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.

 

Advertisements

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.

Image
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.

Image
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.

Image
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.

Image
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!