that extreme weather is what we tend to get. Dad has been farming for the better part of forty years and he has yet to see a year where the perfect amount of rain and sunshine grew a crop limited only by its own genetics. And besides, how boring would that be anyway? It’s the stresses and challenges that make farming truly exhilarating.

 

 

How Much Roundup Do Farmers Actually Use?

A lot of consumers have concerns about Roundup (aka glyphosate). Yesterday we once again were bombarded with attacks on the much-maligned herbicide in the yearly “March Against Monsanto”. Many will also remember the World Health Organization’s classification of glyphosate as a “probable carcinogen”. When faced with such a maelstrom of public disapproval (even if it is a vocal minority) it’s very difficult to separate fact from fiction. What is right and what is wrong? Is glyphosate dangerous? If so, should farmers be allowed to use it at all?

I think the best way to cut through such a deluge of hostile press is to delve into the facts about this much-maligned chemical. I keep hearing how we farmers “douse” our crops with glyphosate; that we apply massive quantities with no concept of safety, ignoring label rates, and simply apply it as many times as we want to whatever crop we want.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. Here’s the reality.

Is Glyphosate Toxic?

Roundup JugGlyphosate is one of the safest herbicides ever developed for mass use. It is a non-selective (meaning it kills most plants) chemical that targets and blocks the so-called shikimic acid pathway. This is required for amino acid synthesis in plants. Without amino acids, plants wilt and die from starvation. Since the shikimite pathway is not found in humans, glyphosate is of very low toxicity (read more here).

Now, science jargon aside, if you consume enough glyphosate, yes, it will be poisonous. Of course, it would take quite a lot; the LD50 (lethal dose for 50% of test animals) of glyphosate is 5,600 mg/kg. That’s over 5.6 grams of glyphosate for every kilogram you weigh. You weigh 80 kg? You would need to consume 450 grams (that’s half a kilogram, or close to a pound) of glyphosate in one sitting for a potentially lethal dose. If you’re consuming that much of anything I’d say you should be concerned (read more here).

How Much Do We Use?

Below is a picture I took of a typical rate of glyphosate. In that Gatorade bottle there is 600 mL of Roundup. That little bottle will treat one acre of land. Now, I understand that an acre is a little hard to visualize. One acre is 43,560 square feet, or about three quarters of an American football field. That 600 mL spread over one acre amounts to .014 mL per square foot. That doesn’t sound like much, does it?

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Here’s the other thing; most of the Roundup we spray in a year doesn’t get sprayed on crops at all. We use it to clean fields up before seeding and after harvest. Yes, some Roundup Ready crops get glyphosate throughout the season (e.g. canola, soybeans), but that really only amounts to about 20% of our acres. And even then, we are only talking about one or two applications per year to growing crops.

The reality is we simply don’t use that much glyphosate on a per-acre basis. Is glyphosate the only herbicide we use? Of course not! We use a variety of pesticides on our farm to control a variety of pests. Do we still need glyphosate? Unquestionably yes. Without it, no-till would be next to impossible. We would be forced to go back to tillage to clean our fields before seeding. That would be an environmental tragedy.

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This is just an example of the numerous products we use in a year.  You can see a combination of herbicides and a fungicide, each one useful for different problem pests. This is only a sample of the variety of chemicals we use.

All of these products are used to control weeds, diseases, insects and so on. We need them all to keep each of our many different crops clean; but glyphosate is still the base we build our entire year upon. It is the one herbicide that controls them all. That is why careful management of it, and creative tank mixes with products like tribenuron, sulfentrazone, carfentrazone and so on is so important to ensure its long-term survival. Tank mixing other chemistries makes it much more difficult for weeds to become resistant – the infamous “superweed”.

Nikon J1 204The concerns about so-called superweeds are real, to a degree. Yes, too much glyphosate spraying on the same land over too many years can cause weed resistance. However, too much tillage on the same land year over year can actually cause the same problem; it is far from unique to glyphosate and GMOs (read more here). Any pest can and will become resistant to a control measure over time; it’s natural selection at work.

Separating Fact From Fear

I realize how difficult it is to separate facts from fear. There is a lot of data, a lot of studies, and a lot of people with an agenda pushing you to believe one thing or another.

If you don’t trust anyone else, trust farmers. We use this stuff, and have for decades. We wouldn’t put ourselves, our families, and our customers at risk if we believed glyphosate and other pesticides were truly dangerous. I use glyphosate and other pesticides because I believe the benefits outweigh the risks. I believe they are the best tool we have to look after our land in a sustainable fashion.

The reality is you are the one buying what we’re growing. It is your choice. Just know that glyphosate, despite all the hostile attacks on its safety, is one of humankind’s greatest achievements. This venerable herbicide, with nearly 40 years of use behind it, is still one of the most important tools we farmers possess. It allows us to control weeds without threatening the future of our soils. The dose makes the poison, and at the rates we apply this incredibly low-toxicity herbicide, you have nothing to fear.

 

Hoping For Rain

We have never had this much seed in the ground this early. As of today, we are down to our last two fields – which we could actually finish by Wednesday, May 11. That would be the FB_IMG_1462723488664earliest finish to seeding our farm has ever seen. For perspective, we could actually finish seeding before it even started in 2013.  At the same time, we have seeded more acres than ever; low spots that have been full of water for eight years are finally dried up. Our fields look better than they have for a very long time.

So what are we worried about? Well, the downside to such an efficient and early seeding season is that you need dry conditions for that to occur – and that is what we are experiencing.

And it is dry. We haven’t seen a rain since the 15th of April, close to a month behind us. At the same time, we have had very warm weather for late April/early May. We had quite a few days over 30 degrees Celsius; some of those with a gusty wind too. A lack of precipitation coupled with warm and windy conditions has caused a great deal of drying on our soils. What started out as near-perfect conditions for planting has since become concerning. Every day gets dustier and dustier. It becomes a little wearying when all day every day you are layered in dust from an unceasing wind, your eyes full of dirt and your clothes constantly dusty.

On the other hand, if there is a time of the year to be dry, it’s seeding. It is a big, complicated operation that takes all the manpower, will and determination we have to complete. It’s not just about getting it done; it’s about getting it done right. As we have seen over the past several years, frequent rains can cause serious problems for the planting season.

Nevertheless, crops need moisture to germinate and get out of the ground. If it’s not there, they will simply sit in the ground and wait for it. So, what you end up with in a spring like this is some parts of the field end up wetter than others (different soil types, elevation, etc), and consequently you get patchy emergence. A crop that comes up patchy will be a myriad of staging come harvest, which makes life difficult for the combines.

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Some of these have germinated, but some have not. Parts of the field are too dry to support germination.

The thing is, a patchy crop could be the least of our problems. In the 1980’s, particularly in 1988, the weather got so dry and so hot that crops simply couldn’t cope. Many fields had no crop at all. While I don’t believe we are headed for that scenario this year, it is always in the back of my mind – because it is possible. Long-range forecasts are calling for a near to above average temperature bias and below average precipitation. Add that to an already dry start to the growing season, and you have yourself a drought.

The good news is there is rain in the forecast. A major system is expected to move through here starting tomorrow. As usual when a system like this is forecast, the rain totals change drastically before we actually see the storm hit us. Last week, there were forecasters saying we could get 2-3 inches of rain. Today, it sounds like a half inch is what we will get. It’s always worrying to see rain estimates decrease when the storm is still more than a day away. You have no idea how frustrating it is when weather forecasters estimate a near certainty of rain – and then it doesn’t happen.

Although we all know the weak track record of weather forecasters, we have no choice but to DSC_0671manage our seeding decisions accordingly. With a major storm system forecast, we decreased the depth of our canola seeding outfit to ensure the fragile little canola seeds don’t get buried too deep. If it doesn’t rain, our canola seeded now will not come up. It will not be in contact with moisture. We have to make our best judgment call on decisions like this, even when we know the inherent uncertainty of weather forecasts.

One of the most annoying things at this time of the year is the way most weather people on TV and radio talk about the forecast. “Look at the week ahead! Nothing but 30 degrees plus! Fantastic!” Weather like that is not what we need in an already dry spring. We need rain and moderate temperatures. Weeks and weeks of hot weather is not good for freshly seeded crops. It would be nice to see a little more enthusiasm for rainy weather. Sorry about the tangent.

This is the most expensive time of the year for farmers. We are spending upwards of $100K a day between fertilizer, seed, chemical, fuel, repairs, depreciation and so on. With all of that depending on just a few well-timed rains, you can understand why farmers can be a little stressed out at this time of the year. A rain can truly make or break a farm. One storm can change everything. All we can do is seed our crops and hope for the best.

Our Earliest Seeding Ever

My very first blog post was April 18, 2013, titled Spring – Where Are You? We were in the midst of a never-ending winter, so cold and so snowy it seemed spring would fail to come at all. To add insult to injury, 11 days after that frustrating post, it snowed again. I was genuinely concerned that the crop would not go in the ground. Despite my apprehension, we actually did get the crop in; we simply started three weeks later than normal, on the 11th of May.

This year, you couldn’t imagine a scenario more different. Winter didn’t just end early – it hardly came at all! We haven’t had snow since February, our winter wheat started growing in March, and we actually did some seeding on the 13th of April. How do you predict changes like that?

Of course, this is hardly the first time weather like this has occurred. The winter of 2011-2012 was actually warmer than this past one, and there have been numerous drier ones too. It is undeniable, though, that it is dry. We haven’t seen conditions like this in many years. It’s dry enough to be concerning; even after all the wet years we’ve experienced, drought is still a frightening word.

The reality is that we have received very little precipitation since November. We got a nice rain a little over a week ago that helped recharge us a bit, but with every windy, warm day that goes by, we lose more and more precious moisture. The thing is, despite all our advances in seeding technology, despite no-till farming and water-efficient crops, we still need spring rains to get our crop out of the ground. Once it’s established, it can tap into the stored soil water and go from there. But it has to have a chance to get there.

So, if moisture is a concern, and we have moisture now, why not get the crop in the ground as quickly as possible? Well, we live in the Canadian Prairies, where we experience the worst of every weather extreme (well, most of them anyway). If our crop gets out of the ground too quick in the spring, a mid-May frost (which is very possible) can cause a lot of damage; just ask the farmers that had to reseed over a million acres of canola last year after a May 30 frost. While that may be a rare scenario, it is one you have to consider when deciding how early is too early.

On the other hand, if it is going to be a dry year, getting the crop in as early as possible may be a game-changer for yield. Giving the crop its best chance to use that early moisture and cooler days could be critical for its development.

On the other other hand, if it starts dry but gets wetter later, the later-seeded crops could outperform because the rain happens to arrive at a more optimum stage for development; such as in 2015, when all that reseeded, very late canola yielded very well.

Here’s the reality: we simply don’t know what the year will bring. Everything we do now is based on our best guesses of how the year may pan out. Today, there is moisture in the ground, the soil temperature is over 5 degrees, and the fields are plenty dry enough to run equipment over them. That’s why our farm is seeding, and has been for the past 5 days. Other farms are waiting until we’re closer to May. Which one of us is right? Who knows.

This is why agriculture is such a challenging career. Our farm lives and dies based on the weather. We can’t predict it, so we just try to think critically about every decision we make and act on it. Then we hope for rain and sun – but not too much of each.

Seeding is an incredibly stressful but also exhilarating time of the year, when we lay all of our best plans and strategies in the ground and hope for the best. It may be a sprint to the finish, but it is awfully easy to trip on a crack on the way to the finish line. Details are everything. Tomorrow, we go back at it again, and I’m excited to see what it will bring.

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