Sometimes Harvest Is Fun… And Sometimes It’s Not

A year ago today, harvest was nearly finished. It was the tenth of October that we completed our final field, which happened to be a very late crop of durum. While the harvest of 2013 had its challenges, including some rain delays and a couple frustrating breakdowns, it was completed at a time we could be happy with- and it was a monster of a crop. This year has been very different.

Rains kept us out of the field for much of late August and early September. While we were able to get a fair amount done during that time, including our winter wheat and green peas, our poor durum sat out in the field through it all. Durum is very susceptible to grading losses in such conditions, and ours was no exception.

Traditionally, durum has been one of the best paying crops in our area. It almost always out-yields its cousin, spring wheat, and usually pays better, too. It is used for pastas, primarily. Next time you make spaghetti, check the ingredients; you will see that durum is its base origin. For reasons that I have yet to understand (despite a fair amount of research), durum simply grows well in this area. Go a few miles east or north, few farmers grow it. From our home and west, however, the landscape brims with field after field of durum.

Unfortunately, in the last few years, our durum production has been threatened, with late springs and disease taking their toll. One disease in particular has reared its ugly head in a big way this year: Fusarium Head Blight (FHB for short). This disease is particularly fond of durum. Basically, this fungus enters the head as it undergoes its flowering stage, typically in late July. Its symptoms are not visible until late in the season, when it is far too late to do anything about it. Preventative fungicide sprays do work, but they have limited effectiveness on the disease in years where the humidity is very high for a prolonged period in the summer. Warm, damp conditions can cause severe proliferation of the disease. Essentially, the seeds produced by the plant are damaged by the fungus, and sometimes seed production may even be diminished.

This is an infected head near maturity. Notice the top of the head- not many seeds in there.
This is an infected head near maturity. Notice the top of the head- not many seeds in there.

This year has the worst infection levels I have ever seen. We are seeing substantial downgrading from our buyers.  This crop is graded on a basic numbering system: it starts as a #1 CWAD (Canadian Western Amber Durum) and works its way down to a #5 CWAD (if it’s really poor, it goes even lower than that- sample is below #5. We have that grade this year, too). The difference in price between these varies from year to year, but this year the difference is over $4 per bushel, depending on the buyer. So, take your average durum yield, say 50 bushels per acre, and calculate what your losses are on 2,000 acres. That is the number many durum producers are looking at this year (give or take some acres and yield).

Fortunately, yields are pretty strong, so that kind of makes up for the poor quality. But, some durum is so bad this year that some producers cannot even sell it. You see, Fusarium produces “vomitoxins” that are difficult for animals (yes, that includes people) to digest. Think “toxin” and “vomit” and you get the idea. If people can’t eat it, and livestock can’t eat it, what do you do with it? Simple- it’s garbage. Burn it, bury it, whatever. But it’s total trash.

No, we don’t have any durum that bad. But some of ours is awfully close. Even spring wheat has been heavily affected this year, which is quite rare. In a year as wet as this one has been, disease is a serious issue- in all crops.

Notice the shredded stem with the black spots inside? That's Sclerotinia Stem Rot. It definitely compromised the yield of this canola plant.
Notice the shredded stem with the black spots inside? That’s Sclerotinia Stem Rot. It definitely compromised the yield of this canola plant.

Even stripping out the disease portion, all the rains have severely compromised the quality of all types of wheat, as well as lentils, barley, and a variety of other crops. The rains simply came at the wrong time this fall- right at the beginning of harvest. And now, we sit again, with nothing moving for the past week. We still have a ways to go to finish harvest, and many of our neighbors, especially to the east of us, have even further to go.

Is this a disaster scenario? No. At least, not for us. Our durum yielded well enough, and our costs are low enough, that we can actually break even on #5 durum this year. One advantage of growing a variety of crops is that some are pretty resilient to ugly harvest weather. For example, flax, soybeans and canola are pretty tolerant to harvest rains and really haven’t seen a reduction in yield from this weather. Frost beat up the flax and soybeans a bit, but it may not have done as much damage as we feared. It did get awfully windy one day, which can be very damaging to ripe, swathed canola, but it didn’t get us on too many of our acres.

Take a close look at these swaths. The wind moved them around pretty badly. That costs a lot of canola.
Take a close look at these swaths. The wind moved them around pretty badly. That costs a lot of canola.

I guess when you look at harvest 2014 on the whole, it really has been a harvest fraught with every kind of yield reducing factor you can imagine. Rain, frost, wind and disease all took their toll this year, with no crop escaping from them all. Only our winter wheat got through relatively unscathed, due to its early harvesting date.

I do want to make one thing clear: I consider us to be pretty lucky with what weather we have gotten. Obviously, it could have been a lot better. We could have gotten less rain, less wind, and warmer nights. But we could also have gotten snow (southern Alberta did), we could have had that windy day earlier, when more canola was unharvested, or we could be getting stuck in our fields every day, like some of my friends have been. The thing is, no matter how bad the weather may be, somebody is always getting it worse somewhere else. No matter how bad your year, or your month, or your day has been, it could always be worse. The fact is that 73% of our harvest is completed, when it could be 50%, or 30%. Sometimes, when things look really bad, you just need to sit back and think about how good some things are (although, if it snows next week, you may see my mood shift a little darker).

Hopefully we can resume harvest tomorrow. We still have many other jobs to do as well, like spraying, tilling, and grain hauling, so we need a good stretch of nice weather to get through it all. But it will come. It always has.

Leguee Wheat Harvest

 

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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!