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.

 

 

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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Good Beach Weather Does Not Grow Good Crops

Summer. Time to spend at the lake, your cabin, a campground; pretty much anywhere that involves enjoying the outdoors. What’s the best weather for that? Well, 30 degree days are wonderful out on the lake, and for some people, the hotter the better. All you have to do is turn on your favorite weather station and hear the weatherperson acclaim yet another glorious 33 degree summer day, with more wonderful heat on the way…

As a farmer, that is about as agonizing to listen to as nails on a chalkboard. There are countless ways for us to lose yield every year, whether it’s frost, hail, excess moisture, insects, diseases, or countless other threats. Each one of those events is devastating in its own way; but at least you have some control over the living threats, like diseases and insects. The ones that fall from the sky are by far the worst. The last few years, as you will find on previous posts, have hit us hard with excess moisture and even some frost events. Cool and wet has been the name of the game. The advantage of that type of weather is that if you can avoid the extremes, you can grow some incredible crops.

This year, weather has taken a 180 degree turn. Our crops are suffering under an oppressive, stifling summer sun, with daytime temperatures easily reaching over 30 degrees day after day. Rainfall has been limited, to say the least. This year, we are facing an event we haven’t seen in many, many years; a drought.

My father started farming back in the late 70’s, a time not unlike this one. Farms were doing very well, with fantastic grain prices for quite a few years previous. Land prices were skyrocketing, and much of the Prairies had grown at least a few good crops to cash in on the good times. Then came the 80’s.

The 1980’s was one of the driest decades ever recorded in Western Canada, perhaps even worse than the infamous Dirty 30’s. Of all those years of dry weather, 1988 is the one that stands out as the worst. Dad talks about that year a lot. Crops barely even germinated, and most died soon after emergence. Weeks of extreme heat and wind sucked the life out of the entire crop. Keeping enough feed around for the cattle was terribly difficult, and water had to be pumped and hauled from just about every slough they could find.

While this year is not at all on that level for our area, for some areas west of here those comparisons are starting to be made. That is a disturbing thing to hear. Serious feed shortages are going to arise, and there are some truly sick looking crops out there that are past the point of no return.

Ironically, despite all my frustrations about the past couple of years, it is because of all that excess moisture last year and the years before that we have the crop that we do. Despite only Red Lentilsreceiving three inches, or 75 millimeters, of rain since the beginning of the crop year, we have a crop stand we haven’t had in many, many years. Everything was pointing to an above average crop… but we haven’t had a significant rain now for nearly three weeks. Our subsoil moisture is slowly running out, and as temperatures climb into the low 30’s, our crops are beginning to feel the pinch. Any day above 25 degrees starts removing yield potential from wheat and canola, and as the days turn into weeks, that potential will really start to collapse.

Picture yourself as a wheat plant standing out in the middle of a field. As the sun’s heat bears down on you, what can you do to keep cool? You can’t walk over to a tree to find shade. You can’t jump in a pool of water to cool off. All you can do is stand there and drink as much water as you can to stay hydrated and cool. So, naturally, you drink a lot of water. Right now, with the heat these crops are experiencing, they are using 10 mm of water per day. Even with the substantial soil reserves we have, heat like that will burn it up very quickly.

This data from our John Deere Field Connect Weather Station. you can see each of the different soil depths, and the water level in each down to one meter. It is fascinating to watch throughout the season - but you can see a marked reduction in soil moisture that is simply not being replenished.
This is data from our John Deere Field Connect Weather Station. You can see each of the different soil depths, and the water level in each down to one meter. It is fascinating to watch throughout the season – but you can see a marked reduction in soil moisture that is simply not being replenished.

The situation in our area, despite the recent heat wave, is still pretty good. We have an excellent stand of deeply rooted crops that are adapting to drier, hotter weather. We also tried more drier-season crops this year, due to the forecast for a summer like we’re currently seeing, such as lentils, peas and winter wheat. I really need to point out that we have been very fortunate so far this year. But that won’t last forever. We need a rain, and we need it soon.

While some thunderstorms have popped up here and there and provided relief to a couple of DSC_0083fields, it has been far from good enough. And, the danger of these summer storms is that they rarely only bring rain. We had substantial damage to a canola field last week from a hail storm. With the right weather, it can probably recover fairly well, but the next couple of weeks will be critical for it.

Don’t get me wrong; I love going to the lake, and it is nice to have some hot weather to go along with it. But day after day of 30+ degree temperatures are critically damaging to crops. Not to mention that trying to work outside in weather like that is anything but enjoyable.

For a long time, my parents farmed in some pretty dry weather. It has only been the past 7 years that we have wished against rain. Maybe this is just a return to normal. One thing there is little doubt about though is this: if this heat continues, and rain fails to materialize, a large part of the Canadian Prairies will be in rough shape. There are few threats farmers fear more than drought, and for the first time in 13 years, that may just be what we’re in.

The Legacy of Years of Excess Moisture

For the first time in quite a few years, 2015 is shaping up to be a little on the drier side. We started and finished seeding earlier than most of my father’s career, and precipitation has been mercifully light. Although there is a lot of growing season ahead of us, this may be the drier year we have been waiting for.

Despite the drier bias, the effects of excess moisture still linger. Roads continue to deteriorate, with countless holes and failing sections. Fields are still full of water, with every low spot filled to the brim. Every water body is at capacity, unable to absorb any sudden precipitation event. These are problems that will not just go away, and will haunt us for years. But perhaps the most worrisome situation of all is the frightening, creeping white powder, slowly spreading across our fields, choking out any life it touches… salinity. All of this really began back in 2008.

That year, we started seeding in late April into dry soil. With no rains right through May, we finished seeding very early and seeded through every low spot we could find. As the spring came to an end, rains began to come, with a relatively cool summer to go along with them. The result was a fantastic crop by the time we reached August. It was then that things changed.

We went to the lake one weekend just before the beginning of harvest. We had winter wheat pretty much ready to go, but, seeing as how it wasn’t quite ready to combine, we took one final weekend off before the long grind of harvest began. Our last day at the lake was a beautiful, warm and sunny day, perfect for being out on the water. But as we started toward home, we saw a cloud that made me sweat.

A black, rolling wall was coming right at us, and as we finally reached home, we were hammered by a storm unlike anything we had seen in some time.

The damage? Well, there was thankfully no hail, but we received anywhere from 3.5 to 6.5 inches of moisture in that one storm. Harvest was a nightmare, with a count of over 25 stuck combine occurrences, and a crop that had pretty substantial quality loss.

Ever since that fall, we have been wet, with varying degrees of successes and failures. 2009, 2012 and 2013 were all very successful years, with lots of moisture and cool weather, but not to the point of extreme excesses. Certainly, we lost a lot of crop in those years to flooding as well, but we did quite well despite that. Conversely, 2010, 2011 and 2014 were either disasters or close to, with 2011 as the year we failed to plant much of a crop at all, with only 25% going in the ground, and most of it being lost. Indeed, for several now we have been stuck in a wet weather pattern, with hammering rains that hit like a wall of bricks seemingly every time a cloud shows up.

Finally, it seems that things are changing. We began and finished seeding very early this year, with excellent seeding conditions and lots of subsoil moisture, but very little precipitation, thankfully. While there is a lot of growing season ahead of us, it seems that 2015 is going to be a different year from the previous several.

Let’s be clear, though – there is no doubt that we are in a precarious situation. Any significant Flooding Saskatchewanmoisture event could quickly plunge us right back to a year ago. One storm could change everything. Our roads are becoming increasingly difficult, and expensive, to maintain; as pesky muskrats, emboldened by the acres of water surrounding some roads, dig their way underneath the roads. Numerous sections of roads in the area are in serious danger of becoming impassable with our heavy trucks, which we cannot go without to supply our drills and empty our combines.

But, roads are fixable, sloughs will diminish, and drier weather will return. The cycles of climate will return us to drier weather, just as they did after the 1950’s and the 1970’s, along with countless other wet cycles over the millennia. What drier weather may not fix is salinity.

The white ring around this slough is referred to as a
The white ring around this slough is referred to as a “bathtub ring”. Nothing will grow in that for decades.

Soil salinity is excess salts in the soil, generally made up of combinations of sodium and sulphates or chlorides. Plants can’t access the nutrients they need for life, as the sodium elements in the soil offset the nutrients they need. Trouble begins for plants long before the ground turns white; but once that happens, any life is strangled out. That level of salinity doesn’t just go away, either. It will linger on for my lifetime, and my children’s, and maybe even beyond that. At this time, there is no easy fix for this problem.

My father has watched salinity encroach on his land, and his neighbors’ land, off and on throughout his career. The move away from summerfallow and cultivation to continuous cropping and no-till helped enormously, stopping the growth of that creeping white death in its tracks; but it was also drier at that time, from the late 70’s through the early 90’s. Growing crops keeps water from collecting on the land. As water builds and then slowly evaporates away, it often leaves behind a salty residue. Salts also come from the parent material, pushed up by excessive groundwater. But lately, even the good land has developed salinity, which has rarely been seen before .

Lately, there has just been so much water that we can’t grow enough plant biomass to soak up the salts. As the salts build up, crops struggle even more, and it becomes a bit of a cycle. It is a common problem in irrigation areas, which just goes to show how much water we have gotten in the past few years!

Is the problem with us, the farmers? Are we working our land too hard? My estimation is that no, that is not the case, as I have seen salinity grow even in the native prairie community pasture just north of my home, choking out the mixed grasslands. This is a problem with the soil itself, with the weather patterns we are experiencing.

What can we do about it? I’m really not sure. This isn’t one of those issues with a simple answer, something that the government can come in and regulate away, or even something that we farmers are necessarily even mismanaging. What we need, I believe, is a change to drier weather. And for the next wet weather cycle that rolls through in ten, twenty or thirty years from now, we need a plan. And drainage may just have to be a part of that plan. Soil amendments may be an answer as well; applications of gypsum have helped in some scenarios. We are currently experimenting with that.

If we are moving towards a drier weather pattern, that will help remediate many of the issues we are currently facing. I want to be clear, too, that we are far from being the worst-affected area from this weather. Many farmers have lost much, with water even threatening their yards. I consider us lucky to have avoided that scenario. It could be much, much worse. Nevertheless, excess moisture has become a serious problem, and it is about time it starts to fade away.

Sometimes Harvest Is Fun… And Sometimes It’s Not

A year ago today, harvest was nearly finished. It was the tenth of October that we completed our final field, which happened to be a very late crop of durum. While the harvest of 2013 had its challenges, including some rain delays and a couple frustrating breakdowns, it was completed at a time we could be happy with- and it was a monster of a crop. This year has been very different.

Rains kept us out of the field for much of late August and early September. While we were able to get a fair amount done during that time, including our winter wheat and green peas, our poor durum sat out in the field through it all. Durum is very susceptible to grading losses in such conditions, and ours was no exception.

Traditionally, durum has been one of the best paying crops in our area. It almost always out-yields its cousin, spring wheat, and usually pays better, too. It is used for pastas, primarily. Next time you make spaghetti, check the ingredients; you will see that durum is its base origin. For reasons that I have yet to understand (despite a fair amount of research), durum simply grows well in this area. Go a few miles east or north, few farmers grow it. From our home and west, however, the landscape brims with field after field of durum.

Unfortunately, in the last few years, our durum production has been threatened, with late springs and disease taking their toll. One disease in particular has reared its ugly head in a big way this year: Fusarium Head Blight (FHB for short). This disease is particularly fond of durum. Basically, this fungus enters the head as it undergoes its flowering stage, typically in late July. Its symptoms are not visible until late in the season, when it is far too late to do anything about it. Preventative fungicide sprays do work, but they have limited effectiveness on the disease in years where the humidity is very high for a prolonged period in the summer. Warm, damp conditions can cause severe proliferation of the disease. Essentially, the seeds produced by the plant are damaged by the fungus, and sometimes seed production may even be diminished.

This is an infected head near maturity. Notice the top of the head- not many seeds in there.
This is an infected head near maturity. Notice the top of the head- not many seeds in there.

This year has the worst infection levels I have ever seen. We are seeing substantial downgrading from our buyers.  This crop is graded on a basic numbering system: it starts as a #1 CWAD (Canadian Western Amber Durum) and works its way down to a #5 CWAD (if it’s really poor, it goes even lower than that- sample is below #5. We have that grade this year, too). The difference in price between these varies from year to year, but this year the difference is over $4 per bushel, depending on the buyer. So, take your average durum yield, say 50 bushels per acre, and calculate what your losses are on 2,000 acres. That is the number many durum producers are looking at this year (give or take some acres and yield).

Fortunately, yields are pretty strong, so that kind of makes up for the poor quality. But, some durum is so bad this year that some producers cannot even sell it. You see, Fusarium produces “vomitoxins” that are difficult for animals (yes, that includes people) to digest. Think “toxin” and “vomit” and you get the idea. If people can’t eat it, and livestock can’t eat it, what do you do with it? Simple- it’s garbage. Burn it, bury it, whatever. But it’s total trash.

No, we don’t have any durum that bad. But some of ours is awfully close. Even spring wheat has been heavily affected this year, which is quite rare. In a year as wet as this one has been, disease is a serious issue- in all crops.

Notice the shredded stem with the black spots inside? That's Sclerotinia Stem Rot. It definitely compromised the yield of this canola plant.
Notice the shredded stem with the black spots inside? That’s Sclerotinia Stem Rot. It definitely compromised the yield of this canola plant.

Even stripping out the disease portion, all the rains have severely compromised the quality of all types of wheat, as well as lentils, barley, and a variety of other crops. The rains simply came at the wrong time this fall- right at the beginning of harvest. And now, we sit again, with nothing moving for the past week. We still have a ways to go to finish harvest, and many of our neighbors, especially to the east of us, have even further to go.

Is this a disaster scenario? No. At least, not for us. Our durum yielded well enough, and our costs are low enough, that we can actually break even on #5 durum this year. One advantage of growing a variety of crops is that some are pretty resilient to ugly harvest weather. For example, flax, soybeans and canola are pretty tolerant to harvest rains and really haven’t seen a reduction in yield from this weather. Frost beat up the flax and soybeans a bit, but it may not have done as much damage as we feared. It did get awfully windy one day, which can be very damaging to ripe, swathed canola, but it didn’t get us on too many of our acres.

Take a close look at these swaths. The wind moved them around pretty badly. That costs a lot of canola.
Take a close look at these swaths. The wind moved them around pretty badly. That costs a lot of canola.

I guess when you look at harvest 2014 on the whole, it really has been a harvest fraught with every kind of yield reducing factor you can imagine. Rain, frost, wind and disease all took their toll this year, with no crop escaping from them all. Only our winter wheat got through relatively unscathed, due to its early harvesting date.

I do want to make one thing clear: I consider us to be pretty lucky with what weather we have gotten. Obviously, it could have been a lot better. We could have gotten less rain, less wind, and warmer nights. But we could also have gotten snow (southern Alberta did), we could have had that windy day earlier, when more canola was unharvested, or we could be getting stuck in our fields every day, like some of my friends have been. The thing is, no matter how bad the weather may be, somebody is always getting it worse somewhere else. No matter how bad your year, or your month, or your day has been, it could always be worse. The fact is that 73% of our harvest is completed, when it could be 50%, or 30%. Sometimes, when things look really bad, you just need to sit back and think about how good some things are (although, if it snows next week, you may see my mood shift a little darker).

Hopefully we can resume harvest tomorrow. We still have many other jobs to do as well, like spraying, tilling, and grain hauling, so we need a good stretch of nice weather to get through it all. But it will come. It always has.

Leguee Wheat Harvest

 

The End of The Growing Season Has Come Too Early

Frost. A swear word to farmers throughout the bulk of the growing season. An event that can quite literally ruin a crop overnight. This week, our farm experienced multiple nights below freezing, with  a couple of nights nearing five degrees below zero. Granted, September 10-15 is actually a pretty normal first-frost date on the Canadian Prairies. So what is everyone so worried about?

I think the emphasis needs to be placed on “normal first frost”. The 2014 growing season has been anything but normal; with a very late start to seeding, a cold, wet spring and a very wet start to summer, crops did not exactly get a stellar start. A late start to seeding became a late finish, with many crops seeded well into June. Cool, wet weather slowed their emergence and establishment, and torrential downpours set them back substantially. We were set up for a late crop, as even the fields seeded at the end of May were of a concern.

Summer allowed us to forget those fears, with 6 weeks of beautiful weather allowing our crops to flourish. While the damage from the rain had already been done, with substantial areas flooded out, it was looking like crops just might turn out alright. Nevertheless, we would still need at least the 20th of September without a frost to get everything mature in time.

We now know that that was not to be. The weather took a turn for the worse at the end of August, with wet, cool weather returning. Fields became increasingly wet, disease levels shot up, and crop maturation rates slowed. Now, after weeks of wet weather ruining the quality of our wheat and durum crops, frost has severely damaged our later cereals, in addition to our flax and soybeans.

What Does An Early Frost Do?

Like many aspects of crop production, the answer is, quite simply, it depends. A “frost” is really not as simple as it sounds. Sometimes, it can freeze only for a couple of hours and only a couple degrees below freezing. This does minimal damage. Obviously then, a frost well below zero for many hours will be much worse. A frost like that kills- well, everything.

Frosty Morning Seeding
A cold and frosty morning for seeding winter wheat- and for immature crops.

Imagine a lovely old wheat plant, wearily nearing the end of its lifespan, slowly stashing away all its nutrients, all of its sugars, and all of its hopes and dreams into its progeny (okay, maybe I’m being a little melodramatic here). Giving itself entirely to its offspring, our tired old wheat plant is getting ready to shut down for good and release its newborn seeds. Suddenly, out of the blue, WHAM! a frost hits, and our poor old wheat plant suddenly dies. It cannot fulfill its lifespan. Instead of a slow, methodical shutdown to prepare its offspring for the world, the plant is suddenly finished, leaving the immature seed out on its own- and it’s not ready for that yet. The still immature seed, depending on its level of maturity, will stay green forever; or, if older, will shrivel up, unable to finish filling to its required plumpness. The green seeds are useless to us as a commodity, and even the more mature but still-shriveled seeds will weigh up poorly, costing yield, and will not fulfill their primary purpose: making bread.

Ultimately, you, as a customer, will not want bread from shriveled up, frozen wheat. It won’t rise properly, it won’t taste right, and it won’t look very nice. That all comes back to Immature Wheatus, and our product. If the customer doesn’t want it, it’s no good. It isn’t a total waste, however; it will likely get blended off with better wheat, or worst case it will be fed to livestock. Either way, it’s not worth much. That wheat may have been worth $7 per bushel or better as a #1, high protein milling wheat, but as feed or close to, it may only be worth $4-5 per bushel (or worse, sometimes). That is a 30-40% drop in income, all from one night that just got a little too cold.

For our farm this year, this early frost will hurt our soybeans, some of our latest spring wheat, and our flax. While quality isn’t as much of an issue on flax and soybeans, yield will decline. How much is quite difficult to estimate at this point; we will know when we start combining those crops.

These soybeans are not ready for a frost yet.
These soybeans are not ready for a frost yet. This is two days before a hard freeze.

The early frost is just one more strike against an already tattered crop. Quality wheat and durum will be in very short supply this year, and it will be very difficult to move all of what we have in a timely fashion. Sadly, the area hit by the rain and frost is a large one, and none of us will  have much good quality cereals to blend off the bad stuff with.

Such is the nature of farming; the harsh reality of the life we have chosen. I’m not writing this to ask for sympathy (particularly when I hear about those who were in the snow path this week- that’s a nightmare); rather, I write this to show what a rollercoaster life on the farm can be. One year can be the harvest of a lifetime, and the next can be a harvest you’d sooner forget. Dealing with these ups and downs is incredibly frustrating and financially difficult at times, but it’s all part of the crazy life that is farming. I signed up for this the day I decided I wanted to return to the farm, and I don’t regret it for a minute.