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!

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.

Winter Returns

My last post, published only last night, was written too soon. Winter has returned, and with a vengeance. After the rain and thunderstorms last night, who could have expected that we would wake up to a white coating of atrocious wet, deep snow that measures at least 6 inches in depth. Many highways are closed, the grid roads that only just became dry and clear again are layered in snow and mud, and the fields are covered again in white.

This is like some sort of sick joke, a nightmare that I cannot wake up from. A few minutes ago I almost believed for a moment that it was some sort of horrible dream, a reminder of the hurt of the 2011 crop year, a punishment for my futile belief that we could seed our crop in good time this year, a slap in the face for the hope that 2011 was behind us.

It is not a dream, but a frustrating reality that I cannot escape from, and every look out my window further deepens my mounting anger and fury that Mother Nature has once again struck us with a blow that we cannot withstand. When will we be given our chance? When will we be given an opportunity to do what we love to do? I can’t go another year without a crop, without something to tend to and help grow.

I am not trying to sound defeatist, nor am I trying to imply that I am the only one dealt this kick to the stomach. No, I am all too aware that this storm has covered a great deal of the southeast of this province, and while misery may love company, this knowledge does not help my black mood this morning.

I know what you are wondering. Will you still be able to get a crop in the ground? Yesterday, I stated unequivocally yes. Today, my opinion has changed. The truth is, I don’t know. I just don’t know.


Note: if it looks like this post is written in continuation of another post, it is. Another one was written that for whatever reason was lost while I tried to publish it. Hopefully you can understand it without the previous article!