Hoping For Rain

We have never had this much seed in the ground this early. As of today, we are down to our last two fields – which we could actually finish by Wednesday, May 11. That would be the FB_IMG_1462723488664earliest finish to seeding our farm has ever seen. For perspective, we could actually finish seeding before it even started in 2013.  At the same time, we have seeded more acres than ever; low spots that have been full of water for eight years are finally dried up. Our fields look better than they have for a very long time.

So what are we worried about? Well, the downside to such an efficient and early seeding season is that you need dry conditions for that to occur – and that is what we are experiencing.

And it is dry. We haven’t seen a rain since the 15th of April, close to a month behind us. At the same time, we have had very warm weather for late April/early May. We had quite a few days over 30 degrees Celsius; some of those with a gusty wind too. A lack of precipitation coupled with warm and windy conditions has caused a great deal of drying on our soils. What started out as near-perfect conditions for planting has since become concerning. Every day gets dustier and dustier. It becomes a little wearying when all day every day you are layered in dust from an unceasing wind, your eyes full of dirt and your clothes constantly dusty.

On the other hand, if there is a time of the year to be dry, it’s seeding. It is a big, complicated operation that takes all the manpower, will and determination we have to complete. It’s not just about getting it done; it’s about getting it done right. As we have seen over the past several years, frequent rains can cause serious problems for the planting season.

Nevertheless, crops need moisture to germinate and get out of the ground. If it’s not there, they will simply sit in the ground and wait for it. So, what you end up with in a spring like this is some parts of the field end up wetter than others (different soil types, elevation, etc), and consequently you get patchy emergence. A crop that comes up patchy will be a myriad of staging come harvest, which makes life difficult for the combines.

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Some of these have germinated, but some have not. Parts of the field are too dry to support germination.

The thing is, a patchy crop could be the least of our problems. In the 1980’s, particularly in 1988, the weather got so dry and so hot that crops simply couldn’t cope. Many fields had no crop at all. While I don’t believe we are headed for that scenario this year, it is always in the back of my mind – because it is possible. Long-range forecasts are calling for a near to above average temperature bias and below average precipitation. Add that to an already dry start to the growing season, and you have yourself a drought.

The good news is there is rain in the forecast. A major system is expected to move through here starting tomorrow. As usual when a system like this is forecast, the rain totals change drastically before we actually see the storm hit us. Last week, there were forecasters saying we could get 2-3 inches of rain. Today, it sounds like a half inch is what we will get. It’s always worrying to see rain estimates decrease when the storm is still more than a day away. You have no idea how frustrating it is when weather forecasters estimate a near certainty of rain – and then it doesn’t happen.

Although we all know the weak track record of weather forecasters, we have no choice but to DSC_0671manage our seeding decisions accordingly. With a major storm system forecast, we decreased the depth of our canola seeding outfit to ensure the fragile little canola seeds don’t get buried too deep. If it doesn’t rain, our canola seeded now will not come up. It will not be in contact with moisture. We have to make our best judgment call on decisions like this, even when we know the inherent uncertainty of weather forecasts.

One of the most annoying things at this time of the year is the way most weather people on TV and radio talk about the forecast. “Look at the week ahead! Nothing but 30 degrees plus! Fantastic!” Weather like that is not what we need in an already dry spring. We need rain and moderate temperatures. Weeks and weeks of hot weather is not good for freshly seeded crops. It would be nice to see a little more enthusiasm for rainy weather. Sorry about the tangent.

This is the most expensive time of the year for farmers. We are spending upwards of $100K a day between fertilizer, seed, chemical, fuel, repairs, depreciation and so on. With all of that depending on just a few well-timed rains, you can understand why farmers can be a little stressed out at this time of the year. A rain can truly make or break a farm. One storm can change everything. All we can do is seed our crops and hope for the best.

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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.