Is a Record Crop a Bad Thing?

In Western Canada, 2013 will be a year long remembered – but maybe not for the reason we expected. This was a crop larger than any in history for the provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, with improving genetics and fertility plans coinciding with a growing season that would make Iowa jealous. Our farm participated in this, with a crop unlike anything we had ever seen before rolling off the fields at harvest (click here for more on this). It was one of the most exciting harvests I have ever been a part of, with an incredible crop coinciding with some still-good prices to generate profits surpassing any in our farm’s history.

Too much of a good thing?

As the realization began to dawn on grain buying companies like Viterra, Richardson Pioneer, Cargill and others that this was going to a true monster of a crop, the proverbial sh*t began to hit the fan.

Source: http://www.flynnbros.com/mhandling-cbins-featureproject1.html
Source: http://www.flynnbros.com

Picture your local professional football team. Say the stadium has seating capacity for about 45,000 people, which usually gets filled for home games. Every game, traffic getting out of the stadium is slow, but liveable, because it is largely expected. Then the announcement comes that the championship game, say the Grey Cup or the Superbowl, is going to be held at you home stadium. Awesome!

Source: http://www.dreamstime.com
Source: http://www.dreamstime.com

So, to draw in more fans and more revenue, the seating is expanded from 45,000 to 60,000. Suddenly, traffic goes from slow to stopped. Getting out of the stadium after this game with an extra 15,000 people, or another 33%, is a huge problem. People get mad, people get frustrated, and things just generally become difficult (especially if you have a few fans who have enjoyed too many beverages). Why didn’t the event planners think of this? Why didn’t they do something ahead of time to prevent this traffic jam?

That is the grain movement situation this year. Too much grain has to move in too short of a time. So what happens? You get a backlog. A traffic jam. Things slow to a crawl, and frustration grows (but without the inebriated fans, I suppose). So again, why didn’t the line companies (our grain buyers) or the railways do something about this ahead of time? Put simply, because a) they didn’t know the crop was going to be this big (who did?) and b) the system is designed for an average crop, not a record crop.

Who’s to Blame?

Does that excuse the railways of responsibility? No way. Over the past 10 years, farmers have been applying more and more fertilizer and seeding better and better genetics. This crop was coming; it was only a matter of time. Records are made to be broken, and a record-breaking crop like this was only one good growing season away.

Source: http://flickrhivemind.net
Source: http://flickrhivemind.net

Our rail system in Canada is almost exclusively controlled by two companies, Canadian National Railway (CNR) and Canadian Pacific Railway (CP). Yes, there are a number of scattered short line railway companies, but they all have to work around CNR’s or CP’s schedule. These two big guys have an oligopoly (market controlled by a small number of players – think smartphone operating systems: Apple, Google, Windows) so they can pretty much haul what they want, when they want, regardless of what farmers and line companies want them to do. Our country is huge, and our grain has to go a long way to move it to one of the coastal port facilities, such as Vancouver, Churchill or Thunder Bay. Far enough that movement by truck is horribly uneconomical. We rely on the railways – heavily. And, frankly, they are failing us.

Falling Prices and Falling Profits

The result? The price is not good – really not good. Last year at this time you could sell your canola for about $12 per bushel. Today, if you can even find a price, you might be able to sell it for $8.60 per bushel. That`s nearly a 30% loss in market price. The worst part is just being able to get it sold at all and get it moved. We are already looking into 2014 and 2015 crop years to figure out how we are actually going to be able to move it.

Source: www.123rf.com
Source: http://www.123rf.com

Is this another case of farmers always finding a reason to complain? Maybe. But selling canola at $8.60 per bushel today and not being able to move it until July presents serious cash flow problems, not to mention the fact that this record crop has suddenly become little more than a breakeven year for many farms. Running the farm business suddenly became much more complicated.

Fortunately, we sold most of our crop ahead of time, when prices were still pretty decent. We have also sold much of the 2014 crop. There are risks to selling this far in advance, but this year the benefits far outweighed them. We were lucky to have made this decision, but we also carefully considered that selling durum at $6.75 per bushel early last fall was still very profitable, so why be greedy and wait for it to go to $7?

Just the Tip of the Iceberg

We have had good times in agriculture for many years now; it has been since 2007 that prices have been very strong (excepting 2009) and it is time for the cycle to swing the other way. Can we afford it? Can we survive a trend to lower prices, a trend that, if history teaches us anything, could last for 25 years? Exacerbating this long-term trend is the very real threat that if we grow another decent crop in 2014 on the Prairies, how will we move it when we are still overloaded from the 2013 crop? Put another way, can we host the Grey Cup two years in a row?

The 1980’s through the early 2000’s saw some pretty tough years for a lot of farms. In all likelihood, these are the times we are returning to. Did we build enough net worth to survive it? Or, did we learn enough to prosper in these upcoming lean times?

Time will tell. I will never lose my optimism and my faith that agriculture is the best industry in the world, and is the best way to raise a family. We will find a way to survive, even prosper, no matter how tough things get. We are farmers; survival is what we do, in spite of the odds.

The Wonder of Winter on the Prairies

We knew it was coming.

As harvest draws to a close in the Prairies and the sounds of flocking geese fill the air, the days grow shorter and the nights colder. The beautiful mosaic of colour once present on the trees has now all but vanished, replaced instead with empty branches and open air.

Photo from: billywoerner.wordpress.com
Photo from: billywoerner.wordpress.com

The grass, once a brilliant green, has faded to a deathly brown. The fields, once full of golden wheat and lovely swaths of canola, have been stripped of their cover, left with only the cut edges of what were once stems. The wind brings with it a bitter chill, and the mornings bring a sharp bite to every breath. The sounds of change are in the cold air; winter has arrived.

Don’t tell me to look at the calendar. I know what day it is. I know that the winter solstice is over 6 weeks away. Today, we have seen the first snowstorm of the year. Well, maybe not here, but in Alberta and Northern Saskatchewan, winter has come. The forecast calls for daily highs around zero, and the lows will dip down in the double digits. We have truly begun our inexorable, inevitable plunge into the deep freeze that is a Saskatchewan winter.

Soon, it will be dark by 5:00 PM and the sun will not emerge until 8:30 AM the following day. Blizzards will wreak havoc on travel. Sitting in cold vehicles will be commonplace. And worst of all, power bills will become awfully expensive.

20130406_160755Perhaps the worst part of this winter is that winter really didn’t end that long ago. We had 8 foot snowdrifts and white fields in early May, which by my math, wasn’t very long ago. In fact, we will have more days of winter in 2013 than spring, summer and fall all put together!

Despite the cold, and the wind, and the shortness of the other seasons, there is this tiny, evil little part of me that is… looking forward to winter. With winter comes the knowledge that fieldwork is finally complete. The tractors and implements can be put away, with the recognition that they will be out of mind until spring. The rush is over; the crop is in, the fields are ready to seed (kind of) and the equipment is ready to put away (mostly). Yes, this time of the year brings a sigh of relief; a chance to sit back and relax. No doubt, the work is not over. We have hundreds of thousands of bushels of grain to haul throughout the winter, and to do that unfortunately likely means moving mountains of snow. But that’s okay. That means 2013 was a great crop year.

Photo By YellowcloudI believe that we are lucky to live in a place that experiences winter. How boring would it be to just live in summer all year, or to never see what fresh snow looks like? How empty would the Christmas season be without all the lights and snow? There is something so magical to snow falling from the sky; the unique and wonderous snowflake, slowly descending to join its companions, already waiting for it on the ground; joining with it to create one unvarying drift of snow.

Winter. It is the ending and the beginning. Death and rebirth. White and black. The contrasting themes of this season are compelling, and each and every human must someday experience the wonder of winter. For truly, how can you see the light without knowing the darkness?

Harvest – What is it?

Harvest time on the farm is nothing if not busy. We are going full out, trying to get this massive crop in with as little quality damage as possible. And it is a big crop. Bigger than Dad has ever seen. This, while wonderful, does create challenges logistically. Running our large combines to capacity requires good operators and a good support crew. The grain cart, semi trucks and augers must not have problems, and keeping everybody alert all day is a challenge all in itself.

I know some people that run their equipment through most of the night. Personally, I don’t know how to do that. Keeping our two combines running at capacity throughout the day is a challenge all in itself, and shorting yourself on sleep can be a dangerous practice, both for equipment and for people.

I thought I would give you a rundown of what exactly a typical harvest day is on a Saskatchewan farm. If you’ve never been on a farm, you may not even know what a “combine” is!

1) We get up early in the morning, around sunrise, and go to the combines to get them ready for the day. There are a lot of moving parts on these machines that require regular lubrication (greasing). While this is not required every day, it can take a significant amount of time in the morning to do. While we are greasing, we fuel the machines up and check them over. Some preventative maintenance can save you big delays during the prime part of the day.

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Early mornings can be very pretty!

2) We fire up the machines and start harvesting. The time for this can vary. Most mornings, we cannot start until at least 9:00 am. Heavy dews and cloudy mornings can make for a later start than that. This is referred to as “tough”. The plants are too wet to run through the combine, so we must wait for them to dry down. The later in the year harvest gets, the later in the day we can start. For example, in August we can start at 8:00 am most mornings, but by October we usually don’t get started until 11:00 am. This can really prolong harvest.

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Lots of work to do to get ready to go.

3) Once the combines are rolling, it is the grain cart’s job to keep them rolling by emptying them on the go. the cart runs from combine to combine to truck all day long. Meanwhile, the semis are hauling grain to our binyards or to the elevators nearby. If neither is available, we store the grain in bags, short-term. We try and run steady until supper time, when we usually take a break. My wife and/or my mom usually prepare supper for everyone, which provides a much-needed rest.

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The grain cart with our Case IH Quadtrack tractor. With this unit, speed is not a problem in even the roughest fields.

4) Re-energized from supper, and often switching operators, we start again, running until we are too tired or it gets too tough to go. In some crops, like peas, which are viny and tough to pick up off the ground, we can be finished at 8:00 pm. In crops like canola or cereals, we can sometimes go as late as we want. In any case, we are usually done by 10-11:00 pm.

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Good lights are oh-so-important!

A combine is a complicated machine. Suffice to say, it threshes and separates grain from straw. The combines we run, John Deere 9870’s, are 2008 models. In the above picture, we are combining durum, which was yielding 72 bushels/acre, a record for this farm (a bushel is unit of measurement for the yield of a crop; there are 60 pounds to a single bushel of wheat). These machines, when set right and operated properly, were processing 900 bushels/hour. This is more than combines used to do in a day!

This is hardly a thorough explanation, but it should give you an idea of what we do. It is a very stressful operation, often dirty and exhausting; but it is also exciting. Breakdowns are the worst part of harvest, which are inevitable. Sometimes they are minor and are fixed within minutes. However, sometimes you can be shut down for an entire day, which can be infuriating, especially if rain is on the way.

You may hear of “Big Ag” and “factory farms” that care nothing for their land or the consumer. The reality could not be more different. On this farm, we are a family operation with some outside employees. We all care about this land and the crops we grow. It is what we do; it is our life. Yes, our farm is a larger one, and yes we have millions of dollars of equipment out in the fields. But that does not change who we are as farmers and just how exciting this time of the year is. We grow quality food for a hungry planet, and it is a lot of fun to harvest it. And above all else, safety is our main concern. This is a dangerous time of the year, and no amount of success in farming is worth severe injuries. Sleep is vital!

I encourage anyone who wonders what real farming is like to visit one. Learn where your food comes from, from the people who grow it. I’d be happy to show you around!

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?

The Rain Conundrum

We have now reached the 2/3rds mark on our seeding progress. I feel that this is acceptable, given that we only started seeding two weeks ago, but I can’t help but feel that it could be better. This feeling is of course unfounded, as there are only so many hours in a day; sleep needs to be a part of life too. This is an activity that has been in short supply. I have not gotten more than five to five and a half hours of sleep per night for two weeks now. For someone that is used to seven to nine hours, this is a bit of a shock. Interestingly, despite the difficulty in getting out of bed in the morning, I seem to be handling it relatively well. We will see what another week brings.

With two thirds of the crop in, two crops out of the way (the peas and soybeans are finished) and one more almost completed (durum), I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. We are getting close. One more week should finish it off. We still have half the canola and the spring wheat to seed, but these will go quickly. 

Not everything has gone on without a hitch. Seeding rate problems in our soybeans cost us thousands of dollars in little more than a few hours, and inoculant rate problems gave us trouble as well. It is impossible to know what the full ramifications of these issues will be until the crop is out of the ground, but suffice to say that yield will likely be affected. 

The seeding rate problem in the soybeans was a simple yet difficult issue. You see, every time you change crops, you must calibrate the metering rollers (long cylinders with notches in them that are run at a set speed for a given rate) in the touchscreen monitors in the tractor cab. 99% of the time, this results in the product or seed being metered at the proper rate. Sometimes, unfortunately, something goes wrong, and the rate turns out to be wrong. Rarely, however, does it turn out to be as wrong as in our soybeans this year. We wanted to seed them at 60 pounds per acre, and calibrated for that. The result was that they went down at 100 pounds per acre. This may not seem like a big deal, but these soybeans cost $100 per acre at 60 pounds per acre. The math is hurtful.

Once the tank went empty, the problem was identified and fixed. But money was still lost. This is farming in the 21st century; tiny mistakes cost big dollars. The pressure on us to get everything right the first time has never been higher, and even the most sophisticated computer software cannot completely eliminate human error. Lack of sleep exacerbates this issue.

Usually in the inexorable march through the acres, a rain or two will shut everything down for a couple of days. This has yet to happen; which is nice in that seeding is progressing quickly, particularly given the late start this year, but a fear is growing in the back of my mind.

A month ago, nay three weeks ago, snow was still a major part of our landscape. We worried that we would not get our crop in due to snow and water persisting well into June. Even a week ago, snowbanks still sat tall in the yards and sloughs. Now, it is dry. Quite dry. Concern gnaws at the back of my mind, waiting for the day when the first rain will come, knowing that we have not had moisture since that ugly day of snow in the beginning of the month. That was not the concern then.

Today, we have a great deal of our acres seeded, and many of our crops sit in the ground, waiting for a rain before they will germinate. While this is not an unusual amount of time to wait for a rain, we do need one- and soon. The hundreds of thousands of dollars we have sown into the soil will not be returned to us without rain. Yet, it is still late, and we do need to avoid delays to ensure the crop goes in on time. It is somewhat of a conundrum. Nevertheless, we need it, and although the forecast calls for it, that is no guarantee. Let me just say this: if it has not rained by this time next week, I will be worried. 

Back to the grind tomorrow. Hopefully the wind stays down so I can try and catch up with spraying. It has been a windy week of 40 km/hr gusts every day (I am not exaggerating) and I am sick of it. This windy province has been too damn windy lately. It’s exhausting, not to mention its frustrating barricade against the sprayer.

Talk to you soon.