An Unwelcome Frost

Frost. The only good time for this word to be thrown around is at the end of harvest; when the growing season is all but over, our time in the field is winding down, and we look ahead to the coming winter with contentment. When it comes in the middle of May, and when it hits as hard as it did last week, it is far from welcome.

We were on our last day of seeding last Thursday, and we were excited for the end. It isn’t often that we get a run like we did this year. It rained right at the start of seeding, and then it stayed dry right through to the end. We never stopped once, despite numerous forecasts for rain throughout our planting season. The incorrect forecasts were unfortunate, as we pushed hard through all the way through, continually expecting what seemed to be an inevitable rain delay. The result? We were exhausted, mentally and physically, and seriously needed a break. It was time for the end.

My excitement Thursday morning was sharply dampened by the extreme cold. Forecasts had initially been calling for a low of -2 Celsius, which wouldn’t have been a problem at all. At this time of the year, crops are tough, and mild freezing temperatures are rarely a problem. But, later on Wednesday afternoon, the low was suddenly changed to -4. Thursday morning, I realized it was much worse: it had dropped to a low of -7 C. That is a frigid temperature for May.

At that point, I had no idea what the damage might be. All we could do was go out and finish seeding and hope for the best.

On Monday, the severity of the damage was apparent. The winter wheat had been hit hard, with a number of browned-off leaves and severe damage in any low-lying areas. The early-seeded durum and lentils were injured as well, which is very rare – these crops are tough in the spring. The frost must be substantial to injure spring cereals and lentils.

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I’ve never seen winter wheat damaged this badly by frost. Notice the brown leaves. It will recover with probably zero yield loss, but it will take time, and good conditions.

It was the canola that I was most concerned about. Unlike cereal crops like wheat and durum, canola’s growing point comes out of the ground pretty much at emergence. If that growing point dies, the plant is dead. And canola is not a crop that tolerates extreme cold.

After an entire morning on my ATV, taking plant counts and carefully examining the plants, I knew there was only one thing we could do. We had to reseed.

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Those little brown things in the photo are canola plants. That is not the colour they should be.

There are few things more frustrating than seeding into perfect conditions, far enough into May to not really be concerned about frost, and establishing a near-perfect stand of canola, all to have to go back in 3 weeks later and do it all again. Now, we are seeding into dust, praying for a rain to get the crop out of the ground. It is not a fun experience.

One of the most challenging things about making the reseed decision is that it is rarely black and white. A frost will almost never completely wipe a field clean. In both of the fields we had to reseed, and in one that we decided not to, we really didn’t know what the right decision was. Sometimes, if conditions are absolutely perfect, you can get away with a very small number of surviving plants. We just don’t know.

The bottom line of all this is that we need rain and we need it pretty soon. Yes, there are always parts of the season where we get too much or not enough precipitation, and it truly is rare for everything to be perfect, but you still have to get that initial rainfall to get the crop out of the ground. Imagine planting your garden, or flowers, or anything like that and not being able to water it. You have to hope that the rain will come.

Farming is unpredictable, and despite all our technological and genetic advancements, Mother Nature still holds all the cards. All we can do is the best job possible out in the field and hope the weather is favourable.

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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?

Winter Wheat is an Exercise in Optimism

One of the strangest experiences during harvest is its polar opposite – seeding! Although winter wheat planting is difficult to accomplish during the busiest time of the year, it is usually a worthwhile endeavour; saving time and inputs during the other busiest time of the year, seeding.

ImageAn early morning for the maiden voyage of our new air drill!

When we seed in the spring, all hands are on deck to sprint the marathon of planting the year’s crop. It is a busy, stressful time of the year, when you put everything on the line to seed a crop in the extremely short time window that is available. You are seeding multiple different crops with varying fertilizer plans, ensuring as few mistakes as possible are made, as every wrong decision can bring disasterous consequences. 

Fall seeding, by comparison, is relatively relaxing. While harvest wore on, I spent close to a week seeding mostly on my own. I had help from my wife when she was home from work, as well as from others early in the morning. For the rest of the day, I had to load trucks and load the drill on my own. This is a big project for one person. It comes with very early mornings and long days, trying to keep everything moving without disturbing the harvest crew, which of course takes precedence. Sacrificing time harvesting this year’s crop to plant next year’s is akin to the “bird in hand versus two in the bush” analogy. Despite all of this, I get to work at my own pace, which is not the marathon spring seeding normally is. 

Winter wheat is grown all over the world, mostly with greater success than we experience here. Our long, cold winters are very harsh for this crop, and as such we must give up the higher yielding varieties from the south for winter hardiness. Even with these tougher varieties, a winter without much snow (which does happen from time to time) can virtually kill of this crop if temperatures dip below -25 degrees Celsius (which happens often). For these reasons, careful management of winter wheat is a must. Selecting the right varieties and seeding at the right time can make all the difference. I seeded ours from September 10-15.

Like every crop, winter wheat requires a clean field, so we sprayed it for weeds about 2 weeks before seeding. Like other wheats, it also requires large fertilizer amounts. We applied a fair amount of slow-release nitrogen, but we will top up in the spring if the crop looks good.

ImageLoading the drill with fertilizer – it needs a lot of it!

Can you grow winter wheat organically? Sure, but you won’t be happy with the weedy, weak stand that will most likely not yield enough to even make the land rental payments. If you are going to strip the seeds from your plants, you are removing nutrients from the soil. How will you replace them without fertilizer? If you mine your soil, it will eventually fail you. Just ask anyone who farmed in Saskatchewan in the 1930’s.

Farming requires a great deal of optimism (or foolishness, take your pick) and seeding winter wheat is no exception. Just when you finally get your crop in the bin, you go and plant another one, with a whole new set of risks and rewards. Will it germinate in the fall, typically one of the driest times of the year? Will it survive winter? If it does, it has great potential for the following spring, and really reduces the workload in the spring.

Farming is all about risk management. Rain can be very damaging to mature crops at harvest, so we plant a crop that will benefit. It’s just like your retirement portfolio; full of different investments that respond to different market events to reduce your exposure to market fluctuations. In essence, this is what we do with every crop, every year.

At least, that is what we try to do. It doesn’t always work. All we can do is hope that it does.

 

Could’ve Been Worse

The rain event we needed came on Monday. The rain event we needed to avoid came on Thursday.

Yes, the rain that was forecast reared its ugly head early Thursday afternoon. Accumulation expectations varied, but most seemed to be in that 2-3 inch range, with more expected for Monday. Indeed, the outlook was nothing short of grim, with soil that was already saturated incapable of supporting another deluge of rain, thoughts quickly turned to the horrible poundings of rain that slammed us in 2011. Rains that washed out roads, flooded basements, and all but wiped out whatever crops that were in the fields.

The reality was surprisingly positive. Before the rain occurred yesterday, the rains forecast for Monday/Tuesday were backed off to just a chance of showers, which was a big relief. And, now that all is said and done and the rain is finished today, we ended up with a grand total of “only” 1.2 inches of rain. Hardly the amount feared, but still not an insignificant number. Certainly, it was enough to flood out some crops, make the roads wet and sloppy, and will generally make future seeding difficult, but it was not the downpour that was feared. Furthermore, after the rain ended this morning, the sun came out and the wind picked up (a lot), quickly moving water off of many spots in the fields. Things are not as bad as was feared, and it appears that, with the present forecast, we may be back in the fields early in the week. With the calendar flipping to June tomorrow, this is an excellent development, as we may yet be able to finish seeding before the tenth of June.

In a side note, the psychological aspect of farming in this area of the world has been fundamentally altered. For decades, the greatest fear was not getting the rains when they are most needed. Memories of the 1980’s are still fresh in many farmers’ minds, including my father’s. However, we have been in a wet cycle for many years now, in which rain falls in inches rather than tenths of an inch, and farmers now worry about excess moisture rather than missing it. At least, we younger ones do, the ones that didn’t farm in the 80’s. For those that did, drought is an ever-present fear, one that I believe haunts them to their very core. They say that the 80’s were likely worse than the Dirty 30’s; the dust bowl that decimated the prairie landscape, that still leaves scars today in the topsoil piled up in old fencelines. Better farming practices, including conservation tillage made possible by pesticides, were all that held off the horrid dust storms that plagued my grandparents’ homes. My father’s father experienced this firsthand, including the hunger that went with it; they spent many days waiting for the trains to bring food relief. In fact, as my father tells me, my grandfather never even owned shoes, instead saving all the money they could to purchase winter boots. I cannot imagine a time like this; nor do I believe can anyone else in this part of the world.

In reflection of such a terrible time in this province’s history, perhaps our wet cycle isn’t so bad. Cattle aren’t starving to death, we are still getting by, and our homes aren’t caked with dirt. Excess rainfall is frustrating, expensive and difficult, but at least we aren’t choking on dust.

One positive development out of this rain was that I was able to take my wife out to the city for dinner and a movie for her 25th birthday. Since her birthday is in May, it often gets missed out on, which is unfortunate and unfair. She keeps me sane, protecting me from the stress and frustration farming often brings, even if she doesn’t realize it. I am so lucky to have her as my wife.

Being stopped for a couple of days has given us time to evaluate our marketing position as well, which caused us to make new-crop sales of canola and durum to ensure we can make our cash-flow commitments in the fall. Growing the crop is only part of running a business like this. Marketing and finance are vital aspects of the operation that too often get overlooked. This is something I am working on improving, which has led to a massive set of Excel spreadsheets to track every cost and income on this farm. Knowing our cost of production down to the penny has been a huge benefit to us, and we can still do better.

Now that the feared weather event has passed by, we can focus on getting back in the field and finishing seeding. It is time for it to be wrapping up, and I look forward to getting back out there. Maybe Monday will be a go. We will see.

The Swinging of the Pendulum

The rain I have been waiting for has arrived. Yesterday morning I awoke at my usual time, 5:15 am, to get ready to go spraying. As was usual of late, waking up that early was not easy; we had been going very hard the past two weeks, and 5 hours of sleep had become the norm. I woke up to an unusually dark bedroom. I stepped out into the kitchen and lo! it had rained! It was still raining! The soft pitter patter of raindrops bouncing off the roof and the deck, which lay before the kitchen window, was like the sound of Bach No. 1 playing softly through my stereo.

This rain has been looked for for quite a few days, with most of the crop not yet germinating; its soil just too dry to support water imbibition. Indeed, as I explained in my last post, we needed a rain, and if we had gone through this week without one, we would have been worried. In fact, this was the first shot of precipitation on most of our land since the snow on May 1st (see “Winter Returns”). That is an abnormally dry May, by a long shot.

Throughout the day on Monday we received a total of 9 tenths of rain. I realize that living in Canada should mean that I should say we received 23 mm of rain, but we still measure it in inches here for the most part. Anyway, it came down lightly and slowly, allowing for maximum soil absorption and less chance of crusting off the topsoil. It really was an ideal moisture event.

Yes, if you were expecting a “but” to come in here somewhere, you’d be right. I know, typical farmer, always finding a reason to complain. But if you give me a moment, I think I can explain my concerns to you in a non-complaining fashion.

You see, while this rain was nice, it is still the 28th of May. We still have a third of the crop to put in, which will take approximately one week. Our time window is tightening. We still have more than half of our most economically important crop to seed yet: canola. Seeding this crop late often has significant yield repercussions. It is looking more and more like this will be the case.

The forecast does not look good. After a rain like this, sun and heat are what we need. Instead, we are receiving cool, showery weather for the better part of the 7-day forecast. Worse yet, we may be in the unfortunate position of receiving 2-3 inches of moisture from Thursday to Friday. That would set us back heavily, keeping us out of the field for days and hurting the crops that are currently in.

Since 2010, we seem to swing from one extreme to the other, from wet to dry to wet to dry, with wet dominating. We cannot seem to break from this frustrating weather pattern. Our land cannot handle such downpours of rain. It is too flat, too heavy (clay) and too saline to effectively allow precipitation like this to drain away quickly. Rains like this can cause severe damage, and not just to our crops. Flooding is a very real possibility, which affects us all.

Perhaps I am being too overdramatic. This is after all only a forecast, which are known to be wrong (often) and we do not yet know what effect a rain like this would have. Time will tell. I can assure you of one thing: when we can get back into the fields, it will be an around the clock endeavor. Time will not be on our side; and the pendulum has swung away from the dry cycle we were in. Rain will be our enemy now.