The joys, trials and tribulations of farming in southern Saskatchewan.
The Life of Growing Crops
The growing season is an amazing time of the year. So many things can happen that can devastate our crops, from hail, to wind, to excess rain, to frost; and they can all happen in the same year. Learn the day-to-day life of a Saskatchewan farmer here.
There are few things more frustrating to a farmer than having a crop out in the field, ready to harvest, and not being able to go get it. At this point, all the inputs are in. All the dollars are spent. The equipment is ready, the bank account is empty, and it is time to harvest everything you have worked for for more than a year – but you just can’t get out there and get it done. That, my friends, is why farmers complain so much about the weather!
This was supposed to be a dry year. Winter was absent, spring came in March, and we started seeding in mid-April. All the forecasts I read had the Canadian Prairies in a drier bias this year, with the general gist being that whatever rain we got, we should be happy to see! That has not turned out to be the case, with some of our fields seeing substantial rainfall throughout the growing season, challenging the survival of some of our crops.
Despite the excessive rainfall, most of our crops fared well – just not our lentils. Lentils do not like wet feet, and persistent rainfall took a hefty toll on them this year. Unfortunately, mature lentils also don’t handle water well; severe losses can result from quality declines.
We have now been harvesting for about 3 weeks, and it has been a struggle. The winter wheat came off fantastically well, with a nice dry stretch to harvest it and tremendous yields. It was when we started the peas that the metaphorical wheels fell off. It took us nearly two weeks to grind through a crop that should have been in the bin in five days. Shower after shower rolled through, plus a hurtful little shot of hail that peeled some yield off. Peas like to pod very low to the ground, and the ones that don’t pod low just tip over and lay the pods on the ground anyway. Suffice to say, you need the header on the ground. While combine headers today are marvels of engineering, even they struggle with mud.
Nevertheless, we fought through them and pounded through as many lentils as we could before the next rainy spell arrived (which happened to be today). So, we sit again.
Here’s the thing: while this harvest has thus far been frustrating, it is nothing compared to the extremely wet conditions we saw in 2014. We sat for weeks that year, waiting and waiting for things to dry up. And, unfortunately, it seems that some other areas are experiencing those very conditions this year. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.
One thing I’ve learned over my farming career is that moderately dry years tend to work out better than moderately wet ones. When it’s dry, harvest is quick, quality is good, and equipment sees smaller repair bills. When it’s wet, harvest is long, quality disappoints, and equipment is tortured. And, yields are never quite as good as you think they should be. One other factor: stress is much lower during dry harvests.
We farmers all know what we signed up for when we decided agriculture was the place to be. We know weather isn’t perfect, and we know the risk we take gambling on Mother Nature. In spite of this, it is still very frustrating to watch your crop downgrade from rain after rain. On a moderate-sized farm, a drop in grade on a cereal crop like durum can cost tens of thousands of dollars, and lentils can be even worse.
All we can hope for now is for the weather to change for the better so we can get back out there and get the crop in the bin. The forecast looks good – here’s hoping it verifies!
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.
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.
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.
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 earliest 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.
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 manage 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.
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.
Everybody knows that agriculture heavily relies on the weather. A single storm can change an entire growing season. A drought can be devastating. But we rarely see such extremes. While much of the weather we get can be challenging and surprising, it typically averages out over time. This winter, though, has been a particularly weird one- right?
I’m not going to go into the details of the weather of this winter. Suffice to say, we moved snow once this winter, and you could probably make the case that we just really wanted to run the dozer tractor. This has been a winter with very limited snow and very mild temperatures. We had a couple weeks of extreme cold in January, but realistically this has been one easy winter. February was so warm that we lost what little snow we had before March even started. That is a rare situation.
So what are the implications of this? Are we headed for a drought? Is it climate change? Has this ever happened before?
To point out how short our own memories often are, take a look at this picture from 2012. This is February 22nd (photo credit- Sarah Leguee). No snow! That was also an incredibly mild winter. In fact, some farmers in Southeast Saskatchewan started seeding at the beginning of April (spoiler alert: it didn’t turn out very well). My point is that winters like this are certainly rare, but not unheard of.
To figure out what a winter like this could mean for us, the best year to look at then is 2012. In this area, crops were good, and it was a pretty successful year. We saw excessive moisture in late May and June, followed by a lack of moisture into the end of July and August. The excess moisture in the spring caused some damage, but it probably saved us from getting burned up in late summer.
On the other hand, we had substantial disease and insect pressure. Was it because of the warm winter? I think it’s fair to say that it had an influence, possibly a major one. One thing our extreme winters give us is an inability for insects and diseases to overwinter here. Most of them must migrate up from the south. If they can survive the winter, it gives them a head start. We saw severe damage from Aster Yellows, we had trouble with Fusarium, and we had problems with a variety of insects. Separating what was caused by the warm winter and what was part of a normal cycle is difficult, but it is fair to say that we could face similar issues in 2016.
The challenge with farming is that every year is different. Parallels between seasons are very challenging to draw out, and due to the climate’s chaotic nature, forecasters have a very hard time forecasting what is to come. So what can we expect in 2016?
One thing we do know right now is that it is dry. Soil moisture is lower now than it was at this time last year, so we have less of a buffer to withstand periods of low moisture. This warm, dry winter has not helped our soils and water bodies recharge like they normally do. I have never scouted crops in the middle of March before, but I did just that the other day in our winter wheat. The soil is thawed, the crop may be breaking its winter dormancy, and it just pretty much felt like spring out there. It is concerningly early for the wheat to be greening up, and a stretch of more normal cold weather could wreak havoc on it.
As the weeks go by and it stays warm, sunny and frequently windy, the soil will continue to dry. We could theoretically start seeding in a couple of weeks (we won’t) with how quickly the soil is drying up. So, yes, drought is a concern, and the longer the weather stays like this, the greater the worry will become.
On the flip side, when the weather does change, it could do so with a vengeance. We have seen time and again over the past several years that when we change weather patterns, the conversion is often harsh. In the spring of 2011, we were considering seeding in mid to late April, until a bunch of snow dropped on our doorstep, followed by cold temperatures and over a foot of rain over the next two months. The weather changed dramatically and pretty much prevented seeding altogether. However, our fields were already full to capacity when that moisture came, so it was a completely different situation.
I guess the point of what I’m trying to say here is that we honestly really don’t know what the growing season will provide. Right now, I’d place my bets on being dry, and that we will be wanting for rain most of the year. But “dry” doesn’t equal “drought”, and I’m far from ready to hit the panic button yet. While this weather may be unusual, we have seen winters like this before, and we will again.
As farmers, we have to take whatever nature throws at us and make the best of it. We never know what weather we have in front of us, and accordingly we have a hard time determining how much to invest in our crops. We can throw all the money in the world at our crops, but if it doesn’t rain, we simply can’t make use of it. However, it is far too early to start worrying about the year ahead. We will not go out and go seeding on the 10th of April, but we might be a few days earlier than normal. Anything can happen over the next 6 months, and that is what makes agriculture so exciting. I can’t wait to see what Mother Nature has in store for us in 2016.
Winter on the farm conjures up nostalgic images of horse and carriages, old red barns,
and farmers toiling away outside, looking after their animals. While this may still be a reality for some farms, particularly those with livestock, many farms no longer have cattle, pigs or horses around. Many of them, like my own, raise crops during the growing season. So what do we do during the winter? One of the most important – and most difficult – jobs we work at during the colder months is forecasting.
I don’t think I’m generalizing too much to bet that most of you read “forecasting” and immediately think “weather.” While that certainly is a component of our crop year planning, it is a smaller factor than you may think. Why? Simply put: there’s absolutely nothing we can do about it.
While we certainly pay close attention to long-range forecasts that attempt to give us an estimate of what our growing season will entail, these are only marginally reliable, and we really can’t plan for them. Not yet, anyway. Since the weather is out of our hands, we focus our energy on things we do have some control over.
Selling Crops: While it’s rather debatable that predicting the markets is any easier than predicting the weather, we try our best regardless. Trying to sell your entire crop at the top of the market for a given year is about like picking a Superbowl winner after watching the first game of the season; you might get lucky once, we all know somebody who’s done it a couple of times, but most of us are pathetically, hopelessly wrong. So, we sell a little bit at a time, hoping to catch rallies and avoid dips. Over time, this disciplined approach does tend to prove to be successful. Although it does mean you may not always catch that extreme market peak with any more than 20% of your crop – but that’s better than nothing.
Cash Flow: This moves in lockstep with point #1. We try and forecast our cash flow needs months ahead of time and plan our sales accordingly. While this is really simple arithmetic, there are always surprises that disrupt your plans.
Crop Performance: Growing crops is a bit like planting your garden, only infinitely more complex (assuming you’re not making a living off your garden, that is). Crops are incredibly difficult to predict, and even harder to control. At the end of October,
our weather station recorded our soil moisture level. We know how much we have to start with, but how much snow will we get? So far, not much! How much rain will we get? Well, the average crop available rainfall from April through August in Weyburn, Saskatchewan is 9.3 inches. So, if we go by that, and assuming the crop needs x inches of rain to grow a bushel of grain, we should be able to predict our yields, right? The answer is a wishy-washy maybe; because that “average” takes years like 2015 with 4.4 inches of rain and averages that against a year like 2011 with 20 inches of rain. What exactly is normal? Nevertheless, it does give us a starting point- and that’s better than nothing.
Equipment Upkeep: What’s going to break in 2016? Is it going to be the old, worn out-looking tires on the tractor, or is it going to be some random bearing on the combine? While it is difficult to predict what parts are going to fail, it’s not impossible. When you’re about to take your car on a big trip to the mountains in the middle of winter and you can’t seem to get any traction on ice, you would probably take a close look at your tires. Will they make the trip? Probably. But what if they don’t? The consequences could be severe. That’s how we look at our machinery when we think about the busy year ahead.
The reason I call winter the planning season is because it’s the one season we have when
we can take a moment and look hard at the year that was. What failed? What does that tell us for next year? Every hour of missed seeding, spraying or harvesting time costs us dearly. We cannot afford preventable breakdowns. But, at the same time, we can’t go and fix absolutely everything that could possibly fail. The engine on one of our combines could fly apart this year, and that would be a critical failure. But that doesn’t mean we should go and tear the engine down to prevent a massively low-odds scenario.
The same goes for planning our marketing. Tomorrow, a catastrophic event could happen somewhere in the world that could hammer our crop prices. That doesn’t mean we should sell out the whole thing. Everything we do is based on probabilities.
Creating a usable forecast for the growing season requires a great deal of research, too. Every year, new products, services and ideas come to light, and it is critical that we open our minds to any option to make our farms more successful. You always have to be ready to realize your current way of doing things may be wrong – and that somebody somewhere is probably doing something better than you. Friends, neighbours, and of course the Internet are extremely valuable resources to develop new ideas.
“The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry” (Robert Burns) certainly applies to farming, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t value in planning and forecasting. In fact, I believe it drives that point home even harder. If we haven’t figured out what plan B is, what will we do when plan A fails? As dependent on the weather as we are, I prefer to have a plan F.
Winter is a busy time on the farm, and there is no shortage of work to be done, from hauling grain to moving snow to purchasing inputs (read more about what farmers do during the winter here). But it is also the ideal time to plan out the season ahead. We never know what nature will throw at us, but preparing for multiple scenarios allows us the flexibility we need to succeed.
It’s that time of the year again. As the year winds to a close, farmers of all ages and geographies look back on the year that was – and what 2016 and beyond will bring. In agriculture, everything changes so fast that merely keeping up is no small feat.
For me, the year that was 2015 changed everything. It was the year my son was born.
This past year truly will go down as one of our farm’s great successes of the decade. An above average crop coupled with excellent prices has delivered us one of the best years we have seen in some time. Unprecedented lentil prices continue to amaze farmers and grain traders alike, with difficult conditions in India and a burgeoning global market for pulses creating incredible demand for what we grow. 2016 will be another big year for lentils on the prairies – and, coincidentally, is the International Year of Pulses.
But what about beyond that? Recently, I attended the GrowCanada conference in Calgary (thanks again to CropLife Canada for that!), where I saw a group of fantastic speakers talking about the future. One that stood out for me was Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire: Canadian Forces veteran, senator, author and humanitarian. He spoke about many fascinating things, but one thread that sticks with me was his goal-oriented mindset. While everyone else talks about their 5-year plan, he is the one thinking about the 6th year and beyond.
As farmers and business people, it’s in our DNA to plan for the future. Every year is a gamble. But too rarely do we step back and look at the big picture. We face a world of change in agriculture. A revolution in how we do our every day business is already underway.
For instance, 2016 will be my first year owning a drone. What do I plan to do with it? To be honest, I’m not entirely sure yet. Like our new weather station, it is probably a data-collection device without a way to process the data. But that day will come. Right now, we are collecting massive amounts of data from every crop year. It truly is amazing how much information we pull from our fields. Drones will allow us to collect even more. We will learn details about our fields that we have never really seen before.
As the popularity of drones rises, their potential uses grow. Today, you can buy a drone that sprays your crop for you. Of course, to replace our high-clearance sprayer would require dozens and dozens of them, if not hundreds, but you get the idea where our industry is going. Our days driving machinery out in the field are probably numbered. As futurist Jim Carrol said at the conference, “You will probably overestimate the change in the next two years, and underestimate the change in the next ten.”
Data is driving changes in more than just field operations. Data-managing platforms, such as Agri-Data and Farm At Hand, are some of farmers’ most-used tools today. Everything we do we can track and measure. No more missed spray applications, no more lost bins, and near-perfect cost of production numbers – if the program is properly utilized, of course.
As we drive into the future, I wonder what it will look like for my son, Asher. I believe he will see more change in his life than even my grandparents saw in theirs – and that’s saying a lot. Will he be a farmer? Who knows? His life is his own, and he will make that choice many years from now.
If he does choose to farm, what will it be like? Will he ever run equipment out in the field? By then, it may all be autonomous. He may use something like Google Glass to look at his crop and instantly know what nutrient deficiencies it may be experiencing, what stresses it faces, or whether spraying a fungicide is necessary. Someday, he might even edit his crop’s DNA to adapt it to certain fields. His entire method of managing his crops may be completely foreign to me.
However, that won’t make it wrong. If my grandfather could see how we farm today, while he might find it confusing, he would discover that the underlying principles are much the same. Just like him, I’m trying to grow healthy food for a hungry world, hopefully improving the quality of the land it’s grown on at the same time. And I’m sure I will see the same principles in place when and if my son decides to farm.
I don’t know how many people told me that having children changes everything. In fact, I kinda got tired of hearing it! But the day we brought Asher home, I realized that line is such an understatement. My whole world changed that day. But there is something so amazing about bringing a child into this world, and the light and innocence he radiates. Something about looking at him makes me realize that the future of this planet, and our own sometimes troubled human race, is so very bright. Our most basic need is food, and I am proud to grow it. The coming decades will be amazing.
September 22nd marked the final day of harvest for us this year. I have to say, that was one of the earliest, easiest and most enjoyable harvests I have ever been a part of- especially after 2014’s nightmare of a fall. For the first time since I started this blog, I hardly wrote at all about harvest; I had neither the time to write (very few breaks) or the material to write about!
Despite all that, the 2015 harvest was not all smooth sailing, and we are all more than ready for it to be done. Follow along and see how things went!
This was one of our earliest harvests ever. We fired up on July 29th, at least two weeks earlier than normal. A hot and dry summer brought crops in very quickly, and our winter wheat was ready before we were. It took more than a few late nights to get everything ready for the field. You don’t just walk out to the shed, fire up the combine and go harvesting. No, these large, complicated and expensive machines require considerable care and attention to ensure they don’t break down during one of the most critical times of the year.
Along with the combines, several other items needed preparation, such as semi trucks and trailers, tractors, grain moving equipment, and various other machinery. Grain bins needed to be cleaned, temperature cables checked and tied down, and augers needed a thorough checking over too. No matter how perfectly the combines run, if even the auger breaks down, everything is stopped. The entire chain has to be up to the immense task of harvest.
Winter wheat is a crop with advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, it establishes in the fall, using up fall and early spring moisture that other crops give up to evaporation. It can yield very well as a result, and it is a nice way to get a crop off early. Unfortunately, that is also a major downside – you lose a lot of summer. With this picture taken on July 29th, we gave up half of our summer. Unfortunately, with the early heat and drought stress this crop faced in June, it wasn’t very successful this year.
Sometimes, things work out better than you ever expected. While that doesn’t happen very often for this farm, this year it did. After I spent years avoiding growing this difficult crop, we finally eased back into them in 2014. Lentils are not water-loving, and the excessive moisture over the past 7 years really turned us off of this crop. Ironically, the same heat and dry conditions that burned up the winter wheat allowed the lentils to thrive, and we pulled off some great yields. It was actually a lot of fun harvesting these things.
For those of you who have never seen the inside of a combine cab, this is my view out of one of our John Deere 9870s. These cabs have gotten so much better over the years, with fantastic comfort, quietness, and user-friendly controls. While this machine is already 7 years old, it’s hard to complain about running it. But, try sitting all day in it every day for a month. Everything gets old after that.
Straight-cutting canola was a mixed experience. We learned a lot from doing it, which you can read more about here, but suffice to say it won’t be the last time we try it. We learned that the pod-shatter resistant varieties are worth the money in harvest efficiency, and we learned that if it’s not ready, it’s not ready. Four hours spent unplugging one of our machines was a harsh lesson for us on that one. Any way we can cut down on swathing is a positive for us (I despise swathing) and it keeps more of us around to combine. I look forward to continuing the experiment in 2016.
I think when people imagine harvest, they tend to think more about the combines and less about the support crew. It looks like way more fun, right?
Unfortunately, while that is probably true, combines are the easiest machines to operate in the harvest mix… which means that Dad, Sarah and I rarely get to run them. I think I only ran a combine for a total of two days this year, which was mostly evenings. We spend most of our time with logistics: getting the grain from the combine into storage without slowing them down. The process involves two or three steps: 1) using the grain cart to get the grain out of the combines and into the semis; 2) getting the semis unloaded into bins, or, and this is where step 3 comes in, into bags.
While grain bags are difficult to work with (they are rather heavy to lift onto the bagger) and are all too attractive to wildlife (I have learned to hate raccoons), they are a fantastic short-term tool. Sometimes, the bins are just too far and the trucks cannot keep up. Other times, we are short on people to run semis. Besides, at the end of the day, we just don’t have enough bins for an above average crop. Grain bags fill all of these gaps, and keep those expensive combines moving at capacity.
The most difficult job to complete every fall is seeding. Trying to keep three combines moving, harvesting over 25,000 bushels a day, and then finding a way to go and plant seed and fertilizer on 1,600 acres seems a recipe for disaster. Managing the logistics during the actual seeding season is difficult enough! Nevertheless, we always try and find a way to get the job done.
The great thing about this harvest was that we were almost finished when seeding started! Now that is a nice change of pace. In fact, we actually finished harvest (aside from the soybeans) as we really got rolling seeding. Getting the winter wheat in was not the challenge it usually is – but starting a job of this scale with over a month of harvest behind you takes a real effort. Running 15+ hour days for that long wears you down, to say the least.
As “easy” as this harvest was, after over a month of steady combining, you really start to wear down. Once the main binyard fills up, you start looking at anything that resembles a bin to try and store as much as you can. By the time we got to the flax, we finally broke down and rented a couple of 5,000 bushel hopper bins to take the pressure off.
The good news was that we got a two week break after finishing the flax, before the soybeans were ready. That gave us some much needed time to get some bins empty and do some required maintenance – and to catch up on sleep.
While late September is by no means a late finish to harvest, with a late July start, we had been in harvest mode for nearly two full months. This photo was taken the morning of our final day of harvest (excepting some low spots) and it was clear how the weather had begun to change. For the first (and only) full day of the year, I got to run our newest combine, our S680 John Deere. It made the final day breeze by!
When the smoke cleared on the 22nd of September and the combines entered the yard for the final time this year, we finally got to take a breath and look back on the year that was. 2015 was largely a hot and dry year, but excellent subsoil moisture from a very wet 2014 and a few key rains helped us bring in an above average crop. It’s not very often you get a harvest as relatively easy as this one with a great crop!
After 56 days, 1200 combine hours and nearly half a million bushels of grains, oilseeds and legumes, harvest 2015 has been completed. There is little time for rest though; we have grain to haul, disking and vertical tillage to do, fertilizer to spread and spraying to finish, all before freeze up starts in (hopefully) a little more than a month. But, these jobs aren’t harvest – the crop is in the bin.
In farming, just as in any other industry, career, or lifestyle, it is easy to fall into a rut. You want to do what works, right? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it? You find a pattern, a method of doing things that works well for you, and you stick with it. While this can be effective, it sometimes stops you from trying something new.
The pace of change in agriculture is continually astounding. New technologies like drones and robotics will change the way we farm in the very near future. Data-logging and advanced computer programming has revolutionized how we look at our fields, and how we grow our crops. Every year, you have to step up and try some new ideas, or you risk falling into obselescence.
For the very first time in our farm’s history this year, we tried straight-cutting canola and planting a cover crop. We also stepped out and bought a weather station, the first of its kind on our farm. While these ideas may not necessarily work out for us, and yes, they can be expensive, how do you know unless you try?
Perhaps I should start by explaining just what “straight-cutting” is. In the old days, the only way to kill a crop and dry it down was to swath it. As shown in the photo, you basically just cut the stems and lay the crop into a row. Later, after the swath has dried out, you pick up the swath with the combine and thresh and separate it. The disadvantages of swathing are numerous, but take a look at the swath in the photo. See how bulky and fluffy it is? A strong wind will begin to lift and spread it, which can lead to substantial losses. And, once the swath has been spread out, how do you pick it up? It can become a total nightmare. Moreover, it is yet another pass through the field, which increases fuel consumption, repairs, et cetera.
Roundup revolutionized this process. Farmers were able to spray the crop to finish it off instead of swathing it, which is a much safer and faster operation. So why swath canola? Well, unlike our other crops, canola is still not fully “domesticated”, per say. As soon as canola dries down, it immediately begins dropping pods. It wants to reproduce, so this is a natural process. Thousands of years of breeding have selected against that in wheat, corn and soybeans, but canola has not had that long of a breeding effort. To prevent excess losses, conventional wisdom was to swath it and have it dry down in the swath, where that process could be withheld.
There is a huge push to develop varieties resistant to pod drop and shatter, and that is finally beginning to pay off. New varieties are now available that hold onto their seeds until they can be harvested. So, armed with these new varieties, we decided to try straight-cutting this year. We were far from first; some farmers have been doing it for years, even without pod-shatter resistant varieties. You just have to time it right and ensure you have a clean, weed-free field, or that you dessicate it at the proper time. While things didn’t quite go the way I hoped they would (I learned patience is a virtue in waiting for proper dry-down) and we had to deal with a very plugged combine (4 hours inside a combine pulling stems out by hand is not a pleasurable way to spend an evening), with all of it now in the bin, I can confidently say we will try more acres next year. It may be a little slower than picking up swaths, but if I can avoid sitting in that stupid swather, it’s all worth it.
The Weather Station
In the winter of 2014, we spent some time looking at these John Deere Field Connect Weather Stations. The data they were generating was fascinating; imagine always knowing exactly what your soil moisture level is. Knowing what the soil temperature is. Knowing the exact details of each spring frost event, from the lowest temperature to how long it stayed below freezing. Imagine knowing what the humidity is within the crop canopy, and how it changes throughout the day. All of these things, and more, are possible with a 3G-connected weather station. While technical issues kept it out of our fields in 2014, we got one installed this year.
We planted it in a durum field a few miles from our home farm, way out in the middle of the field. There, it gave us rain totals far more accurate than the plastic rain gauge we have at home, without the usual “did I empty that before that last rain?” Throughout the entire season, I knew how much moisture the crop was using, and how badly that summer heat was hurting the crop. It gave me somewhere to start in the decision of whether the crop humidity was high enough to consider a fungicide. It really has been a valuable tool, and as we learn more about how our crops respond to varying weather, these data from 2015 will be usable going forward to create trendlines.
For as long as Leguees have been farming in this area, we have fought with hardpan soil. Roots, unable to penetrate the near-impermeable soil mere inches beneath the surface, are forced to move laterally, thereby competing much more intensely with their neighbours. There’s a reason some of these soils are called “burn-out soils”. Without regular rainfall, roots burn up what moisture is in the topsoil and then run out. Conversely, heavy rainfall creates pools of water on these spots and the crop drowns out. We have tried many different crops with different rooting styles to try and find something that would punch through, but to no avail. The only option remaining is to deep rip it mechanically, which is expensive, time-consuming, and not really the best fit for our no-till strategies. That is, until I heard about tillage radish.
This amazing plant builds a tuber-root so powerful, it exerts hundreds of pounds of pressure on each square inch of soil. I seeded it just about two weeks ago now. The strategy is to plant it in late summer and force it to focus on its root system. When a killing frost comes along in mid-to late September, the radishes die, and (supposedly) decompose in time for spring seeding. My hope is that these incredibly powerful plants have enough strength to punch through these hardpan zones and create pathways for next years’ crop roots.
All of these ideas could someday prove to have been a waste of time and money. You never really know how these things will work out. Straight-cutting canola may be a short-term idea, and we may very well go back to swathing. The weather station’s data may prove too complex to be usable for anything more than an expensive rain gauge. The Tillage Radish may fail to hammer through our hardpan soil.
If humans thought like that, we would never have landed on the moon. We would never have fed 7 billion people. We would never have tried democracy. At heart, we are all pioneers, striving to continually find new and better ways to do things. To make life better. Farmers were the original prairie pioneers, and we are in an industry uniquely suited to always try and improve on ourselves. Why stop now?
It’s easy to think of plants as just… well, plants. While we all know they are living organisms, we tend to think of them as fairly static, basic life forms that look nice when they are properly tended to. That’s about it.
The reality could not be more different. Plants are dynamic, vibrant and aggressive living organisms focused on survival and reproduction. As a farmer, I get to see what these amazing living creatures do every day; and there’s a lot more to them than you think. Incredibly, plants not only have the ability to recognize and respond to external threats, but they can also warn their neighbors about them. Yes – plants do actually have the ability to communicate. Not only will they look out for their neighbors, they will recognize and cooperate with their family. And, when threatened, plants will respond with full-blown chemical warfare.
As an example, think about a little soybean plant growing out in the field. Beside it, in the same row, you have a combination of unrelated neighbors and maybe, just maybe, a member of its kin. The soybean will grow more competitively with its unrelated neighbors than it will with its kin. Over eons of evolution, plants, just like animals, were more successful if they worked together.
Beside our little soybean plant, there is different competition. A weed. Based on the difference in light reflection between the bare ground and the weed, the soybean plant can sense that there is competition beside it. From the air, there may be other competition, such as a soybean aphid. Our soybean plant may release volatile organic compounds into the air to warn its neighbors, or it may instead secrete chemicals into the root zone (rhizosphere) for the same effect. Or, amazingly, it may instead use sounds to warn its neighbors, such as high-frequency clicking sounds (read more here).
What has been well-documented is that when threatened with competition from weeds, soybeans do not respond very well. As the soybeans send out and receive communication signals from other plants within the field, they “realize” they are competing with more aggressive plants. As a response, the soybean will try and grow as tall as possible, sacrificing root growth and it won’t grow the leaf mass it needs to produce high yields. With reduced root growth and smaller leaves, the soybean just won’t have the yield potential it would have had in the absence of competition. What our soybean is really trying to do is quite simple; its entire existence is predicated upon reproduction, and if it can keep itself from being shaded out, it can produce at least a few seeds to carry on its life cycle (source).
Wheat responds similarly to soybeans, trying to grow its leaves taller and longer to get ahead of its competition, sacrificing root growth and, therefore, yield as well. This is why weed control in our crops is so critical; if we allow weeds to compete, even if the crop outcompetes them, yields will be negatively affected.
It wasn’t very long ago that scientists were ridiculed for producing results like this. Plants can’t talk, right? Well, it seems that they can; and they may be capable of much more.
An Intelligent Shrub?
The European barberry is a species of shrub distributed throughout Europe. The tephritid fruit fly is a major pest for this plant, which punctures the berries produced by the shrub and lays its eggs inside, where the larvae will feed on the seeds. The barberry has the ability to abort its seeds if the fruit is infested with eggs, which would cause the death of any larvae. Interestingly, the seeds of the infested fruits are not always terminated; rather, it depends on the level of infestation. For example, if the infested fruit contains two seeds, it will almost always be aborted. However, if it only contains one seed, it is only rarely aborted. Giving up a fruit with only one seed causes the entire fruit to be lost, so the plant doesn’t want to do that unless it absolutely has to.
What is truly amazing about this whole process is that the fruit fly larvae are much more likely to die with only one seed to feed on, rather than two. So the barberry “speculates” that the larvae will die, holding onto that fruit for as long as it can. What does all this mean? The barberry is undergoing complex decision making, which has never before been imagined to be possible in plants. The barberry is anticipating future risks and weighing possible losses and gains (read more here).
Going to War
Evidence that trees talk to each other has grown in leaps and bounds over the past fifteen years. The question is why. In the case of the Sitka Willow, when under attack by Western Tent Caterpillars and Fall Webworms, the trees change the nutritional content of their leaves. Once the first tree’s leaves are chewed by these pests, it will release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) to warn its neighbors of the impending danger. The rest of the trees in the area will then change the nutritional content in their leaves to dissuade the insects from feeding, causing them to move on to other targets (source).
A more aggressive example of this signalling is in a more familiar plant – corn. When under attack, corn will release VOCs to attract parasitoids that attack the larvae feeding on the corn. Plant communication isn’t limited to plant-to-plant interactions; they talk to insects as well, when necessary. Some plants, after a warning from their neighbors, will even develop toxins in their leaves to ward off predators (read more here and here).
Applications for Agriculture
While I’m not going to go so far as to say plants are “intelligent” in any sense of the word, or, at least in our understanding of what intelligence is, I think the social community plants develop is absolutely fascinating. What’s more, it can be used for agriculture. Think about a whole field of wheat that “believes” it’s growing among its kin. Instead of competing against other wheat plants, they could actually work together as a whole to fight predators and weed competition. A signal plant could warn an entire field to produce defense mechanisms against a predator before it even enters the field. While all of this is a very long way away, improving our understanding of plant-to-plant interaction is critical to figure these things out.
Although a lot of this may sound very science-fiction, it has become quite accepted by the scientific community that despite a lack of eyes, ears or a nervous system, plants chatter with each other, with fungi, with insects, and countless microorganisms non-stop. Getting to experience this amazing community every day is something very special about being a farmer, and that’s why I had to share it with you. So next time you wander out in your yard, greenhouse or field, take a moment and think about what’s going on beneath your feet. There is far more going on that meets the eye.