Going From One Extreme To Another

Every year is different. Generally, you can classify years by how their weather patterns. Last year was dry, 2014 was wet, 2013 was cool and wet, 2012 was hot and wet, and so on. This year… this year doesn’t seem to fit any sort of normal pattern. We had one of the driest, warmest winters of the past couple decades, followed by an abnormally warm and dry spring. Seeding started in mid-April, earlier than ever, and we were seeding into progressively drier soil.

Day after day the wind blew dust in our faces and whipped around any unprotected soil. Vehicles and equipment were layered with a dust so fine and so thick you could hardly stand it. Forecasts were calling for a hot and dry summer, and the unceasing wind drove what moisture we had out of the ground. We were on the brink of a drought unlike anything we (in this area, that is) had seen in many, many years.

Six weeks later, I spend each day looking at the sky, hoping for just one more day without rain! What the hell happened?

Somewhere around the middle of May, something changed. A freak rainfall event, one that should never have occurred in our persistent dry pattern, gave us a much needed rainfall, one that got our crop out of the ground. Ever since then, we just keep getting more and more and more rain. Over the last month, we have gotten more rainfall than we got in the entire 2015 growing season.

Is this an improvement? Unquestionably, yes. We were getting close to a pretty dire situation. If the crop didn’t get rain soon, it was going to be in real trouble. Our canola desperately needed moisture to get out of the ground. The crop emerged, the dust settled, and we have the makings of a large crop; unlike anything we’ve seen since 2013, a record year.

So what exactly am I complaining about then? Well, sometimes too much of a good thing isn’t a good thing. One of the problems with such a dry winter and spring, combined with a forecast for a hot and dry summer, is that you tend to strategize for that type of weather. It’s hard to change gears once the year has already started, and pretty much impossible to change your cropping mix once it is already planted.

Wet weather like this is rough on dry-season crops like lentils and peas. While peas are fairly resilient and will likely bounce back from some early-season excess moisture stress, lentils simply cannot. Once they start to become water-logged, they really don’t recover well, even if the weather turns around. And, once they reach what is now a very fragile state, all it takes is a little push to sent them over the brink.

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Although it might be hard to see in the photo, that yellow spot up ahead is in very bad shape. As the roots become infected with pathogens, they quickly begin to fail and will not recover. A substantial number of our lentil acres look like this.

One more big rain. That’s all it will take to destroy an enormous amount of our lentils. They are already under tremendous stress, with pathogens attacking their roots and their leaves, and they just can’t take much more. One storm can change everything.

For the past week we have been anxiously watching the skies and the forecasts, awaiting the near-certainty of heavy rains. Forecast maps published by numerous meteorologists painted a grim picture of the weather ahead.

But, despite all the forecasts and all the doom and gloom, the rains didn’t come. Each storm system that was supposed to hammer us with inches of rain didn’t materialize. They moved south, they moved east, and they just kept missing us (on that note, some areas did see that forecast verified – and it is not a good situation for them).

We just might have made it. The 7-day forecast is for nothing but sun and heat, perfect weather to set up a recovery. Don’t get me wrong; the lentils still stand upon the edge of a knife, but if the forecast verifies, they might still turn out alright.

And, in all honesty, these are a lot better problems to have than if the rains never did come. By now, the crop may well have been written off, dried up to nothing and wilting in the fields. Instead, we have a crop of wheat and canola unlike anything we’ve seen in years, one that looks absolutely remarkable. Bad weather for lentils is perfect weather for wheat and canola; and that is why you always keep different crops in the rotation around here. You just never know what kind of weather you’re going to get.

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It is rare for canola to be flowering like this in June, but with such an early start, it is well advanced and enjoying all the moisture.

The fact is that extreme weather is what we tend to get. Dad has been farming for the better part of forty years and he has yet to see a year where the perfect amount of rain and sunshine grew a crop limited only by its own genetics. And besides, how boring would that be anyway? It’s the stresses and challenges that make farming truly exhilarating.

 

 

Always Try New Things

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?

Straight-Cutting Canola

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.

Swathing canola

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 Canola straight cutharvested. 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 DSC_4334your 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 Leguee Farms_NW 29-10-12 W2_PCPB02B304716at 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.

Tillage Radish

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.

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?

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.

Why I Grow GMOs

What do you think about GMOs?

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Is there a more emotionally charged question out there in this part of today’s world? Certainly, it is understandable that the food we eat be an engaging issue for consumer and producer alike. There has been a drive from the consumer to learn about the food they eat. They want to know how it is produced, and whether it is in a sustainable fashion. Ultimately, and most importantly, they want to know if it is safe.  An unknown factor like genetic modification is a cause for concern for these people, because the long-term effects are not readily available to us.

I support and applaud those in the public that ask these critical questions. Too many people don’t think about the things that are done by the government, business and other organizations. The problem isn’t in people asking questions; it is in people asking the wrong questions to the wrong sources – and believing the answers without question.

I am a farmer that grows genetically modified (GM) crops. Not all of my crops are GMOs. In fact, in a usual rotation of 5-7 different crops, only two are GMOs. Canola and soybeans, two of my farm’s most economically important crops, are GMOs. Other crops, like wheat, peas and flax, are not GMOs, for there are simply none available. Contrary to popular belief, I do have a choice to buy GM crops or alternatives. So why do I grow GM crops when there are so many other cropping options?

That is a good question, and the answer will be different for every farm. In my life on the farm, canola and soybeans are our two newest crop options. In Western Canada, we have been growing wheat for as long as we’ve been farming. Flax and peas are old crops for us as well. Canola is one that we have really only been growing in earnest on our farm for the past 15 or so years. We only just started growing soybeans 3 years ago.

I suppose we could grow old open-pollinated canola and conventional soybeans (these are not GMOs). But would we do that? The claim I hear from some consumers is that GMOs are hazardous. By association then, I must be either cruel or naïve to grow these dangerous crops, putting other people at risk.

But here is the question I pose to the GMO haters: do you really believe I would grow these crops if I believed they were unsafe? My family eats the food we grow. I would not put them at risk if I truly believed GMOs were hazardous.

Honestly, I don’t believe they are. GM crops are not dangerous1. In the almost 20 years since Monsanto started genetically modifying corn, soybeans and canola, the evidence has become clear that the benefits of genetic modification far outweigh the risks1. This isn’t an opinion by a biased industry representative. The information I use comes directly from peer reviewed journal articles, the best source of information on anything scientific. GM crops also have dramatically reduced use of the most dangerous and volatile chemicals to control weeds2. Most of the GM plants we deal with are “Roundup Ready”, which means they are resistant to the active ingredient of Roundup, which is glyphosate. The way we measure the toxicity of chemicals like glyphosate is its LD50 number. This refers to the amount of the chemical, given all at once, which results in the death of 50% of the test animals3. The acute Low Acute Toxicity for oral consumption of glyphosate in rats is an LD50 value greater than 5,000 mg/kg of body weight4. This means that if you were a rat, and you weighed in at 3 kg, you would have to consume 15 grams of glyphosate for it to become toxic to you. That is quite a lot. Comparatively, the LD50 of caffeine is 192 mg/kg body weight. How much coffee do you have in a day? The point is, the dosage makes the poison, and any chemical can be toxic in a large enough dose.

Today’s farm operation is a complicated business. Every year, we run through the numbers on each crop to decide which ones to grow and on how many acres. Canola and soybeans, and especially canola, are profitable crop options for us. So yes, we do grow these GM crops because they allow our farm to make money. Are they making us rich? I wish! But they do allow our farm business to make enough money to survive, and hopefully, over time, prosper. Is this not the dream for us all?

Ultimately, the question of why I grow GMOs comes down to the fundamental freedom that we all have in our democratic society: the freedom of choice. It is my choice to grow GM crops. Conversely, if you don’t approve of them, it is your choice to buy something else. However, keep in mind the unintended consequences of doing so. GM crops allow us to use less toxic pesticides at lower rates. Furthermore, we can achieve unprecedented yields with the incredible biological advances made with these GM varieties. We need to grow 70% more food by 2050 to feed this growing world5; we are going to need all the tools we can get to accomplish this.

My farm grows GM crops, and I am proud to say that we do.  They are safe and sustainable crop options that we have the right to grow if we choose to. I hope that you will think about what I have said the next time someone asks you, “what do you think about GMOs?”

References:

  1. Stella G. Uzogara, 2000. The impact of genetic modification of human foods in the 21st century: A review. Biotechnology Advances 18 (2000): 179-206.
  2. RH. Phipps and J.R. Park, 2002. Environmental benefits of genetically modified crops: Global and European perspectives on their ability to reduce pesticide use. Journal of Animal and Feed Sciences, Vol. 11, pp. 1-18.
  3. United States Environmental Protection Agency, 2012. Lethal Dosage (LD50) Values. http://www.epa.gov/oecaagct/ag101/pestlethal.html
  4. Cornell University, 1994. Extension Toxicology Network. http://pmep.cce.cornell.edu/profiles/extoxnet/dienochlor-glyphosate/glyphosate-ext.html
  5. Agricultural Development Economics Division, 2009. High Level Expert Forum – How to Feed the World in 2050. http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/templates/wsfs/docs/Issues_papers/HLEF2050_Global_Agriculture.pdf

Weather Can Be Frustrating

While rain can be good and bad in farming, perhaps today’s rain is for the best. Well, it actually started showering yesterday, and continued through today. A part of me wanted rain, a part of me didn’t. You see, mature crops can be heavily damaged by rain.

Durum, one of our farm’s most important crops, is extremely sensitive to moisture at harvest time. Durum, a species of wheat, is used to make pasta. Most of your pasta noodles in your house started out as Amber Durum, milled into flour, or semolina. This crop grows particularly well in our climate and soil zone and usually outyields other wheats. However, it is the most sensitive crop we grow to rain at maturity (excepting malt barley, which we did not plant this year). Rains at harvest time can wash the lovely amber colour out of the seed, causing potential quality downgrades, which can be quite costly. Furthermore, rains can wash the weight out of the seed, decreasing the total tonnage of grain, and thereby reducing the yield of the crop. As you can see, rain is very undesirable at harvest time until the durum is in the bin.

The other side of the coin is that we actually could really use a rain. It has become very dry, due to the lack of rain for 3 weeks and the wonderful heat wave we have experienced since. 30 + degree days have been a mainstay for weeks, which have helped bring a very late crop in almost on time. If you read some of my other blogs of late, like this one, you will see how concerned I have been with a potential frost on our late crops. It was a genuine concern; but is now a concern no more, with most crops already safe, and a warm forecast still in the works.

Anyway, tangent aside, it is now dry, and our plans to seed winter wheat are being threatened by very dry soils. Winter wheat is a great cropping option: it absorbs early spring moisture, matures early in August, and reduces the workload in a tight seeding season. It does, however, have some drawbacks. Trying to seed during harvest is extremely challenging. Running our combines demands every person we have working on the farm every hour of every day, and sparing even one to go seeding is difficult, to say the least. Secondly, seeding takes place in late August to early September, which is normally a very dry time of year, like this year.

So, all this is to say that despite the risk of damage to the durum, rain will be conducive for seeding winter wheat. I guess this is what we do as farmers. We manage risk. Growing multiple crops allows us to take advantage of many different weather patterns.

The good news for harvest is that the rain was light and it looks to be clearing up outside. Harvest may even resume tomorrow. And the crop? It’s excellent. Our first canola yielded better than it has in many years, our peas were record-breaking, and the first field of durum is unbelievable. We have a long way to go, with about 28% of the crop harvested, but if things continue as they have, we will do very well this year.

It is hard to describe harvest time on the farm. Suffice to say… it’s busy. There is a great joy and excitement in rolling the combines out to the field, discovering what all your labour and careful decisions have resulted in. All the equipment that we use every day is every young boy’s dream; massive, 450 horsepower combines that thresh and grind the crop, large tractors carting grain from the combines to the semi trucks, not to mention all the swathers, augers and other tractors for support equipment. The fuel we go through every day is staggering. But, harvest is also exhausting, and is a long, stressful grind, often lasting many weeks or months. No matter how great the crop is or how much profit there may be (and usually, profits are small or non-existent!), you do get tired of the repetitive grind of harvest.

Sometimes, a rain is really what you need to unwind for a day, and get a short break from the hard work (sometimes, it even gives you time to blog!). We will likely be back at it tomorrow. After this two-day break, I am excited to get back out there. After all, with a crop like this one, whats not to love?

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!

Excitement or Fear?

There is an interesting and frightening juxtaposition when you look at crop conditions today. Crops look good. No, scratch that; crops look fantastic. We haven’t seen a crop like this since 2009, which was a record-breaking year for our farm. But, incredibly, this year could actually be better than 2009.

The other side of this coin is that the reason crops look so good is because summer has been so cool. We have not seen a high breach 25 degrees Celsius since mid-July. We have had many days of cloudy, cool weather with some disturbingly cold nights. In fact, some areas of northern Saskatchewan actually had patchy, soft frost last night. While we have escaped any of this so far (as have most) and forecasts look for an improvement in temperatures, tensions are building for everyone here. Will the crop mature in time?

In the Northern Prairies, we grow mostly cool-season crops, like wheat, peas and canola. These crops do not like temperatures above 30 degrees, especially when they are flowering. These hot temperatures can cause seed and pod abortion, which reduces yield. This was what we experienced last year, although the crop was still a good one, for the most part. Canola especially loves flowering in cool weather, which is why it looks so phenomenal. 

Due to warm weather the past couple of years, we have been experimenting with long-season crops like soybeans and corn. These crops, and especially corn, require hot weather to mature in time before our usual frost of September 10th.

As we near the middle of August, it almost doesn`t matter whether your crop is warm or cool season. All crops are at risk. A frost in the next 3 weeks would be devastating. Our farm is simply not prepared to deal with that kind of financial hardship, especially not after the difficult years we have experienced in 2010-2011. We have invested a lot of money in this year`s crop, totalling over 1 million in direct inputs alone, not to mention the new machinery we have purchased to upgrade ageing equipment. We cannot withstand a significant frost event until at least September 15. Beyond the 20th or even the 25th would be wonderful. The risk has become very real.

It is odd to talk about such a wonderful crop in the field and then complain about the weather. But there is no event, not hail, wind, drought or excess rainfall, that causes the financial and emotional hardship that an early frost creates. You can quite literally lose the entire crop if it freezes too early, as many experienced in 2004 (read more about that year and its devastation here), which was one year all farmers in the Prairies will remember. 

Harvest is coming, and the crop of a lifetime is out there.

The calendar is ticking ever closer to September, with fields still green and flowering.

Will we make it? Only time will tell.

I’m becoming very nervous.