What Does Such A Warm Winter Mean For Farmers?

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.

20140104_133205
Seriously, it’s hard not to have fun moving snow with this thing.

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, some2012 winter 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.

DSC_0544
This picture could very easily be from the end of May, but it is actually from March 14th.

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.

Forecasting More Than Just The Weather

20140104_131641 (1)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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 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.Nikon J1 June 004
  4. 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 Case Quadtracdearly. 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.

Christmas Holidays on the Farm

One reality about farming is that the work is never really done. Even in the dead of winter, with glistening fields of glowing white as far as the eye can see, with frigid temperatures that would make a Siberian husky cringe, when we couldn’t be further from thinking about green growing plants- we are.

In addition to farming, I also work an 8-5 job as an agronomist at a chemical retail in my local town. It highlights the difference in life-styles quite well; I go to work in the morning, then I go home. Evenings, weekends and holidays are mine. When I go home, I leave my job behind.

Farming is so very different. When I go home from work, I go to work again. During the winter months, sometimes that means I get on a semi truck to haul grain, sometimes I go to the shop to work on equipment, and sometimes I just go to the computer to work on numbers. Evenings, weekends and holidays are consumed by the myriad of farmwork that needs to be done. While friends and family busy themselves with other activities, like house renovations, video games, fishing, or a million other things, my focus, and the focus of other farmers everywhere, must remain on the farm.

Christmas is no exception. The week before Christmas, we were busy hauling soybeans and durum and working on one of our tractors. One thing about track tractors is that they do require more maintenance than their wheeled counterparts. The tracks on one of our Case Case QuadtracQuadtracs needed to be rotated, just like the tires on your car or truck- but they are not quite as easy to move around. We used the pallet forks on our little tractor to lift, drag and twist the tracks to get them off their wheels (yes, it was as difficult as it sounds). We pulled them off, changed oil in the idler wheels (bottom wheels in the picture) and then came the hard part- putting them back on. Remember, these tractors weigh in excess of 59,000 pounds and drag implements that weigh as much as a small house, with significant rolling resistance to boot; their tracks are heavy– and cumbersome. But, with the right tools and enough time (and enough sweat, blood and ugly words) we got the job done. At least it’s not a job that needs to be done very often.

Besides all that, our farm’s year-end is December 31st, so we had a lot of documents to get to our accountant, preferably in an organized fashion. The end of the year is also a time to get seed bookings in to get the best discounts (where possible), so it’s important to at least have a basic idea of what to seed next year. Planning really never stops; there is a lot to consider as you try and figure out what to grow each year. Everything from the price of oil to nutrient levels in the soil has an impact on which crops will be most successful in the year ahead.

With the ending of another calendar year, a lot of questions come to mind. What worked this year? What didn’t? What can we improve next year? Is there anything new that we should try out? At our regular farm meetings, we spend a lot of time discussing and dissecting the year that was, and what we can do better next year. With Christmas holidays, everyone is around, so it’s a great time to have these discussions.

Even though the work never stops on the farm, sometimes, you have to find a way to leave it behind; sometimes, you have to realize that there is more to life than the farm. It is easy to let the farm consume you, and if you let it, it will. There is a never-ending list of jobs to get done, and never enough time to do them all. Even farmers take holidays, and, as much as we love the farm, we need them.

My wife and I headed for Calgary to her sister’s farm, where we met with her entire immediate family, from Christmas Eve until the 28th. We will be having my side of the family’s Christmas on New Years Day. Christmas on the farm, whether it be here, north of Calgary, or anywhere else in this great nation, is a wonderful time; the freedom of the country is hard to beat.

Sadly, Christmas of 2014 brought difficult times for our family, and for the farm. Don Court, my uncle and my mother’s brother, passed away suddenly on December 20th. He was 60 years old. He had been working on our farm since 2012 and was a skilled mechanic and equipment operator, not to mention he had a personality that we will sorely miss. It was a shock for all of us, and he leaves behind a loving family that will miss him terribly.

Nikon J1 184

What Do Farmers Do After Harvest?

The end of harvest may bring a huge sigh of relief, but it doesn’t mean that the work is over. When harvest is completed at the end of October, there isn’t the same excitement that comes with finishing a few weeks earlier. Why? Well, because there is the sudden realization that winter is only a very short time away.

The beginning of winter on the Prairies is inherently unpredictable. Sometimes it starts in December, sometimes in mid-October. When you reach the end of October to early November, the weather can turn very quickly. You can go from 10 degree days of sun to -10 degree days of blizzard in only a day or two. So, the long hours can’t stop; there is still much to be done.

Fields need to be prepped for spring seeding, some post-harvest spraying needs to be finished up (and the sprayer needs to be put away), combines need to be cleaned up and put away, and there are hundreds of thousands of bushels of grain to sell, move, and monitor.

So what do farmers do after harvest? Here is a short list:

1) Fieldwork: It’s a never-ending job. Even as we were combining, we had a tractor running down stubble with our Salford. The Salford RTS is an interesting tool that we Salford_RTSbought a few years ago now, with wavy coulters on its main frame and harrows at the back. It is designed to tear through a field at 10+ miles per hour, hurling clumps of dirt and stubble up from the coulters, and smoothing them out with the harrows. It does a fantastic job of smoothing out small ruts, knocking down moderate-sized weeds, and incorporating stubble into the soil to aid in breaking it down. Heavy wheat stubble, like we have this year, is very difficult to seed through, especially with our SeedMaster air drill. The straw builds up on the shanks, causing plugging issues and leaving a messy finish to the field.

Although we consider ourselves to be a minimum to no-till farm, sometimes a little bit of tillage is necessary. If we can’t do a quality job of planting our crops because our fields are too thick with stubble, then we really don’t have much of a choice but to till it up. The Salford works great for this because it really isn’t tillage in the conventional sense; the coulters are vertical disks, rather than the angled ones that you typically see. This is referred to as “vertical tillage”, which allegedly helps fracture the soil to reduce compaction. While that is a debatable point, the Salford is still nonetheless a low-disturbance tool that still leaves lots of stubble standing behind it. It’s a great compromise.

However, despite its advantages, there are many things that the Salford simply cannot do. tandem_diskFor those jobs, the tandem disk is still a vital tool for our farm. Cleaning up sloughs and flooded out low spots requires angled blades that can cut through old cat-tails (big, tall, nasty weeds) and bury the deep ruts. The disk is not a fun tool to run. It has dozens of bearings that never take grease and constantly fail, it’s a slow machine to run, and the rear blades constantly plug up in any sort of wet soil conditions. While it is a necessary tool, it’s one we use minimally.

2) Spraying: Even though October may seem very late to be spraying, we actually sprayed right up until the 23rd. We had such nice weather in late October that spraying was quite effective. At that time of the year, we are basically controlling weeds for next spring. I was spraying residual-type products on our winter wheat that will remain active on weeds until next May, which will really help the wheat get a jump on the weeds. The best defence against weeds is a competitive crop, after all.

John Deere 4940

3) Equipment clean-up: The most miserable job of all of harvest comes after it is completed. By that time, the combines are dirty and muddy, covered in chaff from multiple different crops, with cabs that have seen nearly 300 hours of threshing time. The combines need to be cleaned, and cleaned well. Every belt, bearing and chain must be checked during the winter to ensure the machines are ready for next harvest, and to do that properly, they really need to be clean.

We rented an industrial air compressor to clean our combines this year. With a gas-powered engine, a 3/4 inch line and a steel end, cleaning combines can progress much faster. No matter how you do it though, it is still a nasty job. You need to be prepared to breathe in a lot of dust, dirt, and a myriad of bacteria and fungi that grow on the built-up chaff. It’s a dirty, itchy, tiring and rather thankless job. And, not only do the combines need to be clean, the other machines do too. We try to wash and blow off other equipment, like the sprayer and our tractors, but sometimes the weather shuts us down before we can get all that done.

4) Marketing: In a year like this one, with a harvest plagued by rains and humidity, selling our cereals will not be a fun or easy task. Bleached, diseased, ugly looking kernels wheathave filled our bins and bags, and, for the most part, they simply don’t meet the specifications required for good grades. So, we have taken dozens of samples of our wheat and durum to elevators, independent inspectors and the Canadian Grain Commission to try and get an idea of what we have in the bins and bags. Having good relationships with our buyers is an important asset this year, as some ugly stuff can be blended to improve its grade. Sometimes, that can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars!

Even when all those jobs are done (except for marketing- that job is never done), there is still much more to do. Until the ground is frozen solid (which may be next week from the look of the forecast), we will continue disking, running the Salford, burning flax straw (and that may continue even after freeze-up), and, of course, the never-ending job of hauling grain.

No, even when harvest is finally over, all you can give yourself is a moment of satisfaction and relief, because the work is far from over. I guess if you really look at it, we are already preparing for the 2015 seeding season. While it is many months away, it is already a pressing consideration in all of our minds as we transition to winter. The next crop year will come all too quickly- but a little, tiny part of me is already looking forward to it.

Is Winter’s Grip Finally Breaking?

It was in early November that winter settled in. The days slowly turned colder and shorter, and the ground rather suddenly turned white with fresh-fallen snow. Fieldwork had been stopped, whether one was ready for it or not, and equipment was quickly tucked away for the winter months. The majestic season that is winter had arrived.

That was over four months ago- four months of cold, snow, heavy clothes, cold vehicles and expensive energy bills. It has been one of the colder winters I can remember, with near record days below -30 degrees and precious few days of negative single digits. Nevertheless, as we reach the mid-point of March, we are finally seeing signs of winter failing. The Sun actually feels like it is creating heat now, and the days have grown longer, with sunlight persisting even after supper. And, finally, the snow has begun to recede under the glowing heat of the Sun.

Yes, as winter begins to draw to a close, a glimmer of excitement begins to appear in people’s eyes. Conversely, we have just realized how much work we have left to do before spring break-up begins!

After such a massive harvest, we had a lot of grain to move. And with the pathetically slow movement of it, due to incompetent railway management, we still have a lot to move. Our Red Pete Unloadingbins at home are still full, and consequently we still have grain bags out in the fields. You can imagine what happens to these long, plastic tubes when the ground starts to thaw. After being mauled by birds, raccoons and deer all winter, they are not in the best of shape anymore, with multiple holes and tears perforating them like Swiss cheese. As the snow melts and the fields turn to water and muck, the bags will not fare well, and we may lose some grain to spoilage. In short, it is time to get them emptied out.

Out of the ~20 bags we had in the field after harvest, only six remain. One bag of soybeans, one of durum, and three of spring wheat are all that we have left. So, we began the arduous task of emptying the bags and moving them into bins. Why not to the grain companies? Because they are still full. What bins will we move it all to? Good question. Fortunately, we have close neighbors, and we therefore will be able to use some of their bins and a few of ours that aren’t still stuffed full.

The snow-dozer tractor has been busy, cleaning out all around the bags and the back roads to get to them. On the weekend, we got the first bag cleaned out and moved home. Soybean bag: check!Quadtrack Moving Snow

Fortunately or unfortunately, the weather has warmed up faster than was anticipated. A couple of days have already leaped above 5 degrees Celsius, which, especially if the sun is shining, can melt quite a lot of snow. The areas pushed out around the bags have quickly turned muddy, and the roads have become very wet and dirty. Our semi trucks are no longer clean!

Red Pete Grain BagOver the past few days, we have gotten two more bags cleaned up. Only one bag of wheat and one of durum remain. The durum has nowhere to be moved to, and sadly must remain where it is for now. The only goal now is to get the final bag of wheat moved out. It is vital that it be moved out soon; it’s located in the back corner of a field that only dirt trails go to. The ground is low down there, and if we don’t get the bag out before spring arrives, we will be in trouble.

As we move further into these warmer days, it becomes more and more difficult to move grain. Limits are already in place as to how much weight can be loaded, and eventually no trucks will be allowed on the roads until the spring thaw has completed. Consequently, our days for hauling are becoming shorter and shorter.

Entombed SeedMaster 2014On the flip side of all of this is the excitement that comes with spring. Seeding is only a month and a half away, and much must be done before this occurs. The air drills still sit entombed in snow, and one of them in particular will need significant work before seeding can begin. The sooner it melts out, the sooner we can get it ready.

I should point out one other thing about the spring melt. Although a few warm days quickly settle a great deal of snow, it takes a great deal of time to melt the white fields. The sunlight reflects off of the snow, slowing the melting process. Sometimes, it can take a long time to draw down the snowpack enough to get black ground to show. Once that happens, the melting process really speeds up. So, the more melting that goes on in this current warm spell, the better off we will be.

Notice I said, “current warm spell”? I have a feeling that winter isn’t done yet. It is rare in my experience that winter lets go so suddenly. No, Mother Nature doesn’t give up that easily.  She will give us yet another blast of cold air yet, and maybe even more snow. Just a hunch, anyway.

As we finish up the last of the grain bags, preparations will truly begin for spring. Excitement is brewing in all Canadians for the end of winter: but none more so than farmers, waiting to get another shot at growing the crop of their dreams. Light and dark, glowing warmth and bitter cold, death and rebirth. Winter, a time of cold, dark, and bare and empty trees and fields, is finally coming to a close. Spring, a time of rebirth, is coming. And I can’t wait.

A Cold Sunset 2014

Do Farmers Actually Work During The Winter?

There has been, and continues to be, a long-standing stereotype about what grain farmers do for the winter months. I think it can be summed up as “not a whole hell of a lot”. A great acronym a  cattle farmer once told me was that grain farmers are “Triple A Farmers” – April, August, Arizona. Meaning, you work in April through August, then go on holidays until spring comes again. While this little piece of alliteration is concise and entertaining, it is far from accurate in today’s world.

However, most stereotypes do have some rooting in truth, and this one is no different. Years ago, most farms were a mix of grain and livestock, partly to diversify their operation and partly because that’s the way it had always been done. Our farm was a grain and cattle operation once upon a time, occasionally with some chickens thrown into the mix as well. Therefore, we were always busy, throughout the growing season and the winter. Mixed farmers often looked with jealousy at straight grain farms, since these farmers didn’t have to deal with livestock throughout the winter. Looking after cattle during the winter can be exhausting, especially if your cattle calve during this cold and brutal time of year. When this was still a very prevalent phenomenon, grain farms were mostly small, and the farm was half in summerfallow (not cropped) every year. So there really wasn’t a whole lot of hauling to do in those times. Generally speaking, those farms had a pretty quiet winter.

Times have changed…

Things have changed from the old days. Today, many farms are legitimate medium-sized businesses with millions of dollars turning over every year. Moreover, farm sizes are much larger, and most areas practice continuous cropping to keep tillage to a minimum, so production is considerably greater. These factors combine to make winter a busy time on a grain farm, albeit not as busy as the growing season. If it was, farmers would be old men and women long before their time, as you can only run that kind of pace for a limited part of the year.

So… what do grain farmers do during the winter?

1. Hauling grain. In a year like this one, there was a huge volume of grain to move, with record crops filling bins, bags, and even making piles on the ground, which is good and bad (click here for more on 20140104_145702that). Most grain is actually not hauled off the combine. We usually haul around 30-50% off the combine to the elevators, depending on the year. The rest is moved throughout the following winter and summer, and for some growers, even longer than that. Hauling grain can be a real project during the winter months, with cold, snow, and winds wreaking havoc on moving highway semi trucks around on back roads and in and out of bin yards. Moving snow becomes a major part of every winter (unless there isn’t much snow) and having good snow moving machinery is vital. We still have some grain bags left to clean up, but hopefully we will get them all empty in the next month before the spring melt begins. You really don’t want to be cleaning up those things in wet, soggy fields.

2. Budgeting. Winter is the time to crunch numbers; determining the profit (or loss) from the previous year, and compiling a budget for next year’s crop to decide which crops to 20140213_144028grow and in what amount. We figure out our cropping mix based on the most profitable options and good agronomic practices. Sometimes, we have to grow a crop at a loss because our land needs it for good rotation. Even though it may cost us money this year, it will pay off in the long run. Wheat looks unprofitable this year, but it is a necessary part of our farm’s rotation, and therefore is a required crop no matter what the price is. Microsoft’s Excel program is a huge part of my life during the winter, and is where I try to calculate our farm’s input cost down to the nickel. Sometimes, our projections are wrong, so we try not to chase the market too much. Instead, we grow crops we know we can grow well and that have decent looking price prospects for next year. But, it is a total guessing game, as a weather issue anywhere in the world (or lack thereof) can change our ability to make a profit substantially.

3. Preparing equipment for spring. Our shop almost always has equipment in it, from combines to tractors to semis, where we try to do as much preventative maintenance as possible to ensure our busy season goes uninterrupted. The more our equipment is repaired during the winter, the less work we will have to do in the growing season, where finding time for preventative maintenance and repairs is almost impossible.

4. Booking and purchasing inputs. Once we have an idea of what crops we are going to grow, we pre-purchase and book the inputs we need, such as seed, fertilizer, and some chemicals. There are usually discounts for doing so.

5. Meetings. Agriculture is an industry that changes faster than I can even keep up with, 20140121_101340so going to winter meetings to keep with new agronomic, marketing and business trends is a must. I had the good fortune of attending Bayer CropScience’s inaugural Agronomy Summit in Banff back in November, and I had the pleasure of attending Syngenta’s Grower University at the Richard Ivey School of Business in January. Both were excellent and extraordinary learning experiences that I will benefit from for many years to come (more on those later).

6. Marketing. Don’t let it fool you that this is last on this list. This is the most important job of the winter, and ties together budgeting, hauling grain, and pre-purchasing inputs. 20140213_133226The more accurate our budget is, the better we know what price we need to sell at to achieve a profit. We also need to know what our cash flow needs are to ensure we can sell grain at the right times to get our bills paid. Furthermore, we have to be able to actually get the grain moved to get our contracts filled, so keeping an eye on trucking capabilities is vital as well. Finally, after all these needs are met, we try to sell grain at the right times to capture a good price. Our goal is to sell into the top third of the market, which is harder than you might think. Markets sometimes fluctuate wildly for seemingly no reason at all, depending on the moods and intentions of large hedge funds and other speculators.

Winter is a time spent in three main spots: the semi, the shop, and the computer. Each of these tasks is equally important to make sure all the work gets done right and on time.

However, winter isn’t all about work. Despite how busy it can be, there is a lot of downtime, too. This is why most of our holidays are during the winter months. The growing season is immensely busy and stressful, and winter brings a slowdown in the workload. It is a time to visit family and friends, a time for (some) needed rest and relaxation, and a time for fun. Despite the cold and the snow, winter is a wonderful time to be on the Prairies, with gorgeous sunrises and sunsets, beautiful landscapes and busy small-town rinks with curling, hockey and snowmobiling.

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Spring will come sooner than we are ready for, as it always does. There is a stirring of excitement brewing in the Prairies; winter is beginning to lose its grip on us, and, even though it is more than a month away yet, spring is coming. Until then, I am going to enjoy the rest of winter, from the short days and quiet weekends to curling and snowmobiling; winter is a wonderful time of the year, and it often goes by too fast (except for last year, that is). And, of course, I will be enjoying watching the Winter Olympics. Good luck Team Canada!

Grain Bags in January – What Could Be More Fun?

20140104_131641 (1)January. The first true month of winter, a time to see the spectacular views of lovely, snow covered streets and roads; a time to enjoy a hot chocolate on a horse-drawn sleigh; a time to enjoy the wonderful season that we call winter on the prairies.

Yeah, right.

Maybe instead, January is a month of cold and snow, a month to avoid the outdoors wherever possible, instead hiding inside to avoid the frigid temperatures and brutal winds; indeed, January is a month to try and spend indoors, praying that the furnace doesn’t fail and water pipes don’t freeze.

As I write this, the temperature outside is a chilling -32 degrees Celsius. However, add in the so-called “wind chill” of a 44 km/hr wind, and it feels like a brutal -52 degrees outside. Fortunately, today is Sunday, so there is no compelling reason to leave the house.

First, I might point out that today is not an anomaly; it has been an exceptionally cold start to winter (which began in mid-November), with December being a dreadfully cold month, and January proving to be no better so far. We have a fair amount of snow, although I don’t believe it is abnormal by any means. And I should also point out that we do usually experience weather like this during our winters in Saskatchewan, but just not usually for this long of a stretch at a time. Nevertheless, this is life on the Western Prairies, and we just have to deal with it.

Hauling grain in this weather is not exactly the first idea of what I want to do on days like this. However, in their typical fashion, the grain companies we contracted wheat and canola through suddenly decided they all wanted their grain at once, starting Thursday of last week. Now, it was not horribly cold at the time, so we started hauling, extracting from grain bags.

Source: www.agri-tec.com
Source: http://www.agri-tec.com

Extracting grain bags is an interesting task. As much as we can, we store our grain inside bins, such as the large steel cylinders you see at the top of this page. Bins are, unfortunately, quite expensive, so we can only store so much in them. We usually haul a lot of grain off the combines to the grain handling facilities, such as the one to the right (Weyburn Inland Terminal – one of the largest of its kind in Canada). If you have read some of my other posts, you may recall that we had the crop of a lifetime this year. Well, so did the rest of Western Canada, so moving it is a challenge (more on that later). So, with no bins or elevators to haul to, we stored our grain in bags.

Harvest 069These 200-300 foot long plastic bags can hold a lot of grain and they are easy to fill. You simply dump grain into the “bagger” which pushes it into the bag. The bag then fills as it is pushed off of the bagger, a little bit at a time. Once filled, the end is tied up and the bag is left for later. As you might expect, animals can be an issue with them, tearing holes and eating grain out of it, walking along the top and punching holes, and generally wreaking havoc. For this reason, we try to empty the bags before spring. Otherwise, they can tear open and can be brutal to clean up.

20140104_145702We are in the process of extracting the bags, which involves a contraption with a knife to slice the bag open, a caged auger inside the bag to remove grain from it, and an auger to move the grain into a semi. It all works quite well, assuming wildlife hasn’t mauled the bags too badly, and assuming the extractor runs straight down the bag. In the winter, it becomes more challenging, such as the past two days, when heavy winds and snow came in just in time for us to be extracting. You can imagine how annoying wind is on a large plastic bag. Visibility on the roads was very poor from the blowing snow, and they quickly became difficult to drive on, with large snow drifts all over them. Semi trucks are designed for clean highways, not snow-drift covered roads.

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Looks like fun, right?

Nonetheless, we emptied the bags yesterday, in a -45 degree wind chill afternoon. We had to push the snow out from the bags and back roads again, thanks to the lovely winds. 20140104_133205Although difficult, cold and sometimes painful (Google “frostbite”), there is a certain sense of pride that comes from having “beaten” Mother Nature at her worst, knowing that despite the cold, wind and snow, you were able to get the work done. There’s just something about going out into the worst of winter, toughing it out and getting the work done, that is somehow kind of satisfying.

Well, there is more grain to haul and more bags to extract, so hopefully winter will ease off! Otherwise, it is going to be a long wait until spring.