The End of The Growing Season Has Come Too Early

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

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

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

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

What Does An Early Frost Do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Harvest Looms

While summer doesn’t technically end until September 22, for farmers it will unofficially end very soon. The beginning of harvest more or less ends summer for those of us involved, with the stoppage of all non-essential activities to focus fully on the marathon that is known as harvest. This day is rapidly approaching for our farm, with our earliest crops marching inexorably towards their maturation.

The final rush for preparations will ensue this week as we hurry to get everything ready. Combines, swathers, headers, grain-moving equipment, bins and tractors must all be prepared for the long, slow push that harvest brings. Unlike seeding, harvest isn’t a sprint to the finish line; it is a marathon, a slow process, with days that can often be very short. While there are few impediments to seeding through all hours of day and night, dew and long nights can make for short days of combining, especially later in the year. Indeed, it would not be uncommon for us to still be combining into October. Where seeding is only 2-4 weeks long, consisting of days of screaming ahead at full throttle and days of waiting for rains to end, harvest is 4-8 weeks long, with day after day of continual marching forward.

The enormity of the task that this season brings looms ahead of us now, with 12,000 acres of crop to pull off the fields. Based on my current yield estimates, that should work out to Grain Cart Unloadingover 400,000 bushels of canola, winter wheat, durum, spring wheat, peas, lentils, soybeans and flax. Over a third of that is committed for sale off the combines (to be delivered as we harvest), while the rest must be stored in bins and grain bags. At 1100 bushels per semi load, that is a lot of hauling!

Somewhere in all this, we also plan to seed 2,000 acres of winter wheat. So, in addition to trying to keep 3 combines, 3 semis and 1 grain cart operating, we have to find a way to run an air drill for a week! While the difficulties of doing this are significant, the advantages of seeding winter wheat are well worth the challenge. Our most profitable crop this year looks to be winter wheat, with a gorgeous stand of it very near to harvest now. It takes a lot of pressure off the compressed seeding season we seem to be stuck with nowadays, and gets a crop growing early to take advantage of the excessive spring rains that have become all too common.

spraying winter wheatWe sprayed some of the earliest winter wheat yesterday to help finish off the crop and prepare it for harvest. While crops will eventually dry down on their own, the use of a herbicide can sometimes greatly speed up this process. In pulse crops, like peas and lentils, this is absolutely a necessary practice. These crops do not dry down on their own very quickly, and late season weeds coming through won’t die off for months. The best way to deal with these crops is a herbicide that “burns them down”, which basically just releases much of the water from their cells. This can bring a crop to maturity in days, rather than weeks. We sprayed our peas at the end of last week, so we expect to harvest them sometime just after this coming weekend, say Monday.

green peas
Great time for dessication for these green peas.

With the realization that harvest may very well begin in only a week comes the panic to get everything ready. While our combines are more or less ready for the field, we are renting a third one this year to help get the crop off quickly, due to our increased farm size in 2014. DSC_0143This combine will need a good, thorough checking over to ensure no costly breakdowns occur in the field. Combines are marvels of technology, but are full of belts, chains, bearings, and tons of moving parts that, sooner or later, will break. Minimizing this is critical to having a successful harvest.

While it may seem that harvest isn’t really a time-crunched operation, that is really not the case. One small rain shower can cost a substantial amount of money in grade-sensitive crops like durum or lentils, or a strong wind can blow away thousands of acres of canola. Indeed, one bad storm can be very costly, so moving through harvest as quickly as possible is of vital importance.

As we move closer to the harvest season, it is important to carefully monitor our crops. An outbreak of Bertha armyworm in canola or grasshoppers in our lentils is still a threat, among other insect infestations. This is also a great time of the year to check for disease. fusarium head blight durumAlthough it is now too late to spray fungicides, checking to see what diseases may have infected our crops allows us to determine whether fungicides paid this year, or whether we should have sprayed more of them. As we put together years and years of this information, we can start to draw trends to help determine when or if fungicides pay for themselves. They are usually very expensive to purchase and to apply, so we really need to be sure they will pay for themselves before we spray them. Diseases like Sclerotinia in canola and lentils, fusarium head blight in durum, and pasmo in flax will all show up at this time of the year. I just need to make sure I take the time to check for them!

As I look around the area to see what crops experienced for disease this year, I find myself becoming increasingly anxious for harvest. Substantial disease symptoms have manifested themselves in some of our canola and lentils, and I have seen severe disease in local durum fields as well. Chalk it up to an abnormally wet spring and a frustratingly humid and warm summer. But, harvest will tell the tale of just how much yield disease cost us this year.

In the next few weeks, the story of the 2014 growing season will finally reach its conclusion. Questions will be answered: how bad was the flooding this spring? How much damage did plant diseases cause? Did spraying fungicides and insecticides actually pay? Did we use enough fertilizer? Too much? Is our equipment doing the job like it should? Not to mention a thousand other questions that need answering to prepare for seeding in 2015.

Harvest, despite its long hours, sometimes monotonous nature and always stressful disposition, is a wonderful time of year, when many of the questions of the growing season are answered, when money finally starts to come in (instead of pouring out), and when we finally get to look at what we’ve accomplished for the year. The results of everything we have done finally come to fruition. The fields take on a brilliant golden hue of ripe crops, and the country bustles with activity, with combines and trucks and people everywhere you look. Yes it is stressful, and yes it is wearying, but it is the culmination of all that is farming; of all that is agriculture.

Harvest looms ahead of us. And I can’t wait for it to begin.

Harvest: The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Another summer has flown by. Days are shorter, nights are longer, and days at the beach (few as they tend to be!) have all but ended for 2013 for Prairie farmers. The countryside brims with potential; with heavy, thick crops maturing into beautiful golden-brown landscapes, crops look better than they have in years. The end of August looms ahead, and with it brings the beginning of harvest.

We have been busy preparing our equipment for the long road ahead. Tuning up the combines, fixing the headers, cleaning bins and organizing tools and people has been keeping us busy for the last couple of weeks. Getting ready for harvest is a monumental task. The amount of machinery involved is staggering; multiple trucks and semis, combines with sensitive mapping software and sophisticated threshing and separating components, swathers for cutting canola, bins, tractors, grain carts and augers. Not to mention that throughout all of this, the sprayer continues to run on a semi-ongoing basis, spraying out low spots to prepare them for next year, spraying crops to finish them off for easier harvesting, and constant monitoring for insect threats. Even after harvest begins, we must be ready to seed winter wheat. Indeed, harvest is an operation that brings everything to the table; all the employees, equipment and the entire family must come together to make this happen.

We have started some preliminary fieldwork, such as swathing this field of canola:

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It looks awesome!

We have also preharvested all of our peas, which means we have sprayed them to help finish the plants off. Peas, like some other plants, will just keep growing as long as conditions allow. Glyphosate plus saflufenacil works very well to kill the crop and weeds quickly and completely. Diquat (Reglone) is faster but doesn’t really kill the weeds. They will grow back. Worried about residues in the seeds? Don’t be. The plant no longer has the ability to push much chemical into the seeds. Besides, maximum residue limits are established for all products, and they are extremely strict.

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Field peas ready for a Reglone application to assist crop drydown. Harvest should be ready to commence in 5-8 days.

Although all this preparation may sound a lot like work, the reality is that excitement brews in all of us. The crop looks nothing short of phenomenal, and early harvest results from our neighbors look fantastic. True to farmer fashion, I will not put a yield number on our crop until we get into it, but suffice to say that if it comes off as anticipated, we will make a great deal of financial progress. We are all excited to dig into this crop and see what is out there.

Harvest is the culmination of everything we do all year; all the planning and preparation during the winter months, agonizing over cropping decisions and chemical and fertilizer plans; the marathon of planting that brings us to the edge of sanity; the constant scouting for weeds, disease, insects and nutrient deficiencies throughout the season, desperately trying to avoid a spraying error; and finally, the preparation of all the harvest equipment to ensure the crop comes off on time. Every decision and every error we make throughout the year shows up in the fields as we combine them. Every mistake can now be quantified from our yield maps as we roll through each field. All of our marketing choices can either burn us or gratify us as we determine not only the size of our crop, but the size of the North American crop as well.

Yes, harvest is a season like no other, with equal parts excitement, hope, fear and stress all coming into play. Many things can still go wrong: a strong wind could come through all blow away our swathed canola, heavy rains could downgrade the quality of our wheat and durum, and severely damage the yield at the same time, and, lest we forget, the final factor that has been on all of our minds since that cold night in July; frost (read about that here).

The threat of an early frost still hangs over my head like a heavy black cloud, a fear in the back of my mind that haunts my dreams and darkens the brightest days. While the forecast looks hot and wonderful, and while we know that we will get at least half the crop mature in that forecast period, a great deal of crop is still very green and very late. We need the 20th of September without a frost to gather this crop as it stands. Even if our early crops are record-breaking, freezing out the remaining half would still lead to a losing year. We are not out of the woods yet.

But, these are things that are out of our control. Right now, all we can do is prepare our equipment and do the best damn job we can to harvest this crop in a timely and efficient manner to capture the most yield we can on whatever we can. Tomorrow we will take the first bite out of the first crop we seeded- canola. Will it be ready? It was swathed a week ago today, which may be borderline for readiness. We will try it anyway and see what happens.

We have put a lot of time, money, blood, sweat and tears (literally) into the 2013 crop of canola, durum, peas, hard red spring wheat, and soybeans. I cannot wait to see what it will yield, and I pray that the cold weather will hold off just one more month. This is an exciting crop, and I will be dancing in the streets if we can get it (that’s not really a joke- I’m serious about that). Wish us luck!