Maybe this seems like kind of an obvious question, but there is more to this than you may think. Rain raises a whole host of issues for farmers at this time of the year, and is much more than a minor nuisance.
This harvest has been especially difficult so far, with continuous rainy, wet, humid weather plaguing our attempts at combining. Every few days we seem to get more showers, and every night has been frustratingly wet and humid. So, just what does weather like this do to our harvest operations?
- Soggy fields- Combines are exceptionally large and heavy machines. While they are surprisingly capable despite their lumbering look, too much rain will overwhelm their ability to move around in the fields. Worse, the support equipment tends to be less able to manage mud, especially semis. Trucks need to be able to get in and out of our fields without getting stuck, and also need to traverse little, narrow back roads that generally lack gravel. With these roads becoming wetter and wetter, we can lose our ability to get to some of our fields. Even the grain cart, attached to a 550 horsepower tractor with tracks, can be overwhelmed in wet conditions. Ever get a 1300 bushel, 55,000 pound, top-heavy wagon stuck out in the middle of a field? Neither have I! And I don’t want to know what it takes to get it unstuck, either.
- Quality loss- This is arguably the biggest detriment to us in a wet fall. We grow a lot of acres of quality-sensitive crops that are very susceptible to rains when they are mature. Durum in particular quickly loses its glowing amber colour, which is a major factor when it comes to grading. A downgrade from a #1 durum to a #3 can be worth $1 per bushel or more. It’s pretty easy to do the math on that when you grow over 100,000 bushels! Even worse, if the weather stays wet long enough, the crop could become animal feed. Feed wheat right now is worth $3 per bushel less than good quality durum. Ouch! Lentils, green peas and other wheat classes are susceptible as well, and losses can quickly build up in those crops along with the durum.
- Yield loss- Eventually, given enough rain, even tolerant crops like canola can start to lose yield. How does this happen? Quite simply, the rain washes the seed so much and so aggressively that it begins to lose weight. The lighter each seed gets, the fewer tonnes of grain you end up with at the end of the day. Wheat is the most sensitive to this (of the crops we grow on our farm, that is), and can actually lose quite a large amount of yield to this phenomenon.
- Expensive field clean-up: This goes back to the soggy field issue; all those ruts you make with combines, trucks and support equipment must be cleaned up at some point. You’d be amazed how long ruts will hang around if you do nothing with them! This goes right back to basic field tillage, which we usually try to avoid. Tillage burns fuel and uses up iron, and can quickly become a substantial cost.
- Active weather creates more active weather: When we get trapped in these weather patterns, other events can happen, such as hail, big winds (which can blow away canola swaths in a hurry) and even – gulp – snow. Dry airmasses promote quiet, boring weather, which is what we need.
Of course, the above problems are really only the beginning… worst-case scenarios are much grimmer. Enough rain for enough time will cause far more severe damage, such as sprouting, which can quickly make cereal crops feed; flooding, ruining hundreds of acres of crops; delayed maturity, which is all fine and good as long as it stays cloudy- but that first clear night can lead to early frosts, further reducing the quality of the crop. Are we trending into a worst-case scenario right now? It’s hard to say at this point. If our durum and spring wheat are sprouting, we will find out when we start combining again. Right now, we simply don’t know.
All this uncertainty further complicates marketing. How do we know what we can sell? You sell wheat based on its quality specifications, which are a total unknown right now. We really don’t even know what the yield will be, since so much of the crop is flooded out from weather this spring. Furthermore, since most of Saskatchewan and Manitoba are facing the same situation, will there be a glut of feed wheat and low-quality durum? Even though misery truly does love company, if everyone has the same quality of wheat, we have nowhere to haul ours to to blend off with better quality stuff. A burdensome supply of low-quality wheat and durum will be difficult to move as well, which weakens our cash flow.
Finally, an exceptionally wet fall such as this one can complicate seeding next year’s crop. For example, 2010 was a fall much like this one. September was miserable, with most of our crop sitting in rains for the better part of the month. Fields were soggy, and never had enough time to dry out before winter came. Winter proved to be a wet one, with substantial snowfall burying wet fields for the duration of the season. 2011 is a year we will remember for the rest of our lives- the year we couldn’t seed the crop. The fall previous was a big part of the reason for that disaster. Seeing a fall turn so wet again is concerning. Especially when we have plans to seed 2,000 acres of winter wheat! We always seed it into canola stubble, which has yet to even be harvested yet. We have 2 weeks to seed that crop before it gets too late. That’s not much time, and the concerns I have for next spring increase my anxiety to get the winter wheat in the ground.
Am I overdoing this here? Am I exaggerating to prove a point? Or am I a typical farmer, always complaining about the weather?
If you’ve ever read my blog, you’ll know that I am always brutally honest about my concerns and frustrations with the weather. Indeed, as a farmer, the weather controls much of my life: my income, my day-to-day activities, and ultimately my ability to keep doing what it is I love most- growing crops. Weather such as what we are experiencing right now is stressful in a way I don’t think many non-farmers can imagine. Hopefully this blog gives you some idea of what it’s like!
Our farm’s ability to survive depends on being able to sell enough dollars of crop to cover the cost of growing them. This weather is substantially reducing those dollars. I, along with other farmers, talk about the weather so much because every single day changes the potential income of our business. Rain or sun, warm or cool, either way can be good or bad depending on the year. This year, and the last several before it, have given us so much wet weather that I think we are all feeling a little burned out. We need a change.
Come on, Mother Nature. Give us the weather we so desperately need. Give us some sun, give us some heat, and let us get this crop off while it’s still worth something. No more rain!