It’s All About The Weather Now

It has been just over a week since the Eastern Prairies suffered one of its worst storms in modern history. Mercifully, the weather has improved immensely since, with sun and heat gracing us in most of the days following the torrential rainfall. Many of our crops have recovered fairly well, or as well as can be expected, with some faring better than others. Some plants just have a greater ability to withstand severe weather better than others. Cereals, like wheat and durum, still look excellent, despite some lost acres that are still underwater. Our canola has come a long way, but its yield potential is very much a question mark. Other crops, like our lentils and peas, look quite poor, with a substantial amount of acres flooded out completely, and many other acres with weak yield potential.

We finally were able to complete our in-crop weed control a few days ago with our flax, which is still frustratingly wet. After nearly a week of hot, dry weather, I guess I kind of DSC_0092expected an improvement in the sogginess of our fields. I was unpleasantly surprised, with the sprayer leaving ruts far away from where the water lay. As we now move through some of our crops again with a fungicide, it is still shocking how many acres are lost.

Why do plants die from too much water?

A lot of plants have died from the substantial amount of water in the fields. While much of that water has now vanished, the plants have more or less gone away with it, especially susceptible ones like peas, lentils and canola. Like us, plants need oxygen for life, which is somewhat of an interesting thought, since you generally think of plants as “producing” oxygen. In normal conditions, plants take CO2 and light energy to create sugars, which they use for energy. When light is restricted, they cannot create sugar, so they have to use it, much like we do. When plants are waterlogged, a couple of things happen:

  • Roots cannot access oxygen. While leaves usually have lots of oxygen available from CO2, roots must access it from the soil. Little air pockets in the soil allow roots to “breathe”, but if water has filled all the air pockets, the plant can’t breathe, essentially drowning it. While the plant has some coping mechanisms, they are not overly efficient, and it will eventually be overcome by its inability to access oxygen. The root cells will die, slowly killing the entire root system; without the roots, the plant will die.
  • Since the soil is saturated with water, the plant cannot access the nutrients it needs for life, causing it to starve (more or less). Combined with root death, the plant has no chance to survive.

If the water can leave relatively quickly, say two days or so, the plant will usually recover, as many of them did. But for all too many plants, the water stayed around for far too long.

Not a pretty sight to see, but there are a lot of these spots.
Not a pretty sight to see, but there are a lot of these spots.

At this point in the growing season, we know that a certain amount of production is gone, never to come back. We have probably lost 10-15% of our acres from waterlogging so far, which, when you start to do the math on how much production that can be, is a substantial amount of money. The pressure is even greater now for the remaining acres to yield well, even just to make up for the lost acres.

At least we won’t need to worry about drought now… right?

It pains me to say this even more than it probably irritates you to read it, but despite all of the ridiculous rainfall we’ve gotten this year, and despite all the problems it has caused, sometime, in the next week or two, we will… need some rain. I know! I’ve spend the last two months complaining about too much rain, and flooding, and waterlogging, and everything that goes with it, but it is a sad fact of farming that crops need moisture every few weeks, regardless of how much they had previously. All of that horrendous torrential downpour we dealt with almost two weeks ago basically just ran off, filled up low spots, and killed crop. Since the soil was already full, it simply couldn’t take it any more, and the crop was pretty much unable to use any of it. Since then, we have had nothing but sun and heat, which has been perfect; but, with that comes a net drying of the soil. Soil probes that measure moisture in the ground recorded that canola in the flowering stage of its life uses close to 9 mm (that’s 3.5 tenths) of water per day! It doesn’t take long to empty 3 inches of water out of the soil then, does it?

This monster devours a lot of water!
This monster devours a lot of water!

Yes, I’m afraid that weather just isn’t really ever perfect for farmers, and we can always find something wrong with it! Don’t be too hard on us, though; remember, with 10-15% of our crop now gone, and much of the rest of it coming out of severe stress, we need all the yield we can get out of what we’ve got left out there. We will need all that we can get to make sure we can get our bills paid and hopefully have a chance to try this farming thing again next year (why? I am starting to wonder!).

Summer brings opportunities and hope… and threats

As we move deeper into summer, our crops are slowly advancing into their reproductive stages. This is a critical time of the year, when a rain at the right time can be worth a fortune. The flip side of that is that rain at this time of the year often brings hail, which can be devastating to crops at this stage of their lives.

It may be soon to be thinking about it already, but there is one possibility that looms like a black cloud over all of the hopes we have left for the crop this year. With such a cold and rainy May and June, crops are woefully far behind normal. While we got away with that last year despite our fears, every year is different, and luck can change awfully quickly. The thought of an August or even an early September frost is terrifying. It would devastate many of us.

DSC_0104For now, all we can do is monitor our crops for insects and disease and hope for the best. We have to do everything we can to ensure no pests take away what we have left out in the field, and that means carefully watching for disease, weeds and insects, and spraying for them if and when it is necessary. These are simply to finish the crop; there is nothing we can do now to hasten our crops’ maturity. That ship sailed after seeding was completed. It is in Mother Nature’s sometimes kind, but oftentimes wicked hands what happens to our crops now. I don’t know what the crops’ abilities are to recover from such a hellish spring, but I do know one thing for certain: the success or failure of the crop is now out of my hands. It’s all about the weather now.

Advertisements

One Storm Can Change Everything… Part 2

Devastation. That is what southeast Saskatchewan and southwest Manitoba is experiencing right now. A torrential downpour that lasted nearly 4 days has finally ended, and now it is time to evaluate the damage. Shockingly large rain totals are coming out now, with some areas reporting between 7 and 9 inches of rainfall since Friday. Canada Day long weekend has turned out to be a rather dark and painful time.

I’m not going to go through all the different areas affected, and show you pictures from all over the province. #skstorm will show you that on Twitter, and the news is alive with information, from speculation to hard facts. I will leave the news reporting to the news reporters and do as I have always done; tell you how it has affected my farm and my family.

DSC_0054My last post was on June 22nd, in which I explained my frustrations with the wet weather, and the hope that better weather would arrive soon, as the forecasters told us would
happen. However, optimism was still high for the area, since although many acres had been lost and crops were hurting, the right weather would really turn things around. Indeed, the right weather did show up for a few days, with surprisingly warm and sunny weather gracing the countryside and giving crops a desperately needed boost. Things were actually really starting to improve.

My unease began to grow as Friday came around. The forecasts for the weekend, by a private and often accurate forecaster named World Weather, were becoming increasingly concerning. Overnight on Thursday into Friday, the town of Fillmore (about 12 miles from home) received almost an inch of rain. Throughout the day, little storms began to pop up, and before I knew it, our rain gauge at home had nearly 2 inches in it! What scared me was that the weekend had only just begun, and a rainfall warning was still in effect.

On Saturday, we went most of the day without rain at home. But, by the evening, rain was falling pretty hard- and it wouldn’t stop. It rained hard all night and all day Sunday, even through most of Sunday night. Even yesterday it rained. We stand now at about 3 inches for the whole stretch at home, and over 5 at Fillmore. Crops are underwater in every low spot in every field, pea and lentil fields are yellow, and everything is just saturated to the point of flooding. Thankfully, we didn’t get the awful rain totals that other communities did. Weird to say that we are lucky to “only” get 3 inches of rain at home!

DSC_0062
A wheat field east of Fillmore: Monday, June 30, 2014

My wife and I were on holidays in Kenosee for the weekend (a little lake further into southeast Saskatchewan than our home- about one hour away) where the rain was just as severe, if not worse, but we weren’t home for the storm. It was difficult to control my emotions during the holiday, knowing what was going on at home and all over southeast SK and southwest Manitoba. A devastating and catastrophic event was going on that was going to change many lives and cost millions and millions of dollars in damage. A mix of emotions ran through me throughout Saturday night and into Sunday… not only was I concerned about our crops, but I was also profoundly saddened by what was happening to what is my home country. My friends and family were right in the middle of the worst of the storm. My wife’s mother and father farm near Redvers, one of the hardest hit towns of all. My father-in-law could hardly get out of his yard for the flooding. Highways were washed out, fields were lakes, and basements were flooding. What I feel for the whole situation is something I cannot put into words. It is, quite simply, horrible for everyone affected.

DSC_0067For the second time in four years, Saskatchewan and Manitoba are heavily damaged by floods. I start to ask myself, how do we farm in this climate? After all we did to work so hard to try and seed our crop in a timely fashion, to use the best practices we can to give our crops the best chance they can get, and despite all the hours of analysis we did on crops and fertilizers and chemicals, we still get burned. Still we must wonder how we are going to pay all the bills. Still we have to pick up the pieces and try again next year, and trust once again that if we do everything right, maybe we can move our family business forward. The last 5 years of farming have been difficult, and this storm is discouraging, to say the least.

Despite all of this, I do consider us lucky. Our worst hit fields are well-drained parcels that should clear off fairly quickly. West of home, the rain was significantly less, so our western DSC_0070land will be fine. Our winter wheat at home is advanced enough to handle it, as is our earliest canola and wheat. We did not get the torrential rainfall that areas further east did, and because of that, our land isn’t a lake, and our roads haven’t washed out. Sometimes, when the worst-case scenario gets thrown at you, you just need to look at it and realize that somebody, somewhere, is harder-hit than you are. Although, if we had gotten nine inches of rain here, as many others did… my attitude would probably be much worse.

Nevertheless, there is no doubt that this event will cost us money. If we can get a breakeven crop this year, I will be happy. The odds of this being a profitable crop now are not very good. The tipping point has now been reached for much of our crop; the excess moisture has now reached a point where many crops will not recover. Our flat land drains slowly, and it will be some time before we can get into our lower land again.

Finally, however, there is light at the end of the tunnel. A forecast I have been dreaming about for two months is finally in front of us, with warm, sunny weather filling every day of the next week. If this finally occurs, crops should recover relatively well. Certainly, much has been lost that will not recover, no matter the weather, but what is still there may just turn out alright. We will need all the heat units we can get… crops have a long, long way to go before the inevitable fall frost comes. When will it be? Time will tell.

Good luck to everyone out there affected by this weather event. I know that we are lucky here, considering how bad it has been for many other areas. For anyone reading this in the most affected zones, how bad do you think the damage will be? Will your crops recover? Drop in a comment and let me know.

 

The Harvest of a Lifetime

If I could sum up the 2013 growing season in one word, it would be this: rollercoaster. As I look back to my very first blog post on April 18 of this year, it’s hard to believe what came from such a crazy start to this growing season. We had snow until late May, heavy, pounding rains that disrupted seeding and caused severe flooding in our crops, and we had the constant threat of storms and frost hanging over our heads for the entire summer. This season has been so full of ups and downs and twists and turns that it still makes my head spin. Despite all of the hardship, frustration, devastation, anxiety and fear I have experienced over the past 7 months, and the very real risk of severe economic trauma to this farm and my family, we may just have harvested our biggest and most profitable crop ever.

A Spring from Hell

I took this picture on the second of May. Usually we have started seeding by then. Seeding looked very far away at that time.

Image

Yet, somehow, it all melted, and we were in the field in only 11 days after this photo. During seeding, heavy rains pounded our fields, delaying us and damaging already seeded crops. Despite this, we got the entire crop in, just as we thought we would fail, and leave vast tracts unseeded once more. As the crop grew, more rains pooled water into small lakes in already saturated fields, choking our crops to the point of death.

Image

A Summer of Stress

The crop managed to recover from the less than ideal spring surprisingly well. The weather improved drastically once July rolled around, with warm (but not too hot), sunny days becoming the norm. A stressed, damaged crop was coming around very well; so well in fact, I began to see real potential develop in our fields. However, the crop was a long, long way from the bin yet.

Severe summer storms pummeled crops south, east, west and north of us, seemingly on our doorstep every day. Apocalyptic hail storms stripped bark off of trees and killed birds right out of the sky – but not here. Somehow, we slipped between seemingly every storm that rolled through, which desecrated farmers not so far from here. But even as that threat began to fade, another took its place. Cold days and near-freezing nights came oh-so-close to devastating the Prairies, keeping me and every other farmer on edge. But the early frost I feared so greatly never came.

“Bumper” Doesn’t Quite Cover It

There is a saying in agriculture for good crops. The best ones are referred to as “bumper crops”. To quote the infamous Western Producer, for this year, “bumper” doesn’t quite cover it.

Two days ago, we completed harvest on our farm. It was a long process, interrupted by rains and cloudy weather that damaged our sensitive durum crops. Indeed, it was 50 days ago today that we started swathing canola. It seems like a lifetime ago.

Today, every single bin we have, good and bad, along with every grain bag we could find are all packed full of the largest crop we have ever grown. It is not an exaggeration to say that this may very well be the biggest crop ever produced in Saskatchewan. This has of course reduced the price for them, but nonetheless we are looking at record profits. The woes and hurts we went through over the last decade have finally been put to rest by two consecutive years of record-smashing profits. We still have a long way to go; our farm is still tight on cash, and this winter will be a cash-flow challenge. We are only just now getting close to the place I want our farm to be at, which has been a goal now for a few years.

Farming truly is an incredible business to be in. You can start off a growing season prepared for disaster, only to wind up with a financial windfall. Don’t worry, the opposite is true too, which we have also experienced not so long ago. The pendulum can swing so far from one extreme to the other, in weather, markets, and emotions. Dealing with the stress of it all is a difficult thing to master, but it is a necessity if you are to survive the ups and downs. This year was one of our greatest ever. But next year could be a disaster. All we can do is plant the next crop and hope for the best. After all, who are farmers if not eternal optimists?

Too Many Storms, Not Enough Time

It has been a summer of storms… and summer has barely started.

I write this as yet another storms deluges us with rain, a raging downpour that changes our already saturated soil into a series of little lakes. Storms have become a daily occurance for us for the last few days. While we usually welcome rains like we have been getting, for we are frequently dry at this time of the year, this has become too much of a good thing. Water is pooling on our fields, choking the life out of the fledgling crops that desperately need sunshine and warm weather.

Some crops are better than others in dealing with excess moisture. Soybeans are quite tolerant, followed by cereal crops like oats, wheat and barley. Our two other main crops, canola and peas, do not tolerate this amount of moisture well, especially not when they are small. The plants aren’t directly injured by the water itself, rather it is the lack of oxygen that kills them. Like you and me, plants need oxygen for survival, using it for cell division, growth, and the transport and uptake of nutrients. Water slows the movement of oxygen in the soil, rapidly creating deprivation in plants. In short, plants are drowning, just like you or I would if we fell into deep water and could not swim.

It seems that we have entered into a climate in which we receive weather extremes. While “normal” weather is nothing more than a fantasy, my parents’ generation of farmers did not experience extreme wet cycles we do today. Indeed, drought was their biggest concern, which we have not experienced in earnest in a decade. It seems that we no longer get 2 or 5 tenths of rain at a time. We instead get 1-3 inches at a time.

In a general sense, too much rain is better than not enough, as crops can usually handle excess moisture better than a lack thereof. But try telling that to the people living in and around Calgary, Alberta where there has been devastation from this weather. We experienced that in 2011, but without a population base exceeding 1.5 million, it didn’t quite make the news the same way. Not that that is right or wrong; it’s just the way it is.

The frustration I feel from weather like this is due to multiple factors, but what really gets me about it is that we try to do everything right throughout the growing season. We try to use the best seed, use seed treatments, seed at the right depth, use the right herbicides and fungicides at the right time, and so on and on. And yet, despite doing (almost) everything right, weather like this can ruin it all, from no fault of your own. This is why farming is such a difficult business, and why you see so many frustrated farmers throughout the growing season. It is a tough business to make a living at, despite what you may hear of high grain prices. These don’t do a thing for you if you can’t grow a crop to sell. So don’t be too hard on your farming neighbors for complaining; everybody needs to vent sometimes, and farmers often have a lot to vent about.

Hopefully the weather improves and the ugly yellow colour our crops are turning to will reverse. It is not too late for that. We still have potential for a great crop here, but Mother Nature needs to back off.

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.