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

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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.

 

 

The Harvest of a Lifetime

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

A Spring from Hell

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

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

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A Summer of Stress

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

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

“Bumper” Doesn’t Quite Cover It

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

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

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

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

Harvest – What is it?

Harvest time on the farm is nothing if not busy. We are going full out, trying to get this massive crop in with as little quality damage as possible. And it is a big crop. Bigger than Dad has ever seen. This, while wonderful, does create challenges logistically. Running our large combines to capacity requires good operators and a good support crew. The grain cart, semi trucks and augers must not have problems, and keeping everybody alert all day is a challenge all in itself.

I know some people that run their equipment through most of the night. Personally, I don’t know how to do that. Keeping our two combines running at capacity throughout the day is a challenge all in itself, and shorting yourself on sleep can be a dangerous practice, both for equipment and for people.

I thought I would give you a rundown of what exactly a typical harvest day is on a Saskatchewan farm. If you’ve never been on a farm, you may not even know what a “combine” is!

1) We get up early in the morning, around sunrise, and go to the combines to get them ready for the day. There are a lot of moving parts on these machines that require regular lubrication (greasing). While this is not required every day, it can take a significant amount of time in the morning to do. While we are greasing, we fuel the machines up and check them over. Some preventative maintenance can save you big delays during the prime part of the day.

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Early mornings can be very pretty!

2) We fire up the machines and start harvesting. The time for this can vary. Most mornings, we cannot start until at least 9:00 am. Heavy dews and cloudy mornings can make for a later start than that. This is referred to as “tough”. The plants are too wet to run through the combine, so we must wait for them to dry down. The later in the year harvest gets, the later in the day we can start. For example, in August we can start at 8:00 am most mornings, but by October we usually don’t get started until 11:00 am. This can really prolong harvest.

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Lots of work to do to get ready to go.

3) Once the combines are rolling, it is the grain cart’s job to keep them rolling by emptying them on the go. the cart runs from combine to combine to truck all day long. Meanwhile, the semis are hauling grain to our binyards or to the elevators nearby. If neither is available, we store the grain in bags, short-term. We try and run steady until supper time, when we usually take a break. My wife and/or my mom usually prepare supper for everyone, which provides a much-needed rest.

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The grain cart with our Case IH Quadtrack tractor. With this unit, speed is not a problem in even the roughest fields.

4) Re-energized from supper, and often switching operators, we start again, running until we are too tired or it gets too tough to go. In some crops, like peas, which are viny and tough to pick up off the ground, we can be finished at 8:00 pm. In crops like canola or cereals, we can sometimes go as late as we want. In any case, we are usually done by 10-11:00 pm.

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Good lights are oh-so-important!

A combine is a complicated machine. Suffice to say, it threshes and separates grain from straw. The combines we run, John Deere 9870’s, are 2008 models. In the above picture, we are combining durum, which was yielding 72 bushels/acre, a record for this farm (a bushel is unit of measurement for the yield of a crop; there are 60 pounds to a single bushel of wheat). These machines, when set right and operated properly, were processing 900 bushels/hour. This is more than combines used to do in a day!

This is hardly a thorough explanation, but it should give you an idea of what we do. It is a very stressful operation, often dirty and exhausting; but it is also exciting. Breakdowns are the worst part of harvest, which are inevitable. Sometimes they are minor and are fixed within minutes. However, sometimes you can be shut down for an entire day, which can be infuriating, especially if rain is on the way.

You may hear of “Big Ag” and “factory farms” that care nothing for their land or the consumer. The reality could not be more different. On this farm, we are a family operation with some outside employees. We all care about this land and the crops we grow. It is what we do; it is our life. Yes, our farm is a larger one, and yes we have millions of dollars of equipment out in the fields. But that does not change who we are as farmers and just how exciting this time of the year is. We grow quality food for a hungry planet, and it is a lot of fun to harvest it. And above all else, safety is our main concern. This is a dangerous time of the year, and no amount of success in farming is worth severe injuries. Sleep is vital!

I encourage anyone who wonders what real farming is like to visit one. Learn where your food comes from, from the people who grow it. I’d be happy to show you around!

Weather Can Be Frustrating

While rain can be good and bad in farming, perhaps today’s rain is for the best. Well, it actually started showering yesterday, and continued through today. A part of me wanted rain, a part of me didn’t. You see, mature crops can be heavily damaged by rain.

Durum, one of our farm’s most important crops, is extremely sensitive to moisture at harvest time. Durum, a species of wheat, is used to make pasta. Most of your pasta noodles in your house started out as Amber Durum, milled into flour, or semolina. This crop grows particularly well in our climate and soil zone and usually outyields other wheats. However, it is the most sensitive crop we grow to rain at maturity (excepting malt barley, which we did not plant this year). Rains at harvest time can wash the lovely amber colour out of the seed, causing potential quality downgrades, which can be quite costly. Furthermore, rains can wash the weight out of the seed, decreasing the total tonnage of grain, and thereby reducing the yield of the crop. As you can see, rain is very undesirable at harvest time until the durum is in the bin.

The other side of the coin is that we actually could really use a rain. It has become very dry, due to the lack of rain for 3 weeks and the wonderful heat wave we have experienced since. 30 + degree days have been a mainstay for weeks, which have helped bring a very late crop in almost on time. If you read some of my other blogs of late, like this one, you will see how concerned I have been with a potential frost on our late crops. It was a genuine concern; but is now a concern no more, with most crops already safe, and a warm forecast still in the works.

Anyway, tangent aside, it is now dry, and our plans to seed winter wheat are being threatened by very dry soils. Winter wheat is a great cropping option: it absorbs early spring moisture, matures early in August, and reduces the workload in a tight seeding season. It does, however, have some drawbacks. Trying to seed during harvest is extremely challenging. Running our combines demands every person we have working on the farm every hour of every day, and sparing even one to go seeding is difficult, to say the least. Secondly, seeding takes place in late August to early September, which is normally a very dry time of year, like this year.

So, all this is to say that despite the risk of damage to the durum, rain will be conducive for seeding winter wheat. I guess this is what we do as farmers. We manage risk. Growing multiple crops allows us to take advantage of many different weather patterns.

The good news for harvest is that the rain was light and it looks to be clearing up outside. Harvest may even resume tomorrow. And the crop? It’s excellent. Our first canola yielded better than it has in many years, our peas were record-breaking, and the first field of durum is unbelievable. We have a long way to go, with about 28% of the crop harvested, but if things continue as they have, we will do very well this year.

It is hard to describe harvest time on the farm. Suffice to say… it’s busy. There is a great joy and excitement in rolling the combines out to the field, discovering what all your labour and careful decisions have resulted in. All the equipment that we use every day is every young boy’s dream; massive, 450 horsepower combines that thresh and grind the crop, large tractors carting grain from the combines to the semi trucks, not to mention all the swathers, augers and other tractors for support equipment. The fuel we go through every day is staggering. But, harvest is also exhausting, and is a long, stressful grind, often lasting many weeks or months. No matter how great the crop is or how much profit there may be (and usually, profits are small or non-existent!), you do get tired of the repetitive grind of harvest.

Sometimes, a rain is really what you need to unwind for a day, and get a short break from the hard work (sometimes, it even gives you time to blog!). We will likely be back at it tomorrow. After this two-day break, I am excited to get back out there. After all, with a crop like this one, whats not to love?

Harvest: The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Another summer has flown by. Days are shorter, nights are longer, and days at the beach (few as they tend to be!) have all but ended for 2013 for Prairie farmers. The countryside brims with potential; with heavy, thick crops maturing into beautiful golden-brown landscapes, crops look better than they have in years. The end of August looms ahead, and with it brings the beginning of harvest.

We have been busy preparing our equipment for the long road ahead. Tuning up the combines, fixing the headers, cleaning bins and organizing tools and people has been keeping us busy for the last couple of weeks. Getting ready for harvest is a monumental task. The amount of machinery involved is staggering; multiple trucks and semis, combines with sensitive mapping software and sophisticated threshing and separating components, swathers for cutting canola, bins, tractors, grain carts and augers. Not to mention that throughout all of this, the sprayer continues to run on a semi-ongoing basis, spraying out low spots to prepare them for next year, spraying crops to finish them off for easier harvesting, and constant monitoring for insect threats. Even after harvest begins, we must be ready to seed winter wheat. Indeed, harvest is an operation that brings everything to the table; all the employees, equipment and the entire family must come together to make this happen.

We have started some preliminary fieldwork, such as swathing this field of canola:

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It looks awesome!

We have also preharvested all of our peas, which means we have sprayed them to help finish the plants off. Peas, like some other plants, will just keep growing as long as conditions allow. Glyphosate plus saflufenacil works very well to kill the crop and weeds quickly and completely. Diquat (Reglone) is faster but doesn’t really kill the weeds. They will grow back. Worried about residues in the seeds? Don’t be. The plant no longer has the ability to push much chemical into the seeds. Besides, maximum residue limits are established for all products, and they are extremely strict.

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Field peas ready for a Reglone application to assist crop drydown. Harvest should be ready to commence in 5-8 days.

Although all this preparation may sound a lot like work, the reality is that excitement brews in all of us. The crop looks nothing short of phenomenal, and early harvest results from our neighbors look fantastic. True to farmer fashion, I will not put a yield number on our crop until we get into it, but suffice to say that if it comes off as anticipated, we will make a great deal of financial progress. We are all excited to dig into this crop and see what is out there.

Harvest is the culmination of everything we do all year; all the planning and preparation during the winter months, agonizing over cropping decisions and chemical and fertilizer plans; the marathon of planting that brings us to the edge of sanity; the constant scouting for weeds, disease, insects and nutrient deficiencies throughout the season, desperately trying to avoid a spraying error; and finally, the preparation of all the harvest equipment to ensure the crop comes off on time. Every decision and every error we make throughout the year shows up in the fields as we combine them. Every mistake can now be quantified from our yield maps as we roll through each field. All of our marketing choices can either burn us or gratify us as we determine not only the size of our crop, but the size of the North American crop as well.

Yes, harvest is a season like no other, with equal parts excitement, hope, fear and stress all coming into play. Many things can still go wrong: a strong wind could come through all blow away our swathed canola, heavy rains could downgrade the quality of our wheat and durum, and severely damage the yield at the same time, and, lest we forget, the final factor that has been on all of our minds since that cold night in July; frost (read about that here).

The threat of an early frost still hangs over my head like a heavy black cloud, a fear in the back of my mind that haunts my dreams and darkens the brightest days. While the forecast looks hot and wonderful, and while we know that we will get at least half the crop mature in that forecast period, a great deal of crop is still very green and very late. We need the 20th of September without a frost to gather this crop as it stands. Even if our early crops are record-breaking, freezing out the remaining half would still lead to a losing year. We are not out of the woods yet.

But, these are things that are out of our control. Right now, all we can do is prepare our equipment and do the best damn job we can to harvest this crop in a timely and efficient manner to capture the most yield we can on whatever we can. Tomorrow we will take the first bite out of the first crop we seeded- canola. Will it be ready? It was swathed a week ago today, which may be borderline for readiness. We will try it anyway and see what happens.

We have put a lot of time, money, blood, sweat and tears (literally) into the 2013 crop of canola, durum, peas, hard red spring wheat, and soybeans. I cannot wait to see what it will yield, and I pray that the cold weather will hold off just one more month. This is an exciting crop, and I will be dancing in the streets if we can get it (that’s not really a joke- I’m serious about that). Wish us luck!