It Hasn’t Rained In 42 Days

6 weeks. That’s how much time has passed since the last significant rainfall came to us. That is the longest stretch without rain (at this time of the year) I have seen in my time on the farm. In fact, according to historical data (click here), this has been the driest May in the Weyburn area in nearly two decades – and a whopping 46 years for the Regina area.

It’s dry. No question about it. The wind certainly hasn’t been helping matters either; yesterday, it was gusting up to 60 km/hr, just like it has so many other days this spring. I honestly don’t remember a spring this incessantly windy. It is actually extremely aggravating doing anything outside in wind like we’ve had. Just look at the graph below – it’s from one of our weather stations. That is a lot of windy days! And, that is only from the last month – April was very windy as well.

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The wind has been stripping what little moisture we had in our topsoil out, contributing to what amounts to a rather patchy crop. The good news is that we got a nice rain right at the start of seeding, and our soil was right full of water going coming out of winter. That left us with a nice buffer, and there is still a lot of moisture in our soil profile. Things aren’t desperate, not yet.

For the most part this spring, we actually had very nice seeding conditions. The soil was moist, planting conditions were perfect, and it wasn’t too hot. We really couldn’t have asked for better seeding conditions, and the majority of our crop shows it – our earlier seeded crop looks fantastic.

The last third of the crop we planted really needs a rain. Only about half to three-quarters of that later seeded crop has emerged so far, with the rest of it still sitting in the ground, waiting for moisture. The result is a patchy crop that is going to be all over the place for maturity.

The one crop suffering more than anything else is our winter wheat. The extensive soil 20170605_123530moisture reserves the other crops are enjoying are long gone for this fall-seeded crop, and it is hurting. We probably have a week to get a rain on this crop before it truly begins to fail. Crops just can’t survive that long without water. Six weeks of dry, windy weather is a lot to ask of any plant.

It has been a long time since our farm experienced a drought. In the last 10 years, we have been far more worried about excess moisture than being short of it. in 2011, we had 17 inches of rain between April and August; and we were saturated to begin with. This year, we have had a half inch of rain since March. Undoubtedly, that is a better situation to be in; there are a lot of farmers up north that are desperate for the dry weather we have been having. Being too wet brings all sorts of problems that we are all too familiar with.

It is too early to give up on this crop. It has a lot of things going for it, especially the early seeded acres. But we are running out of time for the rain to start. If we haven’t seen significant rainfall by the end of the next two weeks, we will be in trouble. Simply put, we need rain and we need it now. If only Mother Nature cared!

 

An Unwelcome Frost

Frost. The only good time for this word to be thrown around is at the end of harvest; when the growing season is all but over, our time in the field is winding down, and we look ahead to the coming winter with contentment. When it comes in the middle of May, and when it hits as hard as it did last week, it is far from welcome.

We were on our last day of seeding last Thursday, and we were excited for the end. It isn’t often that we get a run like we did this year. It rained right at the start of seeding, and then it stayed dry right through to the end. We never stopped once, despite numerous forecasts for rain throughout our planting season. The incorrect forecasts were unfortunate, as we pushed hard through all the way through, continually expecting what seemed to be an inevitable rain delay. The result? We were exhausted, mentally and physically, and seriously needed a break. It was time for the end.

My excitement Thursday morning was sharply dampened by the extreme cold. Forecasts had initially been calling for a low of -2 Celsius, which wouldn’t have been a problem at all. At this time of the year, crops are tough, and mild freezing temperatures are rarely a problem. But, later on Wednesday afternoon, the low was suddenly changed to -4. Thursday morning, I realized it was much worse: it had dropped to a low of -7 C. That is a frigid temperature for May.

At that point, I had no idea what the damage might be. All we could do was go out and finish seeding and hope for the best.

On Monday, the severity of the damage was apparent. The winter wheat had been hit hard, with a number of browned-off leaves and severe damage in any low-lying areas. The early-seeded durum and lentils were injured as well, which is very rare – these crops are tough in the spring. The frost must be substantial to injure spring cereals and lentils.

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I’ve never seen winter wheat damaged this badly by frost. Notice the brown leaves. It will recover with probably zero yield loss, but it will take time, and good conditions.

It was the canola that I was most concerned about. Unlike cereal crops like wheat and durum, canola’s growing point comes out of the ground pretty much at emergence. If that growing point dies, the plant is dead. And canola is not a crop that tolerates extreme cold.

After an entire morning on my ATV, taking plant counts and carefully examining the plants, I knew there was only one thing we could do. We had to reseed.

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Those little brown things in the photo are canola plants. That is not the colour they should be.

There are few things more frustrating than seeding into perfect conditions, far enough into May to not really be concerned about frost, and establishing a near-perfect stand of canola, all to have to go back in 3 weeks later and do it all again. Now, we are seeding into dust, praying for a rain to get the crop out of the ground. It is not a fun experience.

One of the most challenging things about making the reseed decision is that it is rarely black and white. A frost will almost never completely wipe a field clean. In both of the fields we had to reseed, and in one that we decided not to, we really didn’t know what the right decision was. Sometimes, if conditions are absolutely perfect, you can get away with a very small number of surviving plants. We just don’t know.

The bottom line of all this is that we need rain and we need it pretty soon. Yes, there are always parts of the season where we get too much or not enough precipitation, and it truly is rare for everything to be perfect, but you still have to get that initial rainfall to get the crop out of the ground. Imagine planting your garden, or flowers, or anything like that and not being able to water it. You have to hope that the rain will come.

Farming is unpredictable, and despite all our technological and genetic advancements, Mother Nature still holds all the cards. All we can do is the best job possible out in the field and hope the weather is favourable.

Another Wet Harvest

There are few things more frustrating to a farmer than having a crop out in the field, ready to harvest, and not being able to go get it. At this point, all the inputs are in. All the dollars are spent. The equipment is ready, the bank account is empty, and it is time to harvest everything you have worked for for more than a year – but you just can’t get out there and get it done. That, my friends, is why farmers complain so much about the weather!

This was supposed to be a dry year. Winter was absent, spring came in March, and we started seeding in mid-April. All the forecasts I read had the Canadian Prairies in a drier bias this year, with the general gist being that whatever rain we got, we should be happy to see! That has not turned out to be the case, with some of our fields seeing substantial rainfall throughout the growing season, challenging the survival of some of our crops.

Despite the excessive rainfall, most of our crops fared well – just not our lentils. Lentils do not like wet feet, and persistent rainfall took a hefty toll on them this year. Unfortunately, mature lentils also don’t handle water well; severe losses can result from quality declines.

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Waiting for another shower to pass so I can finish pre-harvesting a field of lentils. Weeds, flooded out acres and variable staging make timing difficult.

We have now been harvesting for about 3 weeks, and it has been a struggle. The winter wheat came off fantastically well, with a nice dry stretch to harvest it and tremendous yields. It was when we started the peas that the metaphorical wheels fell off. It took us nearly two weeks to grind through a crop that should have been in the bin in five days. Shower after shower rolled through, plus a hurtful little shot of hail that peeled some yield off. Peas like to pod very low to the ground, and the ones that don’t pod low just tip over and lay the pods on the ground anyway. Suffice to say, you need the header on the ground. While combine headers today are marvels of engineering, even they struggle with mud.

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It may be hard to see from the photo, but these lentils are flat on the ground. These MacDon flex headers are amazing – they shave the ground with no human input.

Nevertheless, we fought through them and pounded through as many lentils as we could before the next rainy spell arrived (which happened to be today). So, we sit again.

Here’s the thing: while this harvest has thus far been frustrating, it is nothing compared to the extremely wet conditions we saw in 2014. We sat for weeks that year, waiting and waiting for things to dry up. And, unfortunately, it seems that some other areas are experiencing those very conditions this year. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.

One thing I’ve learned over my farming career is that moderately dry years tend to work out better than moderately wet ones. When it’s dry, harvest is quick, quality is good, and equipment sees smaller repair bills. When it’s wet, harvest is long, quality disappoints, and equipment is tortured. And, yields are never quite as good as you think they should be. One other factor: stress is much lower during dry harvests.

We farmers all know what we signed up for when we decided agriculture was the place to be. We know weather isn’t perfect, and we know the risk we take gambling on Mother Nature. In spite of this, it is still very frustrating to watch your crop downgrade from rain after rain. On a moderate-sized farm, a drop in grade on a cereal crop like durum can cost tens of thousands of dollars, and lentils can be even worse.

All we can hope for now is for the weather to change for the better so we can get back out there and get the crop in the bin. The forecast looks good – here’s hoping it verifies!

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Welcome to Hell Week

Hell Week. The final week of preparation before seeding begins. A week of increasingly furious and, well, frantic work in a frenetic push to try and be ready to go seeding when the time is right. This is a week marred by stress and anxiety; but beneath it all, excitement starts to build.

Every year is a little bit different. Last year at this time (and the year before that), winter still had us firmly in its grasp, and any thoughts of seeding were still weeks away. The last two winters were long, cold and dismal, with spring coming disturbingly late. This year is quite different; the snow has been basically gone for a month now, and we have been blessed with warm, dry weather for some time. Fields are enticingly dry, and seeding is actually a tempting proposition– and could really begin at any time.

Getting ready for seeding is a hard thing to explain. Every piece of equipment on the farm (save Air Drillthe combines) must be woken from its winter slumber, pulled from whatever shed we could find to try and keep it inside. Everything has to be started, drug out onto wet, sloppy spring soil, and gone over with a fine-tooth comb to check for any potential problems that could arise. Every shank, hose, pipe, tank and clamp must be checked on our air drills before seeding begins; no downtime is acceptable for these components once seeding gets underway.

Meanwhile, liquid fertilizer tanks, full of hundreds of tonnes of fertilizer delivered during the winter, must be circulated to prevent settling, and final fertilizer plans must be completed to ensure enough product is booked. Grain hauling continues as it has all winter, and in between, seed must find its way home. Crop protection products of all kinds, from seed treatments to glyphosate, needs to be brought to the farm, with hundreds of thousands of dollars of jugs, barrels and totes accumulating for the busy season.

This year, we took on a few improvement projects, such as replacing the hose on our Valmar/heavy harrows, since the original hose was quite possibly older than I am. Of course, since these machines are much less common now than they were decades ago (they are mostly used for spreading and incorporating dry herbicides), nobody keeps this hose in stock. So, we ordered what we thought would be enough. Three days later, we got it (just before the weekend of course) and installed it last Saturday. Can you see where this is going? We didn’t order enough! And now we had to go and order more; which wouldn’t be here until the middle of the week! We planned on spreading herbicide on Monday, so this would substantially delay our plans. Simple mistake, complicated consequences.

Fortunately, we found a store that sells the hose, and the Valmar got in the field Tuesday. Our DSC_0010first field operation of 2015! Of course, the day ended with a broken harrow mount and the drive wheel for the Valmar falling off, because we wouldn’t want things too easy. Anyway, it’s going again, and that job should be completed today. Between all that, we continue to work on the drills, get other field operations rolling, such as our Salford, and prepare the sprayer for its turn getting out of the gate.

One thing about spring is that everything is happening at once. We still have grain to sell, and we will forward contract grain for harvest delivery at this time of the year as well. Budgets are still coming together as our numbers become more real, and ensuring we have enough cash flow to get through the summer is a constant battle. These are very real and very important aspects of the farm that cannot be postponed for seeding.

In years like this one, when spring comes early, sometimes the temptation to go out and seed too early is very strong. Given the past few years of wet weather, any opportunity to start early is hard to pass up– and shouldn’t be, to a certain degree. Planting too early in our part of the world is high risk; late spring frosts are a real possibility, and can devastate crops like canola, with their exposed growing point. In fact, in late April, we can really see any type of weather: hot, summer-like days or bitter cold, thunderstorms or blizzards, but above all else, indeed on most April days, a howling wind seems to be an ever-present annoyance. One day you look at the forecast and think you should start seeding tomorrow; the next day, you think it needs to wait another week. The timing is very difficult to determine.

Didn't expect to wake up to this Tuesday morning - but then, that's April for you.
Didn’t expect to wake up to this Tuesday morning – but then, that’s April for you.

As the days of Hell Week wear on, field operations slowly commence, with little jobs like picking rocks and draining sloughs coming first, transitioning to tillage and herbicide application, and finally seeding begins. As these days go by, jobs slowly get knocked off the list and planting looks a little closer. We are close now. The drills are almost ready, the sprayer is ready, and almost all the support equipment is ready to roll. Seed is treated and loaded in our trucks, and our fertilizer is ready to pump. Seeding is almost here.

For farmers, the anxiety of getting those first seeds in the ground grows every day that Hell Week drags on– but, beneath it all, that anxiety is really excitement; the joy of leaving winter behind, the anticipation of the crop that this year could bring, and the delight of getting all that equipment moving again. Hell Week may not be much fun; but the aftermath is unforgettable.

 

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

 

The End of The Growing Season Has Come Too Early

Frost. A swear word to farmers throughout the bulk of the growing season. An event that can quite literally ruin a crop overnight. This week, our farm experienced multiple nights below freezing, with  a couple of nights nearing five degrees below zero. Granted, September 10-15 is actually a pretty normal first-frost date on the Canadian Prairies. So what is everyone so worried about?

I think the emphasis needs to be placed on “normal first frost”. The 2014 growing season has been anything but normal; with a very late start to seeding, a cold, wet spring and a very wet start to summer, crops did not exactly get a stellar start. A late start to seeding became a late finish, with many crops seeded well into June. Cool, wet weather slowed their emergence and establishment, and torrential downpours set them back substantially. We were set up for a late crop, as even the fields seeded at the end of May were of a concern.

Summer allowed us to forget those fears, with 6 weeks of beautiful weather allowing our crops to flourish. While the damage from the rain had already been done, with substantial areas flooded out, it was looking like crops just might turn out alright. Nevertheless, we would still need at least the 20th of September without a frost to get everything mature in time.

We now know that that was not to be. The weather took a turn for the worse at the end of August, with wet, cool weather returning. Fields became increasingly wet, disease levels shot up, and crop maturation rates slowed. Now, after weeks of wet weather ruining the quality of our wheat and durum crops, frost has severely damaged our later cereals, in addition to our flax and soybeans.

What Does An Early Frost Do?

Like many aspects of crop production, the answer is, quite simply, it depends. A “frost” is really not as simple as it sounds. Sometimes, it can freeze only for a couple of hours and only a couple degrees below freezing. This does minimal damage. Obviously then, a frost well below zero for many hours will be much worse. A frost like that kills- well, everything.

Frosty Morning Seeding
A cold and frosty morning for seeding winter wheat- and for immature crops.

Imagine a lovely old wheat plant, wearily nearing the end of its lifespan, slowly stashing away all its nutrients, all of its sugars, and all of its hopes and dreams into its progeny (okay, maybe I’m being a little melodramatic here). Giving itself entirely to its offspring, our tired old wheat plant is getting ready to shut down for good and release its newborn seeds. Suddenly, out of the blue, WHAM! a frost hits, and our poor old wheat plant suddenly dies. It cannot fulfill its lifespan. Instead of a slow, methodical shutdown to prepare its offspring for the world, the plant is suddenly finished, leaving the immature seed out on its own- and it’s not ready for that yet. The still immature seed, depending on its level of maturity, will stay green forever; or, if older, will shrivel up, unable to finish filling to its required plumpness. The green seeds are useless to us as a commodity, and even the more mature but still-shriveled seeds will weigh up poorly, costing yield, and will not fulfill their primary purpose: making bread.

Ultimately, you, as a customer, will not want bread from shriveled up, frozen wheat. It won’t rise properly, it won’t taste right, and it won’t look very nice. That all comes back to Immature Wheatus, and our product. If the customer doesn’t want it, it’s no good. It isn’t a total waste, however; it will likely get blended off with better wheat, or worst case it will be fed to livestock. Either way, it’s not worth much. That wheat may have been worth $7 per bushel or better as a #1, high protein milling wheat, but as feed or close to, it may only be worth $4-5 per bushel (or worse, sometimes). That is a 30-40% drop in income, all from one night that just got a little too cold.

For our farm this year, this early frost will hurt our soybeans, some of our latest spring wheat, and our flax. While quality isn’t as much of an issue on flax and soybeans, yield will decline. How much is quite difficult to estimate at this point; we will know when we start combining those crops.

These soybeans are not ready for a frost yet.
These soybeans are not ready for a frost yet. This is two days before a hard freeze.

The early frost is just one more strike against an already tattered crop. Quality wheat and durum will be in very short supply this year, and it will be very difficult to move all of what we have in a timely fashion. Sadly, the area hit by the rain and frost is a large one, and none of us will  have much good quality cereals to blend off the bad stuff with.

Such is the nature of farming; the harsh reality of the life we have chosen. I’m not writing this to ask for sympathy (particularly when I hear about those who were in the snow path this week- that’s a nightmare); rather, I write this to show what a rollercoaster life on the farm can be. One year can be the harvest of a lifetime, and the next can be a harvest you’d sooner forget. Dealing with these ups and downs is incredibly frustrating and financially difficult at times, but it’s all part of the crazy life that is farming. I signed up for this the day I decided I wanted to return to the farm, and I don’t regret it for a minute.

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

A Slow, Frustrating Start to the 2014 Harvest

Although harvest has begun, it has been fraught with difficulties thus far. Humid, foggy nights and rain have plagued us so far, with over a week’s worth of combining only resulting in a short 750 acres completed. For 3 combines, that is pretty sad.

We began our harvest last Tuesday in winter wheat, the first crop to be mature. It was a difficult decision to combine it at all, considering its stubbornly high moisture content that Harvest Fogrefused to come down. Generally, we should be harvesting wheat at 13.5% moisture. That is what our buyers want, and that is often what our contracts stipulate. Any higher than that, and we may be on the hook to pay a drying fee, which can become quite costly. Our wheat was coming off between 15 and 17.5% moisture, which is about as high as we can safely store. Normally, we would just wait a couple of days for the moisture to come down. This year, cloudy, cool days with incredibly humid nights and fog persisting well into the morning simply would not let the wheat dry down. Making matters worse was a forecast for substantial rainfall for the coming weekend. We were left with little choice but to harvest it anyway.

Some farms do have the ability to dry their grain themselves, with an on-farm drier doing the same work that an elevator would do. However, we really haven’t ever needed one of these systems, and they are very expensive, both to purchase and to operate. Consequently, we do not have one, and it is pretty late in the year to get one installed now. Not to mention that the cost of one is pretty prohibitive to us at this time. Someday in the not-to-distant future, we should probably look at a drying system, but one thing at a time here. Many a farm has gone broke from buying too much too fast.

Anyway, tangent aside, the high moisture content of the winter wheat kept us from combining too much of it. Our hope is that the wheat we have off should blend out just fine with some drier stuff later on. Maybe we’re being optimistic? I should hope not; if we can’t harvest drier winter wheat than that we will have some serious problems!

So we harvested some short days, in between some showers, and finished off about a third of that crop. On Friday, we decided we had done as much as we dared to do, and thought our peas might be a safer bet, which should have been ready by that time anyway.

Switching combines over to peas is no five minute job. You see, a combine threshes grain via a large, spinning cylinder that runs most of the length of the machine. This is called a rotor. Not all combines run this design, but ours do. The rotor runs on an angle, dragging the crop up and around itself. Surrounding the bottom of the rotor at its front are semi-circular plates. These steel pieces, rather logically called concaves, are open all along themselves with steel wires closing most of the open space. The wires are spaced out just enough to let grain fall through.

So to recap, the spinning cylinder (rotor) spins pretty fast against semi-circular, partially open plates (concaves) smashing the crop between them. This breaks the pods, heads, or whatever else plants produce seeds inside of and drops the grain down below, where it is carried up to the grain tank, or hopper (there’s a few more steps in here, but you get the gist). Anyway, peas are very large seeds, and will not fit between the wires on normal concaves. Therefore, when we switch to peas we have to switch out the concaves. These things are heavy. It is no small job to do this, and it does use up some time (along with some skin and blood, usually). So, by the time we got this job done on Friday, it had already started raining, so that ended any thoughts of starting on the peas last week.

The rain on Friday was part of a massive system that was advertised to produce Harvesting Wheatsubstantial rainfall for us. At this time of the year, rain is not welcome. Ripe crops lose their color to washing out from the rain, ripe seeds can sprout, and fields become difficult to move heavy equipment around in. All in all, rains during harvest simply cost money and cause even more stress in an already stressful time of year. Quality losses in crops like durum and lentils can be very costly.

Depending on the field, we received anywhere from 1.5-2 inches of rainfall from Friday to Sunday. While that was ugly for us, I must say that I know other farmers who fared far worse, with some rain totals reaching over 4 inches. It has been quite a few years since we had an event like that on our farm, and I remember it vividly. Long story short, it was not fun, and we had a lot of stuck machinery that year. Harvest was long and miserable.

Harvest is not always hot and sunny, like it has been the last few years. No, 2010 was the last year that harvest was wet… and it was ugly. We hardly turned a wheel throughout the month of September. By the time we could go, our crop quality was terrible, and a lot of yield had been lost. It was an incredibly expensive month for us and others in the area. That was 4 years ago… maybe it’s our turn for another one like it. I sincerely hope not.

Fortunately, things have improved somewhat, and harvest has resumed. We hammered through our peas and are now ready to move back to winter wheat and maybe lentils. It Combinesfeels good to check a crop off the list, even if it is a small one in terms of acres. We will be changing concaves again in the morning (I’m just so excited for that job) and hopefully we can get started early. There is the potential for rain tomorrow afternoon, so it will be vital to get going as early as we can. With a wet September in the forecast and days already growing noticeably shorter, we will hammer down as hard as we can whenever we can. I have a strong feeling that this will be a difficult harvest. But… I’ve been wrong before (often, actually!) and, bad weather aside, harvest is still the most wonderful time of the year.

 

 

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.

 

It’s Time To Go Seeding, But Mother Nature Disagrees

Tomorrow is the day. I hope.

It has been a whirlwind this spring, spinning us from hope, to frustration, to anxiety, and nearly to despair. Back in early April, for the first time in many years it looked like seeding would begin early. Fields only had a light coating of snow, and a long and brutal winter was finally drawing to a close. The days were growing warmer, and the snow was finally beginning to melt. It appeared as though spring had arrived, and the forecasts for May looked excellent, with cool but dry weather taking us through seeding, until a wetter June would arrive just in time to germinate crops and get everything growing. There were some real concerns about dryness, with fields looking almost concerningly dry.

All of that has now changed.

20140428_074931In April through the first weed of May, we received twice our normal rainfall (and snowfall!), coupled with far below normal temperatures. The ground went from dust to mud, and the cold weather never even let the frost come out. The soil profile still has frost in it a few feet down, and now every low spot is wet. We have reached the 8th of May with virtually no fieldwork happening in the entire region. In fact, until just recently, almost all of the Canadian Prairies were stalled; few farmers could even get in the field to do rudimentary fieldwork.

This weather pattern has been frustratingly persistent. 2009 was a late start to seeding, and was a cool, wet year right through until harvest. Of course, although seeding was difficult and harvest even more so, a year like that grows an amazing crop. The next year, 2010, was much worse, with snow arriving in late April, shutting us down for some time. We were unable to finish seeding that year, and the crop was very poor, with saturated soil conditions killing much of our crops.

2011 was the worst of them all, with seeding being virtually nonexistent. That was a tough year to be a farmer; we all need plants and crops to tend to. It’s why we do what we do. Since 2011, we have had two great crops, but spring has still been difficult, with wet and cool weather plaguing us. Low spots are continually underwater, despite our best efforts to look after them, and our drills spend more time turning than they do in the ground.

We need a weather pattern change. We need to get to drier and warmer weather, or we again run the risk of not completing seeding. We get a very short window to get the crop in the ground here. Usually, it starts in late April and ends on June 15, when the Crop Insurance deadline is. Lately, it starts in mid-May, and the Crop Insurance deadline is what it is. We are losing three weeks of normal seeding weather, and this year will be no different.

Oddly enough, last year was in some ways more conducive for seeding than this year. Although we still had snow all over the place a year ago today, warm, bright, windy weather swooped in just in time at the beginning of May, melting the mountains of snow and getting us to the field surprisingly early. This year, we had very little snow, but cold weather has kept drying rates down to nothing. In reality, this is simply one of the weirdest springs I can ever remember.

20140507_201346Well, that’s the bad news. The good news is that the weather is improving, and the last couple of days have been much better, and tomorrow looks to be beautiful. There was a lot of rain forecast for this weekend, but that has now been reduced to next to nothing. So we have a goal of getting one of our two drills to the field tomorrow, and maybe getting some fertilizer spread on our winter wheat (it looks excellent, by the way; I wish we had more of it!). If the weather cooperates, we could see some real progress by this time next week.

This is one of the most stressful times of the year for every farmer, when frighteningly large sums of money are thrown into the soil and into Mother Nature’s unreliable and often thrifty hands. The last question any farmer, especially this one, wants to ponder is, “will I be able to get my crop seeded this year?” Unfortunately, I have been on the “no,” side of that question before, and it is a terrible feeling. It is so frustrating to once again be faced with that question. Frighteningly, we are one large rain event away from being in real risk of not seeding this year. All we can do is hope that that rainfall event doesn’t come, and that heat graces us over the next few weeks.

Some say optimism is blind, and sometimes I agree with that. But if we want to truly have a shot at getting the crop in the ground this year, a little blind optimism is not a bad way to go. Tomorrow is the day that we try to get a drill in the field, and if the equipment cooperates, maybe we can make that happen. If we do our part, all we can hope for is that Mother Nature does hers.