One of the driest springs in decades finally ended two nights ago, with a rain we have been waiting for what feels like an eternity. Seven weeks passed with virtually no rain, and an unceasing wind drove what moisture we had into the air. It was beginning to look like we were entering what may have been a devastating drought. All that changed on Wednesday.
As of Wednesday night, anywhere from 1.5 to 2.5 inches of rain fell across our farm. Only a few years ago this kind of rain would have been a serious problem, with saturated soils unable to absorb it; this time, our parched ground soaked up almost all of it, with only a small amount pooling in low-land.
This post is a recurring one on my blog, but this may be the first time I have written it in a positive sense. Usually the “one storm that changes everything” is a torrential rain that causes all sorts of problems. This time, this one rainfall event saved our crops from certain failure.
When you talk to farmers like my dad, who started farming in the late 70’s, it seems they are always afraid of the next drought. I started farming in 2009, in one of the wettest cycles this area of the Prairies has seen in centuries, so my first concern is always too much rain. This is the first time I have seen what the beginning of a real drought looks like, and we had the benefit of high subsoil moisture to carry us through to the rain. Farmers that farmed in the 1980’s know very well what a drought looks like.
Dad often talks about the 80’s, about the summers hauling water for the cattle from any source he could find. They would run pipe for miles from a random deep slough that just happened to have water, just to get enough to keep the cattle going. The crops, in several years, were near write-offs, wilting and dying before they could even produce a single seed.
The worst of them all was 1988. Scorching heat and wind in early June, with temperatures regularly in the mid-30’s, obliterated a crop that was already struggling to get out of the ground. That is a year many farmers will remember for the rest of their lives. It didn’t help that grain prices were poor and interest rates were ridiculously high. Many farms didn’t survive this terrible time, and I am glad I have no memories of those days (I was born in 1988).
So, when we get a dry period like we had, that is the mindset farmers of that generation go to. There are few things in farming more terrifying than a drought. It is a dark reminder of the exposure we all have to the whims of Mother Nature.
This rain was a tremendous blessing, and saved the year for this farm. Unfortunately, not everyone was so lucky, and many areas are still in desperate need of rain. Maybe this storm will move us into a wetter cycle. For now though (as soon as it dries up), we will be very busy out in the fields, applying fertilizer, killing weeds, and protecting what is now a crop with real promise. This is what farmers like me live for – raising crops to their full potential.
6 weeks. That’s how much time has passed since the last significant rainfall came to us. That is the longest stretch without rain (at this time of the year) I have seen in my time on the farm. In fact, according to historical data (click here), this has been the driest May in the Weyburn area in nearly two decades – and a whopping 46 years for the Regina area.
It’s dry. No question about it. The wind certainly hasn’t been helping matters either; yesterday, it was gusting up to 60 km/hr, just like it has so many other days this spring. I honestly don’t remember a spring this incessantly windy. It is actually extremely aggravating doing anything outside in wind like we’ve had. Just look at the graph below – it’s from one of our weather stations. That is a lot of windy days! And, that is only from the last month – April was very windy as well.
The wind has been stripping what little moisture we had in our topsoil out, contributing to what amounts to a rather patchy crop. The good news is that we got a nice rain right at the start of seeding, and our soil was right full of water going coming out of winter. That left us with a nice buffer, and there is still a lot of moisture in our soil profile. Things aren’t desperate, not yet.
For the most part this spring, we actually had very nice seeding conditions. The soil was moist, planting conditions were perfect, and it wasn’t too hot. We really couldn’t have asked for better seeding conditions, and the majority of our crop shows it – our earlier seeded crop looks fantastic.
The last third of the crop we planted really needs a rain. Only about half to three-quarters of that later seeded crop has emerged so far, with the rest of it still sitting in the ground, waiting for moisture. The result is a patchy crop that is going to be all over the place for maturity.
The one crop suffering more than anything else is our winter wheat. The extensive soil moisture reserves the other crops are enjoying are long gone for this fall-seeded crop, and it is hurting. We probably have a week to get a rain on this crop before it truly begins to fail. Crops just can’t survive that long without water. Six weeks of dry, windy weather is a lot to ask of any plant.
It has been a long time since our farm experienced a drought. In the last 10 years, we have been far more worried about excess moisture than being short of it. in 2011, we had 17 inches of rain between April and August; and we were saturated to begin with. This year, we have had a half inch of rain since March. Undoubtedly, that is a better situation to be in; there are a lot of farmers up north that are desperate for the dry weather we have been having. Being too wet brings all sorts of problems that we are all too familiar with.
It is too early to give up on this crop. It has a lot of things going for it, especially the early seeded acres. But we are running out of time for the rain to start. If we haven’t seen significant rainfall by the end of the next two weeks, we will be in trouble. Simply put, we need rain and we need it now. If only Mother Nature cared!
Frost. The only good time for this word to be thrown around is at the end of harvest; when the growing season is all but over, our time in the field is winding down, and we look ahead to the coming winter with contentment. When it comes in the middle of May, and when it hits as hard as it did last week, it is far from welcome.
We were on our last day of seeding last Thursday, and we were excited for the end. It isn’t often that we get a run like we did this year. It rained right at the start of seeding, and then it stayed dry right through to the end. We never stopped once, despite numerous forecasts for rain throughout our planting season. The incorrect forecasts were unfortunate, as we pushed hard through all the way through, continually expecting what seemed to be an inevitable rain delay. The result? We were exhausted, mentally and physically, and seriously needed a break. It was time for the end.
My excitement Thursday morning was sharply dampened by the extreme cold. Forecasts had initially been calling for a low of -2 Celsius, which wouldn’t have been a problem at all. At this time of the year, crops are tough, and mild freezing temperatures are rarely a problem. But, later on Wednesday afternoon, the low was suddenly changed to -4. Thursday morning, I realized it was much worse: it had dropped to a low of -7 C. That is a frigid temperature for May.
At that point, I had no idea what the damage might be. All we could do was go out and finish seeding and hope for the best.
On Monday, the severity of the damage was apparent. The winter wheat had been hit hard, with a number of browned-off leaves and severe damage in any low-lying areas. The early-seeded durum and lentils were injured as well, which is very rare – these crops are tough in the spring. The frost must be substantial to injure spring cereals and lentils.
It was the canola that I was most concerned about. Unlike cereal crops like wheat and durum, canola’s growing point comes out of the ground pretty much at emergence. If that growing point dies, the plant is dead. And canola is not a crop that tolerates extreme cold.
After an entire morning on my ATV, taking plant counts and carefully examining the plants, I knew there was only one thing we could do. We had to reseed.
There are few things more frustrating than seeding into perfect conditions, far enough into May to not really be concerned about frost, and establishing a near-perfect stand of canola, all to have to go back in 3 weeks later and do it all again. Now, we are seeding into dust, praying for a rain to get the crop out of the ground. It is not a fun experience.
One of the most challenging things about making the reseed decision is that it is rarely black and white. A frost will almost never completely wipe a field clean. In both of the fields we had to reseed, and in one that we decided not to, we really didn’t know what the right decision was. Sometimes, if conditions are absolutely perfect, you can get away with a very small number of surviving plants. We just don’t know.
The bottom line of all this is that we need rain and we need it pretty soon. Yes, there are always parts of the season where we get too much or not enough precipitation, and it truly is rare for everything to be perfect, but you still have to get that initial rainfall to get the crop out of the ground. Imagine planting your garden, or flowers, or anything like that and not being able to water it. You have to hope that the rain will come.
Farming is unpredictable, and despite all our technological and genetic advancements, Mother Nature still holds all the cards. All we can do is the best job possible out in the field and hope the weather is favourable.
Today marks 4 years since I started this blog. I’ve written about GMOs, glyphosate, carbon taxation, and, more than anything else, weather (among many other things). I’ve talked to so many different people with so many different viewpoints; some agree, some disagree, and others think I secretly work for Monsanto.
In the 4 years that have passed since I started this blog, our farm has changed dramatically. We were on the edge of survival when I started this, which is why I wrote more rants about the weather in my first year than I have since. We were coming off a period of extreme moisture conditions that looked like it would never end.
But it did.
Since then, it has been too dry, too wet, too cold, too hot, and more variations of that than you can imagine. We have seen fall frosts that came too early, hail damage, torrential rains, extreme heat, and even a summer of forest fire smoke. We have dealt with equipment problems of every kind, from monitors that won’t communicate to combine headers that just don’t work.
We have tried cover crops, invested in weather stations, tried straight-cutting canola, and targeted yields that even 5 years ago I wouldn’t have dreamed possible. We have brought in new people, and had to let go of others.
Our farm has changed so much over the past 4 years; I’m not even sure I could’ve imagined we would be where we are today. It really did feel like we were one bad storm away from the end of our farm. The night is darkest just before the dawn; when one storm changes everything, sometime it’s hard to imagine how you’ll get through. But you do.
Agriculture has been attacked from every angle, with constant pressure on genetic engineering, and the disappointing popularity of non-GMO products. Glyphosate (Roundup) has been labelled a probable carcinogen with questionable methodology, and came very close to being banned in Europe. Seed treatments are currently under attack, with regulations on the way.
Farmers have been criticized for nutrient runoff into lakes and streams, for using more pesticides than ever (which is incorrect), and for generally being uncaring of the environment around them. A tax on our emissions is likely on its way, with still-unknown implications.
Despite all this, I have never been more optimistic for our industry. I believe we are making a difference, that our message is getting through. I believe most people do genuinely believe farmers try to do what’s right for the environment. There are more farmer bloggers out there every day, telling their story. Social media, especially Facebook and Twitter, have provided farmers with a voice. People are listening.
We need to keep telling our story, because it’s a great one. It’s a story of families, of generational farms. It’s a story of people, doing what they love, and looking after the land their grandparents farmed. It’s a story of food, of providing nutrition to the world. It’s a story of doing more with less, of producing more food for a hungry world, while preserving more of our world than any time in modern history.
Everything changes. And then, everything changes again. People are questioning what we are doing because they care; they want to know where their food is coming from. They want to know its story. This should not be taken for granted.
I have learned so much since starting this blog, and not just about agriculture. Nearly a year and a half ago, when my son was born, I realized what my parents have known for a long time – that we truly are growing a legacy. I realized that this farm isn’t just about our generation; it’s about the next one.
I’ve met some truly fascinating people in my time writing this blog. I can honestly say that I’ve learned something from almost all of them, and from some, I’ve learned a lot. Writing this blog has been an incredible experience, and I don’t intend to leave it behind anytime soon. Thank you to everyone who has read and supported A Year in the Life of a Farmer for these amazing four years.
You may not have heard much about this, as it has had minimal news coverage, but the PMRA is planning on phasing out imidicloprid, a neonicotinoid insecticide we use for combating early-season insect pests. There are a number of similar products out there,
and together, they help us protect our crops from a variety of difficult to control insects. Why are they phasing out this one?
“Robust environmental monitoring from several areas of intense agricultural activity in Ontario and Quebec further support these findings as imidacloprid is detected frequently in surface water at levels well above concentrations that may result in toxic effects to insects.”
The reality is that their data-set is far from “robust”. They did not use data from Western Canada, stating this:
“Although robust monitoring data are not available for all regions in Canada…it is anticipated that elevated levels may be found in many agricultural areas where there is a high volume of use.”
The statistics in putting this data set together are staggeringly weak and highly presumptuous. We have a different climate, different crops, and a different ecological environment. This is the precautionary principle at its finest – prevent any possible harm without considering the risks of not allowing the product to be used. Without neonics, we will be forced into using less effective, potentially more toxic insecticides that are prone to pest resistance.
If neonics truly were causing serious harm, I would be alright with phasing them out; but the data set the PMRA is using is very weak, and the methodology used is a poor reflection of sound science. If you want to read their report, you can find it here.
The Grain Growers of Canada have produced an excellent letter to send to the PMRA, asking “farmers to express their comments to PMRA as part of the official consultation and amplify our industry’s collective request to see data from the 2017 crop included in the review.”
The deadline to submit is midnight tonight. We need to work together to try and make the PMRA realize how important science-based policy is to us – and how important it is that we have access to all the tools we need for integrated pest management.
This is the letter that I sent this morning. The Grain Growers of Canada wrote most of it; I only added the second last paragraph. I commend the organization for the work they have done to put this together.
March 23, 2017
Pest Management Regulatory Agency
2720 Riverside Drive
Address Locator: 6606D2
I am writing to you today, as a Canadian grain farmer, to express my concern with your agency’s proposed re-evaluation decision of imidacloprid. This product has been in use in Canada for over 20 years and I personally rely on it on my farm as a safe and effective method of managing pests.
I support and rely on Canada’s internationally respected regulatory system where registration and re-evaluation decisions are risk-based and grounded on sound science. As such, I am concerned that the decision to phase-out imidacloprid was not based on a credible and thorough risk assessment given the limited data sets considered by the PMRA in its proposed decision. These data sets do not reflect the potential risk across the varied Canadian agricultural landscape.
Canadian farmers use imidacloprid and other neonicotinoid seed treatments prudently as part of an integrated pest management approach. As food producers, our access to varied chemistries, tools and methods to control pest outbreaks is becoming more limited. This variety is crucial to having adaptability on our farms to limit pest resistance and risks to profits, the environment, and consumers.
On my farm, we work hard to utilize an integrated pest management approach, and we are extremely careful about potential off-target impacts from our crop protection products. We need these products to profitably produce food in an environmentally sustainable manner. Phasing out neonicotinoid products, such as imidicloprid, will remove our best protection against in-season insects. If we do not have access to these products, we may be forced to use older, less effective chemistries that, in some cases, are considerably more toxic (and therefore dangerous) to use; this puts me, my family, and my employees at risk. Moreover, these alternative products are prone to pest resistance, which will further stress the long-term sustainability of my farm.
Considering all the factors that directly impact me, as a farmer, I respectfully request that the PMRA adjust its timelines for the final decision on imidacloprid to allow relevant data to be generated and analyzed from the 2017 growing season. This will allow the PMRA to make the best possible science-based decision for farmers and all Canadians.
Again, click here to go the Grain Growers website to download their letter. Don’t wait – it must be submitted before midnight tonight!
A farmer and his tractor. Picturing a farmer without one is like picturing a person without a smartphone – you can’t survive without it! Nearly every farmer in the last century (at least in North America) has had one, whether it was a 12 horsepower steam-powered engine of the past or a 620 horsepower diesel-powered monster of today. There is no item more ubiquitous on farms in this part of the world than the venerable tractor.
Tractors, however, are not what they once were. Certainly, the most obvious changes include physical size and operator comfort, but there are other changes, too – changes that are threatening the reliability of our crucial workhorses. As our world becomes ever more fixed on the subject of climate change, the emissions of even our tractors has become a major consideration for policy makers – and that is causing some very real problems for farmers.
Diesel engines, the power behind our tractors for many decades, are now under intense scrutiny. It all started back in 1996, with the first federal standards for non-road diesel engines coming into effect. Tier 1 standards were developed by the Environmental Protection Agency and the California ARB, to be phased in between 1996 and 2000. These regulations were initially pretty mild. More advanced engine design, which was already taking place anyway, was enough to meet these emissions targets, and would be through Tiers 2 and 3 as well.
In 2008, through to 2015, regulations became much stricter with the adoption of Tier 4 standards. Nitrogen oxide (NOx), widely believed to be one of the more severe greenhouse gases, and particulate matter (PM) had to be reduced to 90% below 2008 levels – an ambitious target. The only way to achieve these targets, especially the even more stringent Tier 4 final of today, was to install diesel particulate filters (DPF) to catch and trap NOx and PM before they leave the tailpipe. The other part of the equation is the use of diesel exhaust fluid (DEF), which is injected to cause a more complete burn of the fuel inside the cylinder (read more here and here).
On our farm, we purchased our first Tier 4 tractor in 2012, which was a John Deere high-clearance sprayer. Since then, two of our four-wheel drive tractors, one of our combines, our skidsteer, our sprayer, a semi truck and our pickup trucks are all under Tier 4 regulations.
Last week, we were hauling winter wheat to Kola, Manitoba, a 450 kilometer round trip. We have a few semi trucks on the farm these days, but only one is relatively new – our 2013 Peterbilt. Since it’s the newest (which should mean it’s the most reliable), it’s the best one to make the trip – right?
In fact, it never made a single run. The DEF system failed on it on its way to town one day, which put it into limp mode. What does limp mode mean? Well, it couldn’t even generate enough power to pull an empty trailer to the truck shop in Weyburn, a 40 km drive. Dad’s pickup truck had to tow it most of the way (incidentally, a great advertisement for Dodge trucks). The repair bill? $1,400 just for the parts. All to fix emissions equipment.
The problem with this stuff is that it is extremely fragile and not suited to our type of work. In the instruction manual for that semi, it says that it will occasionally need to “burn” the particulate matter (PM) out of the exhaust system (otherwise it will clog up). When it decides to do a burn, you must “simply drive for 45 minutes and it will complete its cleaning cycle.” All well and good – except we rarely have to haul that far. At least 80% of our grain goes within a half hour radius from home. So, we’re supposed to just drive to Regina for the fun of it? Great use of our time – and our fuel.
Worse, if we don’t get a burn done on a regular basis, the system will clog up and need to be cleaned out; a process that runs thousands and thousands of dollars. And this is all for one of our four semi trucks. Oh, and our 1995 Peterbilts? Yeah, they run just fine.
And that’s just our trucks. One of our combines, a 2013, has a DPF (that’s the filter in the exhaust). One day, near the end of harvest (thank goodness), it decided it needed a burn. It made that call around mid-afternoon, and by the evening it barely made it home. You see, when those systems run a cleaning cycle, the engine has to run extremely hot to burn the PM out. On a combine that runs in hot, dry, flammable chaff all day, it can’t do a burn while it’s operating. So, it has to sit and idle to do one. Our combine sat and roared away at full throttle for 45 minutes that morning to complete its cleaning cycle. Tell me again, this is good for the environment how?
Our tractors, which run both DPF and DEF (exhaust filters and fluid), became so unreliable that we had to keep new DEF filters on standby. They would literally shut down in the middle of the day because the DEF system failed. I do not understand how a $400,000 tractor should ever have to shut down because the emissions system wasn’t working exactly right.
What’s the Solution?
I’m not going to go into a debate about climate change and whether it’s real or not – that’s a discussion for another time and place. But the fact is that emissions equipment is costing us serious money. Not only does new equipment cost more because of the technology investment engine manufacturers have to make, but it has severely compromised the reliability of the machinery we so greatly rely on.
We have a few options to deal with this situation: one, run old equipment and give up the other technology and improved reliability new machinery brings; two, buy all new machinery and hope the newer DEF and DPF systems are better (doubtful); or three, delete the DEF and DPF systems from our equipment and run without (supposedly illegal – but quite likely the best option).
Regulators need to understand how critical the timing of our operations is. We absolutely cannot afford to be shut down for emissions equipment problems. There must be allowances for DEF and DPF failures so that we can run until the problem can be fixed.
If climate change is such a serious issue that we must limit emissions of farm equipment to this degree, governments should be prepared to step up and help us pay the tremendous repair cost of these systems. And until these exhaust filtration systems are built to withstand the rigours of farm labour, they should not be required on our equipment. Feeding the world – and our families – is a higher priority for me than a few extra pounds of nitrous oxide emissions.