Do Farmers Harvest 24-7?

This is a question I’ve been asked on several occasions: during harvest, are we running 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to get the crop in the bin? The answer to that is unequivocally no.

While harvest is an extremely busy and stressful time of the year, and getting the crop off as quickly as possible is our primary goal, there are limits to what we can do. There are actually a number of reasons why we cannot harvest all day and night.

  1. Weather conditions – Essentially, combines thresh and separate grain from straw. That’s pretty much the long and short of it. The header collects the crop in front of the combine, and it is pulled inside, where it is smashed against steel concaves that allow grain to fall through. To be able to do this, the crop cannot be wet; how would you break it apart if it isn’t dry? As the sun falls beyond the horizon, humidity goes up and temperatures usually go down. As this happens, the crop becomes “tough” and simply will not go through the combine. As the evening wears on, the straw usually becomes more and more difficult to process, until combining becomes all but impossible. Now, this doesn’t always happen, as a windy, dry night does pop up now and then, and you could actually go right through the night. So what do we do in those situations?dsc_0392
  2. Human limits – We all need sleep. There is no getting around that fact. No matter how hard you push yourself; no matter how determined you are to stay awake all night; if your body decides you need to sleep, you’re done. It’s as simple as that. You may run late a night or two and battle through with 3 or 4 hours of sleep, but that will catch up to you in a hurry. And besides, it’s not just you out there.
  3. Employee needs – Just like us, our employees need sleep too. They didn’t sign up to go a month without sleep! It’s one thing to have a tired manager; it’s another to have a tired crew. And that leads to…
  4. Safety – When you’re tired, your brain just doesn’t function the way it should. You think slower, you react slower, and you don’t notice things you should. Sure, you can run on limited sleep for awhile… but what’s the risk? Harvest involves a lot of heavy, dangerous equipment in the field and semi trucks on busy roads. Pushing too hard doesn’t just risk your life – it can impact the lives of many others.

No matter how much you want to, harvesting all day and night simply cannot (and should not) be done. It’s dangerous, it’s very hard on equipment, and all it takes is one mistake to ruin a life (or many lives) forever. Harvest is a long, busy and stressful operation, but overdoing the hours does more harm than good.

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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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Harvest 2015 In Pictures

September 22nd marked the final day of harvest for us this year. I have to say, that was one of the earliest, easiest and most enjoyable harvests I have ever been a part of- especially after 2014’s nightmare of a fall. For the first time since I started this blog, I hardly wrote at all about harvest; I had neither the time to write (very few breaks) or the material to write about!

Despite all that, the 2015 harvest was not all smooth sailing, and we are all more than ready for it to be done. Follow along and see how things went!

Even with late summer sun, there aren't enough hours in the day at this time of the year.
Even with late summer sun, there just aren’t enough hours in the day at this time of the year.

This was one of our earliest harvests ever. We fired up on July 29th, at least two weeks earlier than normal. A hot and dry summer brought crops in very quickly, and our winter wheat was ready before we were. It took more than a few late nights to get everything ready for the field. You don’t just walk out to the shed, fire up the combine and go harvesting. No, these large, complicated and expensive machines require considerable care and attention to ensure they don’t break down during one of the most critical times of the year.

New bins helped us reduce the excessive amount of grain bags needed for storage.
New bins helped us reduce the excessive amount of grain bags needed for storage. Last year, we needed over 20 bags, comprising close to 150,000 bushels of storage. This year, that number was cut by a factor of four, with a similar yielding crop.

Along with the combines, several other items needed preparation, such as semi trucks and trailers, tractors, grain moving equipment, and various other machinery. Grain bins needed to be cleaned, temperature cables checked and tied down, and augers needed a thorough checking over too. No matter how perfectly the combines run, if even the auger breaks down, everything is stopped. The entire chain has to be up to the immense task of harvest.

The first crop in the bin - winter wheat.
The first crop in the bin – winter wheat.

Winter wheat is a crop with advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, it establishes in the fall, using up fall and early spring moisture that other crops give up to evaporation. It can yield very well as a result, and it is a nice way to get a crop off early. Unfortunately, that is also a major downside – you lose a lot of summer. With this picture taken on July 29th, we gave up half of our summer. Unfortunately, with the early heat and drought stress this crop faced in June, it wasn’t very successful this year.

Lentils- not the easiest crop to get off the ground, but a very rewarding one.
Lentils- not the easiest crop to get off the ground, but a very rewarding one.

Sometimes, things work out better than you ever expected. While that doesn’t happen very often for this farm, this year it did. After I spent years avoiding growing this difficult crop, we finally eased back into them in 2014. Lentils are not water-loving, and the excessive moisture over the past 7 years really turned us off of this crop. Ironically, the same heat and dry conditions that burned up the winter wheat allowed the lentils to thrive, and we pulled off some great yields. It was actually a lot of fun harvesting these things.

There were more than a few firsts this year: one was straight-cutting canola, and another was this awesome new GoPro camera (thanks Syngenta)!
There were more than a few firsts this year: one was straight-cutting canola, and another was this awesome new GoPro camera (thanks Syngenta)!

For those of you who have never seen the inside of a combine cab, this is my view out of one of our John Deere 9870s. These cabs have gotten so much better over the years, with fantastic comfort, quietness, and user-friendly controls. While this machine is already 7 years old, it’s hard to complain about running it. But, try sitting all day in it every day for a month. Everything gets old after that.

Straight-cutting canola had its challenges, but the pros outweighed the cons.
Straight-cutting canola had its challenges, but the pros outweighed the cons.

Straight-cutting canola was a mixed experience. We learned a lot from doing it, which you can read more about here, but suffice to say it won’t be the last time we try it. We learned that the pod-shatter resistant varieties are worth the money in harvest efficiency, and we learned that if it’s not ready, it’s not ready. Four hours spent unplugging one of our machines was a harsh lesson for us on that one. Any way we can cut down on swathing is a positive for us (I despise swathing) and it keeps more of us around to combine. I look forward to continuing the experiment in 2016.

Trucking may not be as glamorous as combining, but it is every bit as important.
Trucking may not be as glamorous as combining, but it is every bit as important.

I think when people imagine harvest, they tend to think more about the combines and less about the support crew. It looks like way more fun, right?

Unfortunately, while that is probably true, combines are the easiest machines to operate in the harvest mix… which means that Dad, Sarah and I rarely get to run them. I think I only ran a combine for a total of two days this year, which was mostly evenings. We spend most of our time with logistics: getting the grain from the combine into storage without slowing them down. The process involves two or three steps: 1) using the grain cart to get the grain out of the combines and into the semis; 2) getting the semis unloaded into bins, or, and this is where step 3 comes in, into bags.

Grain bags have some downsides, but we can't go without them.
Grain bags have some downsides, but we can’t go without them.

While grain bags are difficult to work with (they are rather heavy to lift onto the bagger) and are all too attractive to wildlife (I have learned to hate raccoons), they are a fantastic short-term tool. Sometimes, the bins are just too far and the trucks cannot keep up. Other times, we are short on people to run semis. Besides, at the end of the day, we just don’t have enough bins for an above average crop. Grain bags fill all of these gaps, and keep those expensive combines moving at capacity.

Just when you think harvest can’t get any more complicated…

The most difficult job to complete every fall is seeding. Trying to keep three combines moving, harvesting over 25,000 bushels a day, and then finding a way to go and plant seed and fertilizer on 1,600 acres seems a recipe for disaster. Managing the logistics during the actual seeding season is difficult enough! Nevertheless, we always try and find a way to get the job done.

The great thing about this harvest was that we were almost finished when seeding started! Now that is a nice change of pace. In fact, we actually finished harvest (aside from the soybeans) as we really got rolling seeding. Getting the winter wheat in was not the challenge it usually is – but starting a job of this scale with over a month of harvest behind you takes a real effort. Running 15+ hour days for that long wears you down, to say the least.

As the end looms, logistics becomes a greater and greater challenge.
As the end looms, logistics becomes a greater and greater challenge.

As “easy” as this harvest was, after over a month of steady combining, you really start to wear down. Once the main binyard fills up, you start looking at anything that resembles a bin to try and store as much as you can. By the time we got to the flax, we finally broke down and rented a couple of 5,000 bushel hopper bins to take the pressure off.

The good news was that we got a two week break after finishing the flax, before the soybeans were ready. That gave us some much needed time to get some bins empty and do some required maintenance – and to catch up on sleep.

A frosty morning reminded us that fall had begun - and it was time to be finished harvest.
A frosty morning reminded us that fall had begun – and it was time to be finished harvest.

While late September is by no means a late finish to harvest, with a late July start, we had been in harvest mode for nearly two full months. This photo was taken the morning of our final day of harvest (excepting some low spots) and it was clear how the weather had begun to change. For the first (and only) full day of the year, I got to run our newest combine, our S680 John Deere. It made the final day breeze by!

When the smoke cleared on the 22nd of September and the combines entered the yard for the final time this year, we finally got to take a breath and look back on the year that was. 2015 was largely a hot and dry year, but excellent subsoil moisture from a very wet 2014 and a few key rains helped us bring in an above average crop. It’s not very often you get a harvest as relatively easy as this one with a great crop!

After 56 days, 1200 combine hours and nearly half a million bushels of grains, oilseeds and legumes, harvest 2015 has been completed. There is little time for rest though; we have grain to haul, disking and vertical tillage to do, fertilizer to spread and spraying to finish, all before freeze up starts in (hopefully) a little more than a month. But, these jobs aren’t harvest – the crop is in the bin.

What Do Farmers Do After Harvest?

The end of harvest may bring a huge sigh of relief, but it doesn’t mean that the work is over. When harvest is completed at the end of October, there isn’t the same excitement that comes with finishing a few weeks earlier. Why? Well, because there is the sudden realization that winter is only a very short time away.

The beginning of winter on the Prairies is inherently unpredictable. Sometimes it starts in December, sometimes in mid-October. When you reach the end of October to early November, the weather can turn very quickly. You can go from 10 degree days of sun to -10 degree days of blizzard in only a day or two. So, the long hours can’t stop; there is still much to be done.

Fields need to be prepped for spring seeding, some post-harvest spraying needs to be finished up (and the sprayer needs to be put away), combines need to be cleaned up and put away, and there are hundreds of thousands of bushels of grain to sell, move, and monitor.

So what do farmers do after harvest? Here is a short list:

1) Fieldwork: It’s a never-ending job. Even as we were combining, we had a tractor running down stubble with our Salford. The Salford RTS is an interesting tool that we Salford_RTSbought a few years ago now, with wavy coulters on its main frame and harrows at the back. It is designed to tear through a field at 10+ miles per hour, hurling clumps of dirt and stubble up from the coulters, and smoothing them out with the harrows. It does a fantastic job of smoothing out small ruts, knocking down moderate-sized weeds, and incorporating stubble into the soil to aid in breaking it down. Heavy wheat stubble, like we have this year, is very difficult to seed through, especially with our SeedMaster air drill. The straw builds up on the shanks, causing plugging issues and leaving a messy finish to the field.

Although we consider ourselves to be a minimum to no-till farm, sometimes a little bit of tillage is necessary. If we can’t do a quality job of planting our crops because our fields are too thick with stubble, then we really don’t have much of a choice but to till it up. The Salford works great for this because it really isn’t tillage in the conventional sense; the coulters are vertical disks, rather than the angled ones that you typically see. This is referred to as “vertical tillage”, which allegedly helps fracture the soil to reduce compaction. While that is a debatable point, the Salford is still nonetheless a low-disturbance tool that still leaves lots of stubble standing behind it. It’s a great compromise.

However, despite its advantages, there are many things that the Salford simply cannot do. tandem_diskFor those jobs, the tandem disk is still a vital tool for our farm. Cleaning up sloughs and flooded out low spots requires angled blades that can cut through old cat-tails (big, tall, nasty weeds) and bury the deep ruts. The disk is not a fun tool to run. It has dozens of bearings that never take grease and constantly fail, it’s a slow machine to run, and the rear blades constantly plug up in any sort of wet soil conditions. While it is a necessary tool, it’s one we use minimally.

2) Spraying: Even though October may seem very late to be spraying, we actually sprayed right up until the 23rd. We had such nice weather in late October that spraying was quite effective. At that time of the year, we are basically controlling weeds for next spring. I was spraying residual-type products on our winter wheat that will remain active on weeds until next May, which will really help the wheat get a jump on the weeds. The best defence against weeds is a competitive crop, after all.

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3) Equipment clean-up: The most miserable job of all of harvest comes after it is completed. By that time, the combines are dirty and muddy, covered in chaff from multiple different crops, with cabs that have seen nearly 300 hours of threshing time. The combines need to be cleaned, and cleaned well. Every belt, bearing and chain must be checked during the winter to ensure the machines are ready for next harvest, and to do that properly, they really need to be clean.

We rented an industrial air compressor to clean our combines this year. With a gas-powered engine, a 3/4 inch line and a steel end, cleaning combines can progress much faster. No matter how you do it though, it is still a nasty job. You need to be prepared to breathe in a lot of dust, dirt, and a myriad of bacteria and fungi that grow on the built-up chaff. It’s a dirty, itchy, tiring and rather thankless job. And, not only do the combines need to be clean, the other machines do too. We try to wash and blow off other equipment, like the sprayer and our tractors, but sometimes the weather shuts us down before we can get all that done.

4) Marketing: In a year like this one, with a harvest plagued by rains and humidity, selling our cereals will not be a fun or easy task. Bleached, diseased, ugly looking kernels wheathave filled our bins and bags, and, for the most part, they simply don’t meet the specifications required for good grades. So, we have taken dozens of samples of our wheat and durum to elevators, independent inspectors and the Canadian Grain Commission to try and get an idea of what we have in the bins and bags. Having good relationships with our buyers is an important asset this year, as some ugly stuff can be blended to improve its grade. Sometimes, that can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars!

Even when all those jobs are done (except for marketing- that job is never done), there is still much more to do. Until the ground is frozen solid (which may be next week from the look of the forecast), we will continue disking, running the Salford, burning flax straw (and that may continue even after freeze-up), and, of course, the never-ending job of hauling grain.

No, even when harvest is finally over, all you can give yourself is a moment of satisfaction and relief, because the work is far from over. I guess if you really look at it, we are already preparing for the 2015 seeding season. While it is many months away, it is already a pressing consideration in all of our minds as we transition to winter. The next crop year will come all too quickly- but a little, tiny part of me is already looking forward to it.

Harvest 2014 in Pictures

62 days, 1,200 combine engine hours and over 12,000 acres later, harvest is finally completed. It was one of the longest, most challenging harvests of my farming career, and it is a huge relief to finally have it finished.

Sometimes, harvest can be a difficult time of the year to explain. How long is it? Is it always just combining, or are there other tasks to complete as well? What do you do for meals? Well, I think the best way to explain this hectic time of the year is through pictures. So, here is my first post dedicated more to pictures than to words. If you want to read a detailed description of a harvest on Leguee Farms, you can find it here.

Before harvest can begin, the equipment must be prepared.
Before harvest can begin, the equipment must be prepared. One of our combines is to the left, while our swather is to the right.

Hard to believe it now, but this was back in the middle of August. Although most of the repairs and maintenance take place before and during the winter months, some work is still needed to get these machines out of storage.

Usually one of the first activities of harvest is swathing canola.
Usually one of the first activities of harvest is swathing canola.

While not all farmers swath their canola anymore, we still do, and it was the first major harvest activity this year. Swathing canola kills it, allowing it to dry down for easier harvesting. The risk of not swathing canola (e.i. “straight-cutting it”) is that it is quite prone to shelling out. Next year we will try to straight-cut a field or two and see how it goes.

First crop to be combined: winter wheat.
First crop to be combined: winter wheat. The first few days of harvest are always very exciting.

The view from the grain cart! These days, I rarely get to run the combine (neither do Dad or my sister Sarah), as our jobs tend to be here and there and everywhere throughout the day. Running a combine nowadays is actually pretty straightforward, with more and more automation making operating these machines much easier. Nevertheless, there is a lot to be said for having good combine operators, and we had a great crew this year.

Combing green peas. Special headers are needed for these low crops; featured here is a MacDon Flex Draper on the left, and a John Deere hydraulic flex header with an air reel on the right.
Combing green peas. Special headers are needed for these low crops; featured here is a MacDon Flex Draper on the left, and a John Deere hydraulic flex header with an air reel on the right.

After the winter wheat harvest was interrupted by yet another rain, we had to switch to peas. Since pea pods tend to shed water, you can usually get into them quicker than wheat after a rain. These peas were a particularly poor crop this year, with severe flooding ruining much of them back in June. Fortunately, there were only about 350 acres of them this year, so we wrapped them up in a little more than a day of harvesting.

A lot of fuel gets burned in a day. That fuel tank, complete with a hose on a spool and a gas pump, was a new purchase for this year. 3 combines burn so much fuel in a day that we needed at least 600 gallons per day, plus the grain cart tractor.
A lot of fuel gets burned in a day. That fuel tank, complete with a hose on a spool and a gas pump, was a new purchase for this year. Three combines burn over 500 gallons of fuel every day, plus the grain cart tractor, semis and other support equipment.

With the peas finished, we were able to get back on the winter wheat. On an earlier post, I mentioned how I was sure we would get a weather break and harvest would progress better. I was wrong. It continued to be a serious fight, with substantial quality losses beginning to take their toll. Finally, we hammered through the remaining winter wheat, and the red lentils after that. Like peas, lentils are very low to the ground, so our flex headers were needed once again. Once the lentils were finished, we could finally begin on the largest crop of them all-canola. It was important to us to get some of this crop off, as we had ambitious plans to seed close to 2,000 acres of winter wheat into canola stubble. With somewhat-cooperative weather, we made some progress on the canola, easily covering 350-400 acres per day.

Loading the drill is no easy task on your own. Liquid fertilizer (rear tanks), dry fertilizer and winter wheat seed must all be loaded at each fill.
Loading the drill is no easy task on your own. Liquid fertilizer (rear tanks), dry fertilizer and winter wheat seed must all be loaded at each fill.

With the canola harvest advancing nicely, I was finally able to move to the task I like best- seeding. Seeding at harvest is a weird experience. While the harvest push is on, while everybody on the farm is working with one another, with constant radio chatter and machines going every which way, I head out to the drill alone each day, spending all day more or less alone. Sure, here and there I get some help loading and moving trucks, but seeding at harvest is very much an isolated job. It’s a great feeling though, when you get that crop of winter wheat in the ground, and you know that no matter what, seeding has started for next year. Yes, the wrong weather could kill the winter wheat, but odds are that you’ve got at least some crop established for next year. It’s a very hopeful, very exciting feeling (for more on winter wheat, check out this post).

Keeping all three combines running in wheat can be a real challenge. The grain cart has it's work cut out for it to keep up.
Keeping all three combines running in wheat can be a real challenge. The grain cart has it’s work cut out for it to keep up.

As seeding wrapped up, harvest had progressed by leaps and bounds. We had completed most of the canola, some wheat and a good chunk of the durum while I was seeding. Once again, we were rained out, but this time the delay was fairly short. Finally, near the end of September, the weather improved, and summer arrived for a second time. We roared through the acres with near record temperatures, blasting through nearly a third of harvest in just over a week. In that week, we finished the canola and got through much of the cereals. Frustratingly, we were stopped again, and this time for quite awhile. With nearly 2 inches of rain over the next ten days, it was hard to think about how much crop was still left out there.

The last push of harvest was a tough run. Short days, tough crop, and cloudy days made for difficult finishing conditions.
The last push of harvest was a tough run. Short days, tough crop, and cloudy days made for difficult finishing conditions.

With 3,500 acres left to go of durum, wheat, flax and soybeans, getting back into the swing of things again after such a long break was not easy. But, when faced with the prospect of mid- to late-October harvesting, one has to ignore normal harvest rules. Weather can turn at any time, and a single freak snowstorm could be devastating. Moreover, days become short, with harvesting hours becoming closer to a 9-5 job.

Thanksgiving dinner in the field is a unique experience.  It takes a lot of preparation!
Thanksgiving dinner in the field is a unique experience. It takes a lot of preparation!

Not all of harvest is work. Almost every evening, our crew stops for supper in our tool trailer (an enclosed trailer full of tools, a welder, a torch, oil, a workbench, and so on). Sometimes it’s early, sometimes it’s late and we just eat at home, and sometimes it’s such a hectic rush to make it all work you really wonder if it’s worth the trouble. With the lateness of this year’s harvest, Thanksgiving (which, in Canada, was on the 13th of October) fell right into the thick of harvest. With a harvest this late, taking the day off is not an option, so instead we just ate out in the field! My wife and my mom brought out a fantastic turkey dinner for all of us, and a short time later, we were back on the combines! I think some of the most underrated work that gets done during harvest is the meals. It’s more important than you think to get some quality food during harvest, and my wife and mom do a wonderful job of that.

The end is near! This field of soybeans was our final crop to harvest.
The end is near! This field of soybeans was our final crop to harvest.

As we pushed past the middle part of October, we were finally able to count our remaining fields on one hand. As we finished the wheat and fought our way through some tough and difficult flax, we finally arrived at the soybeans. While combining this crop does require shaving the ground, with good flex headers and well-groomed fields, they are an absolute breeze to combine. Finally, at the end of Tuesday of last week, we completed the final field of soybeans. After cleaning up some low spots of wheat and flax, the combines headed home. While we knew we weren’t totally finished, with a few more hours of low spots and a small field of soybeans to custom harvest, it was still a fantastic feeling. While harvest is a great time of the year, this one was very long, stressful and exhausting. Harvesting low-quality wheat and durum added to the frustrations, and selling these crops will not be easy. But, those are problems for another day. For now, we are just happy to be finished one very long and difficult harvest. Despite all that, though, it still had its moments, and we never had a better harvest crew than we had this year. Thanks for reading.

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From left to right: Stephanie (my wife), Jake (me), Erik (brother-in-law), Amber (younger sister), Sarah, Dad, Mom, Dominika and Honzik (Czech Republic couple who worked for us this year; both great combine operators!) Missing from this photo are Bruce and my Uncle Don, who both are vital parts of the harvest operation.

 

 

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.