For the last number of years, seeding has been a sprint to the finish. Difficult weather conditions, with constant rain in the forecast, pushed us to hammer the crop in as quickly as possible. This year has been a a very different – and welcome – experience. However, it has not been without its challenges, with cool May nights and rains causing real concerns.
We completed #plant15 on Saturday, May 23. It’s hard to believe it took that many weeks, considering the relatively relaxed atmosphere that it was, being that we actually started on April 23rd. We had a few breaks, including a 5-day rest before the final run. It rained last weekend, shutting us down just as we completed the flax. We started again on Wednesday with the soybeans and one last field of canola.
I think one of the best ways to tell you about seeding is to show it to you. So, what follows is a collection of photos from the seeding season.
Getting ready to go seeding is, as a previous blog stated, hell. There are endless jobs to do: cleaning, treating and organizing seed; checking and loading drills and air carts; finding and fixing the numerous problems that pop up every spring; hauling and marketing grain; and the non-stop job of managing cash flow. All of these things are all in preparation for the most important job of the year: seeding. Dad rather accurately refers to this time as “Hell Week”.
We usually start seeding with peas. A large-seeded crop that does well in cool soils, peas are a flexible crop that work well early, especially since they are a shorter-season crop that can be combined early as well.
We have two drills: one is an old-style hoe drill, as shown above, with a fixed frame that each shank is directly attached to. Since the shanks are not independent of each other, depth control is pretty poor. The frame of the drill cannot follow the contours of the ground very well, so all shanks are essentially controlled as one. Our other drill, a SeedMaster, has independent depth control; meaning, each shank is hydraulically pressured against the ground to consistently follow the contours of the soil. For small seeded crops like canola and, to some degree, cereal crops like wheat and barley, this is a vital tool to ensure proper depth of each seed. For large seeded crops like peas and lentils, this is rather unnecessary, and we find the hoe drill works just fine. The advantage of the hoe drill is simplicity. They are cheap, easy to fix and handle all kinds of tough field conditions – but they do have their limitations. That is why we usually have our drills split up throughout seeding.
Once seeding really gets going, it is time to get the sprayer out and get some “burn-off” done. Burn-off, or pre-seed spraying, is a very important operation to do precisely. The wrong chemical on the wrong field could spell disaster, and it is important to try and stay a couple days ahead of the drills. Since we can seed upwards of 700-800 acres per day, that makes for some very long days in the sprayer. These machines are marvels of technology, with automatic boom height control, prescription-applied products, touchscreen controls and a variety of performance-enhancing features to make you more productive every day. They do, however, come with a steep sticker price!
It is critical to ensure burn-off is done properly. The best defense against weeds is to simply not have them at all; a well-timed burn-off with the right products at the right rate can mean the difference between a clean field and a dirty one, which can make all the difference in your farm’s ability to produce a profit. Chemistry is a surprisingly important aspect of farming today.
One aspect of farming that has seen significant change in the past few years is treating seed. Only a few short years ago, most of Dad’s crop went in the ground without seed treatment. That was due to a few factors: treating equipment was poor, the products were pretty weak, and there was a general belief among farmers that it was a waste of money. Today, seed treatment products are a vast improvement over their predecessors, with some of the best chemistries in agriculture going into them. Treating equipment is much more accessible, affordable, and accurate. With the massive investments that go into the ground during seeding, adding a treatment to protect the seeds is just good management. Although getting good coverage and proper application rates is still difficult, the end result of a protected seed is well worth it.
Seeing the first little seedlings push their way out of the ground is a wonderful feeling. It is at that moment that you know you’ve got a crop, that all your planning and hard work is finally starting to show for something. But, the reality is that there is a lot that can go wrong yet, and one disadvantage of our early start to seeding this year is the threat of frost. You see, it is quite common for us to get freezing nighttime temperatures well into May. Canola is very susceptible to freezes, as its growing point is exposed as soon as it cracks the ground. This canola crop emerged in early May.
Last weekend a system moved in, referred to as a “Colorado Low”, that clashed with a very warm weather system we had been experiencing. These two weather systems reacted violently together, with substantial rainfall and even snow falling east of here. We got some rain out of it, which was rather unwelcome; but the more concerning part was the cold nights to follow. As the skies cleared Monday evening, the temperature quickly dropped below freezing. In fact, for ten hours that night the temperature was below the freezing mark, and maxed out at -5.1 degrees Celsius. That is a very cold night for our little seedlings, and I was sure our early canola would be lost. Amazingly, all of it survived it just fine! I’m counting my blessings on that one; we don’t usually get that lucky.
It is about the halfway point of seeding that you really begin to feel it. The late nights, the early mornings, the constant planning and math that you have to do. The drive for perfection, or as close to it as you can get, pushes you to do everything as perfectly as you possibly can. But, as seeding drags on, it can be hard to keep the intensity up. That is precisely why a good rain delay is incredibly important.
Seeding isn’t all about tractors, drills and sprayers. Some of the most important jobs are keeping those machines moving. Our liquid fertilizer truck never stops moving all the way through seeding. Those two drills, on a typical canola or wheat field, burn through approximately 9,000-11,000 litres (2,400-2,900 US gallons) of liquid fertilizer per hour. Moreover, they are using up tonnes upon tonnes of seed, dry fertilizer and diesel fuel. The sprayer, tearing along at 175 acres per hour, uses thousands of litres of water each hour, and is often too far from home to drive back to load each time. Keeping up with all these demanding machines takes an incredible amount of planning and logistics. And, with all the wet weather we’ve been having, driving highway semi trucks up and down some of our back roads is no easy task.
The last field is always a fun one to start. The end is so close you can taste it, and you start to think about all the other jobs to start on when you’re done. But, that final field can often be a total nightmare. This particular field has been extremely wet for the past few years, and, just like in 2014 and 2012, it was our final field this year. Last year, it took 4 days to seed this 500 acre section; we can normally seed that in one day with just one of our drills. In 2012, both drills hammered away at this field for days, with numerous stucks and difficulties making it an infuriating experience. With eyes wide open as to how difficult this field can be, we headed down there with our SeedMaster.
As the other drill finished up the soybeans, we switched back to canola to get through this horribly cut-up field. Amazingly, we actually plowed through it with very few issues, and in a day and a half, it was completed. The finished map for the field was a bit of a mess (see insert at right), but that was kind of expected. It has been quite a few years since we seeded through many of the low spots down there.
Even though seeding is now “completed” there is still some seeding left to do, with previously inaccessible low spots now dry enough to seed. And, although seeding is definitely one of the busiest times of the year, there is a lot to do as we move into June, with in-crop weed spraying starting up very soon, drills to clean up and put away, grain to move and fields to scout to ensure no pests take away our hard-earned crop. Beyond that, initial preparations must begin for harvest, which will be early this year.
For now though, we will celebrate another crop in the ground and another successful planting season. Summer in Saskatchewan is a beautiful time, and we have to find time to enjoy it. After all, while we all love farming, we do need a break from it from time to time; and what better way to do that than a weekend at one of Saskatchewan’s fantastic lakes?