Winter Wheat is an Exercise in Optimism

One of the strangest experiences during harvest is its polar opposite – seeding! Although winter wheat planting is difficult to accomplish during the busiest time of the year, it is usually a worthwhile endeavour; saving time and inputs during the other busiest time of the year, seeding.

ImageAn early morning for the maiden voyage of our new air drill!

When we seed in the spring, all hands are on deck to sprint the marathon of planting the year’s crop. It is a busy, stressful time of the year, when you put everything on the line to seed a crop in the extremely short time window that is available. You are seeding multiple different crops with varying fertilizer plans, ensuring as few mistakes as possible are made, as every wrong decision can bring disasterous consequences. 

Fall seeding, by comparison, is relatively relaxing. While harvest wore on, I spent close to a week seeding mostly on my own. I had help from my wife when she was home from work, as well as from others early in the morning. For the rest of the day, I had to load trucks and load the drill on my own. This is a big project for one person. It comes with very early mornings and long days, trying to keep everything moving without disturbing the harvest crew, which of course takes precedence. Sacrificing time harvesting this year’s crop to plant next year’s is akin to the “bird in hand versus two in the bush” analogy. Despite all of this, I get to work at my own pace, which is not the marathon spring seeding normally is. 

Winter wheat is grown all over the world, mostly with greater success than we experience here. Our long, cold winters are very harsh for this crop, and as such we must give up the higher yielding varieties from the south for winter hardiness. Even with these tougher varieties, a winter without much snow (which does happen from time to time) can virtually kill of this crop if temperatures dip below -25 degrees Celsius (which happens often). For these reasons, careful management of winter wheat is a must. Selecting the right varieties and seeding at the right time can make all the difference. I seeded ours from September 10-15.

Like every crop, winter wheat requires a clean field, so we sprayed it for weeds about 2 weeks before seeding. Like other wheats, it also requires large fertilizer amounts. We applied a fair amount of slow-release nitrogen, but we will top up in the spring if the crop looks good.

ImageLoading the drill with fertilizer – it needs a lot of it!

Can you grow winter wheat organically? Sure, but you won’t be happy with the weedy, weak stand that will most likely not yield enough to even make the land rental payments. If you are going to strip the seeds from your plants, you are removing nutrients from the soil. How will you replace them without fertilizer? If you mine your soil, it will eventually fail you. Just ask anyone who farmed in Saskatchewan in the 1930’s.

Farming requires a great deal of optimism (or foolishness, take your pick) and seeding winter wheat is no exception. Just when you finally get your crop in the bin, you go and plant another one, with a whole new set of risks and rewards. Will it germinate in the fall, typically one of the driest times of the year? Will it survive winter? If it does, it has great potential for the following spring, and really reduces the workload in the spring.

Farming is all about risk management. Rain can be very damaging to mature crops at harvest, so we plant a crop that will benefit. It’s just like your retirement portfolio; full of different investments that respond to different market events to reduce your exposure to market fluctuations. In essence, this is what we do with every crop, every year.

At least, that is what we try to do. It doesn’t always work. All we can do is hope that it does.

 

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