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.

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Why is Rain Such a Problem at Harvest?

Maybe this seems like kind of an obvious question, but there is more to this than you may think. Rain raises a whole host of issues for farmers at this time of the year, and is much more than a minor nuisance.

This harvest has been especially difficult so far, with continuous rainy, wet, humid weather plaguing our attempts at combining. Every few days we seem to get more showers, and every night has been frustratingly wet and humid. So, just what does weather like this do to our harvest operations?

  • Soggy fields- Combines are exceptionally large and heavy machines. While they are surprisingly capable despite their lumbering look, too much rain will overwhelm their ability to move around in the fields. Worse, the support equipment tends to be less able Harvest Semisto manage mud, especially semis. Trucks need to be able to get in and out of our fields without getting stuck, and also need to traverse little, narrow back roads that generally lack gravel. With these roads becoming wetter and wetter, we can lose our ability to get to some of our fields. Even the grain cart, attached to a 550 horsepower tractor with tracks, can be overwhelmed in wet conditions. Ever get a 1300 bushel, 55,000 pound, top-heavy wagon stuck out in the middle of a field? Neither have I! And I don’t want to know what it takes to get it unstuck, either.
  • Quality loss- This is arguably the biggest detriment to us in a wet fall. We grow a lot of acres of quality-sensitive crops that are very susceptible to rains when they are mature. Durum in particular quickly loses its glowing amber colour, which is a major factor when it comes to grading. A downgrade from a #1 durum to a #3 can be worth $1 per bushel or more. It’s pretty easy to do the math on that when you grow over 100,000 bushels! Even worse, if the weather stays wet long enough, the crop could become animal feed. Feed wheat right now is worth $3 per bushel less than good quality durum. Ouch! Lentils, green peas and other wheat classes are susceptible as well, and losses can quickly build up in those crops along with the durum.
  • Yield loss- Eventually, given enough rain, even tolerant crops like canola can start to lose yield. How does this happen? Quite simply, the rain washes the seed so much and so aggressively that it begins to lose weight. The lighter each seed gets, the fewer tonnes of grain you end up with at the end of the day. Wheat is the most sensitive to this (of the crops we grow on our farm, that is), and can actually lose quite a large amount of yield to this phenomenon.
  • Expensive field clean-up: This goes back to the soggy field issue; all those ruts you Salford RTSmake with combines, trucks and support equipment must be cleaned up at some point. You’d be amazed how long ruts will hang around if you do nothing with them! This goes right back to basic field tillage, which we usually try to avoid. Tillage burns fuel and uses up iron, and can quickly become a substantial cost.
  • Active weather creates more active weather: When we get trapped in these weather patterns, other events can happen, such as hail, big winds (which can blow away canola swaths in a hurry) and even – gulp – snow. Dry airmasses promote quiet, boring weather, which is what we need.

Of course, the above problems are really only the beginning… worst-case scenarios are much grimmer. Enough rain for enough time will cause far more severe damage, such as sprouting, which can quickly make cereal crops feed; flooding, ruining hundreds of acres of crops; delayed maturity, which is all fine and good as long as it stays cloudy- but that first clear night can lead to early frosts, further reducing the quality of the crop. Are we trending into a worst-case scenario right now? It’s hard to say at this point. If our durum and spring wheat are sprouting, we will find out when we start combining again. Right now, we simply don’t know.

All this uncertainty further complicates marketing. How do we know what we can sell? You Farm Breakevensell wheat based on its quality specifications, which are a total unknown right now. We really don’t even know what the yield will be, since so much of the crop is flooded out from weather this spring. Furthermore, since most of Saskatchewan and Manitoba are facing the same situation, will there be a glut of feed wheat and low-quality durum? Even though misery truly does love company, if everyone has the same quality of wheat, we have nowhere to haul ours to to blend off with better quality stuff. A burdensome supply of low-quality wheat and durum will be difficult to move as well, which weakens our cash flow.

Finally, an exceptionally wet fall such as this one can complicate seeding next year’s crop. For example, 2010 was a fall much like this one. September was miserable, with most of our crop sitting in rains for the better part of the month. Fields were soggy, and never had enough time to dry out before winter came. Winter proved to be a wet one, with substantial snowfall burying wet fields for the duration of the season. 2011 is a year we will remember for the rest of our lives- the year we couldn’t seed the crop. The fall previous was a big part of the reason for that disaster. Seeing a fall turn so wet again is concerning. Especially when we have plans to seed 2,000 acres of winter wheat! We always seed it into canola stubble, which has yet to even be harvested yet. We have 2 weeks to seed that crop before it gets too late. That’s not much time, and the concerns I have for next spring increase my anxiety to get the winter wheat in the ground.

Am I overdoing this here? Am I exaggerating to prove a point? Or am I a typical farmer, always complaining about the weather?

If you’ve ever read my blog, you’ll know that I am always brutally honest about my concerns and frustrations with the weather. Indeed, as a farmer, the weather controls much of my life: my income, my day-to-day activities, and ultimately my ability to keep doing what it is I love most- growing crops. Weather such as what we are experiencing right now is stressful in a way I don’t think many non-farmers can imagine. Hopefully this blog gives you some idea of what it’s like!

Our farm’s ability to survive depends on being able to sell enough dollars of crop to cover the cost of growing them. This weather is substantially reducing those dollars. I, along with other farmers, talk about the weather so much because every single day changes the potential income of our business. Rain or sun, warm or cool, either way can be good or bad depending on the year. This year, and the last several before it, have given us so much wet weather that I think we are all feeling a little burned out. We need a change.

Come on, Mother Nature. Give us the weather we so desperately need. Give us some sun, give us some heat, and let us get this crop off while it’s still worth something. No more rain!

Harvest Rainbow