Harvest 2015 In Pictures

September 22nd marked the final day of harvest for us this year. I have to say, that was one of the earliest, easiest and most enjoyable harvests I have ever been a part of- especially after 2014’s nightmare of a fall. For the first time since I started this blog, I hardly wrote at all about harvest; I had neither the time to write (very few breaks) or the material to write about!

Despite all that, the 2015 harvest was not all smooth sailing, and we are all more than ready for it to be done. Follow along and see how things went!

Even with late summer sun, there aren't enough hours in the day at this time of the year.
Even with late summer sun, there just aren’t enough hours in the day at this time of the year.

This was one of our earliest harvests ever. We fired up on July 29th, at least two weeks earlier than normal. A hot and dry summer brought crops in very quickly, and our winter wheat was ready before we were. It took more than a few late nights to get everything ready for the field. You don’t just walk out to the shed, fire up the combine and go harvesting. No, these large, complicated and expensive machines require considerable care and attention to ensure they don’t break down during one of the most critical times of the year.

New bins helped us reduce the excessive amount of grain bags needed for storage.
New bins helped us reduce the excessive amount of grain bags needed for storage. Last year, we needed over 20 bags, comprising close to 150,000 bushels of storage. This year, that number was cut by a factor of four, with a similar yielding crop.

Along with the combines, several other items needed preparation, such as semi trucks and trailers, tractors, grain moving equipment, and various other machinery. Grain bins needed to be cleaned, temperature cables checked and tied down, and augers needed a thorough checking over too. No matter how perfectly the combines run, if even the auger breaks down, everything is stopped. The entire chain has to be up to the immense task of harvest.

The first crop in the bin - winter wheat.
The first crop in the bin – winter wheat.

Winter wheat is a crop with advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, it establishes in the fall, using up fall and early spring moisture that other crops give up to evaporation. It can yield very well as a result, and it is a nice way to get a crop off early. Unfortunately, that is also a major downside – you lose a lot of summer. With this picture taken on July 29th, we gave up half of our summer. Unfortunately, with the early heat and drought stress this crop faced in June, it wasn’t very successful this year.

Lentils- not the easiest crop to get off the ground, but a very rewarding one.
Lentils- not the easiest crop to get off the ground, but a very rewarding one.

Sometimes, things work out better than you ever expected. While that doesn’t happen very often for this farm, this year it did. After I spent years avoiding growing this difficult crop, we finally eased back into them in 2014. Lentils are not water-loving, and the excessive moisture over the past 7 years really turned us off of this crop. Ironically, the same heat and dry conditions that burned up the winter wheat allowed the lentils to thrive, and we pulled off some great yields. It was actually a lot of fun harvesting these things.

There were more than a few firsts this year: one was straight-cutting canola, and another was this awesome new GoPro camera (thanks Syngenta)!
There were more than a few firsts this year: one was straight-cutting canola, and another was this awesome new GoPro camera (thanks Syngenta)!

For those of you who have never seen the inside of a combine cab, this is my view out of one of our John Deere 9870s. These cabs have gotten so much better over the years, with fantastic comfort, quietness, and user-friendly controls. While this machine is already 7 years old, it’s hard to complain about running it. But, try sitting all day in it every day for a month. Everything gets old after that.

Straight-cutting canola had its challenges, but the pros outweighed the cons.
Straight-cutting canola had its challenges, but the pros outweighed the cons.

Straight-cutting canola was a mixed experience. We learned a lot from doing it, which you can read more about here, but suffice to say it won’t be the last time we try it. We learned that the pod-shatter resistant varieties are worth the money in harvest efficiency, and we learned that if it’s not ready, it’s not ready. Four hours spent unplugging one of our machines was a harsh lesson for us on that one. Any way we can cut down on swathing is a positive for us (I despise swathing) and it keeps more of us around to combine. I look forward to continuing the experiment in 2016.

Trucking may not be as glamorous as combining, but it is every bit as important.
Trucking may not be as glamorous as combining, but it is every bit as important.

I think when people imagine harvest, they tend to think more about the combines and less about the support crew. It looks like way more fun, right?

Unfortunately, while that is probably true, combines are the easiest machines to operate in the harvest mix… which means that Dad, Sarah and I rarely get to run them. I think I only ran a combine for a total of two days this year, which was mostly evenings. We spend most of our time with logistics: getting the grain from the combine into storage without slowing them down. The process involves two or three steps: 1) using the grain cart to get the grain out of the combines and into the semis; 2) getting the semis unloaded into bins, or, and this is where step 3 comes in, into bags.

Grain bags have some downsides, but we can't go without them.
Grain bags have some downsides, but we can’t go without them.

While grain bags are difficult to work with (they are rather heavy to lift onto the bagger) and are all too attractive to wildlife (I have learned to hate raccoons), they are a fantastic short-term tool. Sometimes, the bins are just too far and the trucks cannot keep up. Other times, we are short on people to run semis. Besides, at the end of the day, we just don’t have enough bins for an above average crop. Grain bags fill all of these gaps, and keep those expensive combines moving at capacity.

Just when you think harvest can’t get any more complicated…

The most difficult job to complete every fall is seeding. Trying to keep three combines moving, harvesting over 25,000 bushels a day, and then finding a way to go and plant seed and fertilizer on 1,600 acres seems a recipe for disaster. Managing the logistics during the actual seeding season is difficult enough! Nevertheless, we always try and find a way to get the job done.

The great thing about this harvest was that we were almost finished when seeding started! Now that is a nice change of pace. In fact, we actually finished harvest (aside from the soybeans) as we really got rolling seeding. Getting the winter wheat in was not the challenge it usually is – but starting a job of this scale with over a month of harvest behind you takes a real effort. Running 15+ hour days for that long wears you down, to say the least.

As the end looms, logistics becomes a greater and greater challenge.
As the end looms, logistics becomes a greater and greater challenge.

As “easy” as this harvest was, after over a month of steady combining, you really start to wear down. Once the main binyard fills up, you start looking at anything that resembles a bin to try and store as much as you can. By the time we got to the flax, we finally broke down and rented a couple of 5,000 bushel hopper bins to take the pressure off.

The good news was that we got a two week break after finishing the flax, before the soybeans were ready. That gave us some much needed time to get some bins empty and do some required maintenance – and to catch up on sleep.

A frosty morning reminded us that fall had begun - and it was time to be finished harvest.
A frosty morning reminded us that fall had begun – and it was time to be finished harvest.

While late September is by no means a late finish to harvest, with a late July start, we had been in harvest mode for nearly two full months. This photo was taken the morning of our final day of harvest (excepting some low spots) and it was clear how the weather had begun to change. For the first (and only) full day of the year, I got to run our newest combine, our S680 John Deere. It made the final day breeze by!

When the smoke cleared on the 22nd of September and the combines entered the yard for the final time this year, we finally got to take a breath and look back on the year that was. 2015 was largely a hot and dry year, but excellent subsoil moisture from a very wet 2014 and a few key rains helped us bring in an above average crop. It’s not very often you get a harvest as relatively easy as this one with a great crop!

After 56 days, 1200 combine hours and nearly half a million bushels of grains, oilseeds and legumes, harvest 2015 has been completed. There is little time for rest though; we have grain to haul, disking and vertical tillage to do, fertilizer to spread and spraying to finish, all before freeze up starts in (hopefully) a little more than a month. But, these jobs aren’t harvest – the crop is in the bin.

Advertisements

A Slow, Frustrating Start to the 2014 Harvest

Although harvest has begun, it has been fraught with difficulties thus far. Humid, foggy nights and rain have plagued us so far, with over a week’s worth of combining only resulting in a short 750 acres completed. For 3 combines, that is pretty sad.

We began our harvest last Tuesday in winter wheat, the first crop to be mature. It was a difficult decision to combine it at all, considering its stubbornly high moisture content that Harvest Fogrefused to come down. Generally, we should be harvesting wheat at 13.5% moisture. That is what our buyers want, and that is often what our contracts stipulate. Any higher than that, and we may be on the hook to pay a drying fee, which can become quite costly. Our wheat was coming off between 15 and 17.5% moisture, which is about as high as we can safely store. Normally, we would just wait a couple of days for the moisture to come down. This year, cloudy, cool days with incredibly humid nights and fog persisting well into the morning simply would not let the wheat dry down. Making matters worse was a forecast for substantial rainfall for the coming weekend. We were left with little choice but to harvest it anyway.

Some farms do have the ability to dry their grain themselves, with an on-farm drier doing the same work that an elevator would do. However, we really haven’t ever needed one of these systems, and they are very expensive, both to purchase and to operate. Consequently, we do not have one, and it is pretty late in the year to get one installed now. Not to mention that the cost of one is pretty prohibitive to us at this time. Someday in the not-to-distant future, we should probably look at a drying system, but one thing at a time here. Many a farm has gone broke from buying too much too fast.

Anyway, tangent aside, the high moisture content of the winter wheat kept us from combining too much of it. Our hope is that the wheat we have off should blend out just fine with some drier stuff later on. Maybe we’re being optimistic? I should hope not; if we can’t harvest drier winter wheat than that we will have some serious problems!

So we harvested some short days, in between some showers, and finished off about a third of that crop. On Friday, we decided we had done as much as we dared to do, and thought our peas might be a safer bet, which should have been ready by that time anyway.

Switching combines over to peas is no five minute job. You see, a combine threshes grain via a large, spinning cylinder that runs most of the length of the machine. This is called a rotor. Not all combines run this design, but ours do. The rotor runs on an angle, dragging the crop up and around itself. Surrounding the bottom of the rotor at its front are semi-circular plates. These steel pieces, rather logically called concaves, are open all along themselves with steel wires closing most of the open space. The wires are spaced out just enough to let grain fall through.

So to recap, the spinning cylinder (rotor) spins pretty fast against semi-circular, partially open plates (concaves) smashing the crop between them. This breaks the pods, heads, or whatever else plants produce seeds inside of and drops the grain down below, where it is carried up to the grain tank, or hopper (there’s a few more steps in here, but you get the gist). Anyway, peas are very large seeds, and will not fit between the wires on normal concaves. Therefore, when we switch to peas we have to switch out the concaves. These things are heavy. It is no small job to do this, and it does use up some time (along with some skin and blood, usually). So, by the time we got this job done on Friday, it had already started raining, so that ended any thoughts of starting on the peas last week.

The rain on Friday was part of a massive system that was advertised to produce Harvesting Wheatsubstantial rainfall for us. At this time of the year, rain is not welcome. Ripe crops lose their color to washing out from the rain, ripe seeds can sprout, and fields become difficult to move heavy equipment around in. All in all, rains during harvest simply cost money and cause even more stress in an already stressful time of year. Quality losses in crops like durum and lentils can be very costly.

Depending on the field, we received anywhere from 1.5-2 inches of rainfall from Friday to Sunday. While that was ugly for us, I must say that I know other farmers who fared far worse, with some rain totals reaching over 4 inches. It has been quite a few years since we had an event like that on our farm, and I remember it vividly. Long story short, it was not fun, and we had a lot of stuck machinery that year. Harvest was long and miserable.

Harvest is not always hot and sunny, like it has been the last few years. No, 2010 was the last year that harvest was wet… and it was ugly. We hardly turned a wheel throughout the month of September. By the time we could go, our crop quality was terrible, and a lot of yield had been lost. It was an incredibly expensive month for us and others in the area. That was 4 years ago… maybe it’s our turn for another one like it. I sincerely hope not.

Fortunately, things have improved somewhat, and harvest has resumed. We hammered through our peas and are now ready to move back to winter wheat and maybe lentils. It Combinesfeels good to check a crop off the list, even if it is a small one in terms of acres. We will be changing concaves again in the morning (I’m just so excited for that job) and hopefully we can get started early. There is the potential for rain tomorrow afternoon, so it will be vital to get going as early as we can. With a wet September in the forecast and days already growing noticeably shorter, we will hammer down as hard as we can whenever we can. I have a strong feeling that this will be a difficult harvest. But… I’ve been wrong before (often, actually!) and, bad weather aside, harvest is still the most wonderful time of the year.