Never Stop Learning

It wasn’t very long ago that the word “farmer” conjured up an image of an older gentleman in denim overalls riding on an old, cabless green tractor, dragging a single plow across his little field by a red barn full of chickens, pigs, cows and horses. This is the image we are raised with; the expectation most children had when or if they ever visited a farm. Technology? For farmers? No way.

The reality is far different. Today, our farm, like most others, utilizes technology beyond the wildest dreams of farmers a mere 20 years ago. Advanced GPS automatically steers our equipment within 2-4 inch accuracy up and down the fields. A combine automatically Monitors Quadtraccontrols the height of its header to cut just the right amount of straw, and can even control its speed to keep feeding the crop in at a consistent rate. Our sprayer wirelessly sends application data to a cloud program called JDLink, where we can view our field maps from anywhere in the world. We use sophisticated computer software to analyse maps from satellites, electrical conductivity maps and harvest data to generate variable-rate fertilizer and chemical applications to our crops. And all of this is really just scratching the surface; it is really just the beginning.

The fact is that agriculture is riding a technology boom unprecedented in history, greater even than the industrial revolution. The changes don’t stop there, however. As many older farmers DSC_0002exit the industry without anyone to take over their operation, more and more land comes available. So, naturally, the farms that do survive to the next generation continue to grow. Farms that were only 1,000 acres 20 years ago are now ten or twenty times that size. Men and women that were once looking after two or three crops on a couple of sections of land are now managing multi-million dollar businesses with various employees, crops and equipment lines.

How do farmers keep up with these changing trends? How do they stay ahead of the technology curve, and somehow stay fluid and profitable at the same time? The key is really rather simple: farmers never stop learning.

Every winter, farmers spend countless hours attending meetings and conventions, pouring through magazines and literature, participating in online forums, and talking to neighbours and colleagues to gather as much information as possible. Most young people returning to farms today have some level of formal education, from ag management diplomas to agronomy degrees, and some even have masters degrees in business.

My experience has been like many young farmers: I acquired a degree specializing in Agronomy with a minor in AgBusiness, and I worked off the farm for many years to gather more experience and industry knowledge. Every year, I spend a great deal of my time reading, from magazines and newspapers like Grainews and The Western Producer to research papers from places like the Indian Head Research Farm and the University of Saskatchewan.

Interestingly, some of the best learning experiences I ever received are due to chemical companies. In the fall of 2013, Bayer CropScience hosted an “Agronomy Summit” at Banff that Grower Universitywas a haven of agronomic knowledge, and certainly one of the most valuable conferences I have ever attended. Later that winter, Syngenta hosted Grower University I at the Richard Ivey School of Business. It was like a master’s degree in business in four days, and the follow-up this past winter in Minnetonka, Minnesota (Grower UII) was fantastic as well. Farmers rarely get the chance to learn the business skills they need in any kind of a formal manner, so kudos to Syngenta for providing this program.

In businesses like agriculture, where everything changes so fast, you can never learn too much. Smartphones and the Internet really changed how farmers go about their day-to-day lives. Twitter is a fantastic place to gather information on insect outbreaks, marketing trends, and thousands of different business ideas from thousands of different farmers.

As agriculture moves into the digital age, we have so much more to learn about, from drones to robotics to mass data collection. It is hard to foresee what the future holds ten or twenty years from now. Some futurists claim we will have artificial intelligence and nanotechnology, both of which, despite their inherent dangers, could be a revolution in agriculture.

Whatever the future may hold, it looks amazingly bright and exciting; we farmers will have to continuously learn as we go forward to try and keep up. It will be a great ride.

Advertisements

Do We Really Need Chemicals to Control Weeds?

With seeding only a mere two weeks away (ish), every farmer’s mind whirls a million miles a minute in a thousand different directions. Do I have all my seed? Did I order enough fertilizer? When will I get into the field? Is my equipment ready to go? What chemicals am I using? And this is only scratching the surface. With seeding creeping up all too quickly, focusing on one thing at a time is vital to keeping your sanity and to ensuring you have all your bases covered. Right now, I’m concentrating on what may be the most important factor in the entire growing season: controlling weeds.

That may sound a little boring, focusing on a task that has been done for thousands of years. But if you cannot keep weeds under control, the crop will simply not be successful. Moreover, controlling weeds is a complicated and frustrating task.

I will admit, when I first graduated from university in 2010, I thought weeds were easy. Just throw in some herbicides and take care of ’em! Since then, I have learned that nothing Nikon J1 251about weeds is simple. On our farm, we use herbicides as the primary tool in controlling weeds. Of course, other cultural practices are important, such as rotating crops so that no crop is planted in the same field two years in a row (3-4 years between is better), using good quality, clean seed that emerges vigorously, seeding as early as we can to give our crops a head start, ensuring the drill doesn’t have any misses or blocked rows to get the ground covered as quickly as possible, and growing competitive crops that crowd out the weeds wherever possible. Yet, the only reason these practices all work is because of the use of herbicides.

Years ago, when my father was a child, farming was very different. Herbicides were more or less non-existent, except for the old standard: 2,4-D. However, it was so expensive to use that it was really only used for patch treatments to clean up problem areas. Instead of herbicides, the main source of weed control was tillage. Ripping the ground up and leaving it black was a summer-long job for many farmers, with half the farm in this “summerfallow” and half of it seeded to crops like wheat and barley. While this practice did work to control weeds, it was very hard on the soil, causing topsoil to erode from wind and water, and microorganisms in the soil struggled to survive. The famous “Dust Bowl” of the 1930’s was largely caused by tillage. But it was all they had to control weeds; without which, agriculture was doomed.

Source: www.hgis.usask.ca
Source: http://www.hgis.usask.ca

Everything changed with the advent of glyphosate, or “Roundup”, in the 1970s. This broad-spectrum herbicide changed the world, with its ability to control dozens of weeds at relatively low doses. While it was initially used sparingly due to its high cost, as the price came down, farmers were finally able to move away from tillage and use chemicals to control weeds instead.

I realize this is a tough issue for many of you non-farmers out there. Why do we use herbicides at all? Well, the alternative is organic farming, which does not use herbicides,

Source: www.real-debt-elimination.com
Source: http://www.real-debt-elimination.com

but instead uses tillage. Please recognize that the advent of all of our herbicides in the 1980s and 1990s is the reason we are able to practice no-till, which has saved our soils in Western Canada. We rarely have to till at all anymore, which protects our fragile topsoil from the ravages of high winds and heavy rainfall. Is their a resource more precious on this Earth than our soil? Moreover, the herbicides we use are largely safe (yes, even 2,4-D) and, as long as used as directed, have never caused any known injury even to we farmers applying them.

Certainly, herbicides do have their issues. Some were shown to be toxic, but they were removed from sale years ago. All of the herbicides we use are constantly monitored and must go through stringent safety and environmental testing before they are released for

Source: www.purdue.edu
Source: http://www.purdue.edu

use. Another issue with herbicides that has cropped up in recent years is weeds’ ability to adapt to them. Unfortunately, many farmers choose to grow the same crops over and over again on the same field, using the same herbicides multiple times per year. A random weed just may happen to have a genetic mutation that allows it to survive the application. That weed survives, spreads its seeds, and grows to a larger population the next year. This can quickly spread over an entire field, or more, in just a few years. Glyphosate, one of the world’s greatest discoveries, has become ineffective in many areas because of this.

Herbicide resistance isn’t the fault of the company that produces it. Sure, they could have done a better job of explaining to farmers the risk of overapplication. The onus, however, is on the farmer. It is his/her land and that farmer should have thought about the risk of growing the same cropping system over and over again. It is an unfortunate situation.

Because of the risk of resistance, we use a lot of different herbicides on our farm. There are 20140411_164107many different “groups” of herbicides that affect plants in different ways. For example,
2,4-D is a Group 4, which basically causes the plant to grow itself to death. Grasses generally aren’t affected by it, so it can be used on crops like wheat and barley. Using this group over and over on the same field can result in the weeds adapting to it, so we rotate Group 4s with other groups, like Group 2, 6, 27 and some others. This takes careful management, but it is very effective.

Some herbicides are sprayed on top of the crop, while some are sprayed on the soil before seeding, and still others are dry products mixed into the soil in the fall before seeding. All have their fit, and using the right mixture can kill the weeds your specific fields have difficulties with.

Nikon J1 210Mother Nature has an incredible ability to adapt to whatever we throw at her, and controlling weeds is somewhat of a treadmill; every time we come up with a new way to kill them, they come up with a way to survive it. Frustratingly, they seem to slowly be winning the war, with herbicide resistance popping up more and more every year.

 

So, every spring I go through the hundreds of different products that are out there to try and determine which ones I will use that year. As I learn more and more about weeds and Nikon J1 230herbicides, I learn better ways to control them, especially the ones that plague our area, like kochia, wild oats, foxtail barley, stinkweed, Canada thistle, wild buckwheat, and many, many others. Weeds are crafty plants that always seem to find a way to overcome every hurdle you throw at it; but if we challenge them every year with different crops, different herbicides, and different ideas, we can beat them. Agriculture is all about problem solving, and coming up with new and innovative ways to reinvent the wheel. Never stop thinking and never stop learning, and you just may have a shot at making a go of this thing we call farming.

What do you think about herbicides? Should we be using them, or should we go back to tillage? Write your comments below!

 

Do Farmers Actually Work During The Winter?

There has been, and continues to be, a long-standing stereotype about what grain farmers do for the winter months. I think it can be summed up as “not a whole hell of a lot”. A great acronym a  cattle farmer once told me was that grain farmers are “Triple A Farmers” – April, August, Arizona. Meaning, you work in April through August, then go on holidays until spring comes again. While this little piece of alliteration is concise and entertaining, it is far from accurate in today’s world.

However, most stereotypes do have some rooting in truth, and this one is no different. Years ago, most farms were a mix of grain and livestock, partly to diversify their operation and partly because that’s the way it had always been done. Our farm was a grain and cattle operation once upon a time, occasionally with some chickens thrown into the mix as well. Therefore, we were always busy, throughout the growing season and the winter. Mixed farmers often looked with jealousy at straight grain farms, since these farmers didn’t have to deal with livestock throughout the winter. Looking after cattle during the winter can be exhausting, especially if your cattle calve during this cold and brutal time of year. When this was still a very prevalent phenomenon, grain farms were mostly small, and the farm was half in summerfallow (not cropped) every year. So there really wasn’t a whole lot of hauling to do in those times. Generally speaking, those farms had a pretty quiet winter.

Times have changed…

Things have changed from the old days. Today, many farms are legitimate medium-sized businesses with millions of dollars turning over every year. Moreover, farm sizes are much larger, and most areas practice continuous cropping to keep tillage to a minimum, so production is considerably greater. These factors combine to make winter a busy time on a grain farm, albeit not as busy as the growing season. If it was, farmers would be old men and women long before their time, as you can only run that kind of pace for a limited part of the year.

So… what do grain farmers do during the winter?

1. Hauling grain. In a year like this one, there was a huge volume of grain to move, with record crops filling bins, bags, and even making piles on the ground, which is good and bad (click here for more on 20140104_145702that). Most grain is actually not hauled off the combine. We usually haul around 30-50% off the combine to the elevators, depending on the year. The rest is moved throughout the following winter and summer, and for some growers, even longer than that. Hauling grain can be a real project during the winter months, with cold, snow, and winds wreaking havoc on moving highway semi trucks around on back roads and in and out of bin yards. Moving snow becomes a major part of every winter (unless there isn’t much snow) and having good snow moving machinery is vital. We still have some grain bags left to clean up, but hopefully we will get them all empty in the next month before the spring melt begins. You really don’t want to be cleaning up those things in wet, soggy fields.

2. Budgeting. Winter is the time to crunch numbers; determining the profit (or loss) from the previous year, and compiling a budget for next year’s crop to decide which crops to 20140213_144028grow and in what amount. We figure out our cropping mix based on the most profitable options and good agronomic practices. Sometimes, we have to grow a crop at a loss because our land needs it for good rotation. Even though it may cost us money this year, it will pay off in the long run. Wheat looks unprofitable this year, but it is a necessary part of our farm’s rotation, and therefore is a required crop no matter what the price is. Microsoft’s Excel program is a huge part of my life during the winter, and is where I try to calculate our farm’s input cost down to the nickel. Sometimes, our projections are wrong, so we try not to chase the market too much. Instead, we grow crops we know we can grow well and that have decent looking price prospects for next year. But, it is a total guessing game, as a weather issue anywhere in the world (or lack thereof) can change our ability to make a profit substantially.

3. Preparing equipment for spring. Our shop almost always has equipment in it, from combines to tractors to semis, where we try to do as much preventative maintenance as possible to ensure our busy season goes uninterrupted. The more our equipment is repaired during the winter, the less work we will have to do in the growing season, where finding time for preventative maintenance and repairs is almost impossible.

4. Booking and purchasing inputs. Once we have an idea of what crops we are going to grow, we pre-purchase and book the inputs we need, such as seed, fertilizer, and some chemicals. There are usually discounts for doing so.

5. Meetings. Agriculture is an industry that changes faster than I can even keep up with, 20140121_101340so going to winter meetings to keep with new agronomic, marketing and business trends is a must. I had the good fortune of attending Bayer CropScience’s inaugural Agronomy Summit in Banff back in November, and I had the pleasure of attending Syngenta’s Grower University at the Richard Ivey School of Business in January. Both were excellent and extraordinary learning experiences that I will benefit from for many years to come (more on those later).

6. Marketing. Don’t let it fool you that this is last on this list. This is the most important job of the winter, and ties together budgeting, hauling grain, and pre-purchasing inputs. 20140213_133226The more accurate our budget is, the better we know what price we need to sell at to achieve a profit. We also need to know what our cash flow needs are to ensure we can sell grain at the right times to get our bills paid. Furthermore, we have to be able to actually get the grain moved to get our contracts filled, so keeping an eye on trucking capabilities is vital as well. Finally, after all these needs are met, we try to sell grain at the right times to capture a good price. Our goal is to sell into the top third of the market, which is harder than you might think. Markets sometimes fluctuate wildly for seemingly no reason at all, depending on the moods and intentions of large hedge funds and other speculators.

Winter is a time spent in three main spots: the semi, the shop, and the computer. Each of these tasks is equally important to make sure all the work gets done right and on time.

However, winter isn’t all about work. Despite how busy it can be, there is a lot of downtime, too. This is why most of our holidays are during the winter months. The growing season is immensely busy and stressful, and winter brings a slowdown in the workload. It is a time to visit family and friends, a time for (some) needed rest and relaxation, and a time for fun. Despite the cold and the snow, winter is a wonderful time to be on the Prairies, with gorgeous sunrises and sunsets, beautiful landscapes and busy small-town rinks with curling, hockey and snowmobiling.

20140213_081827

Spring will come sooner than we are ready for, as it always does. There is a stirring of excitement brewing in the Prairies; winter is beginning to lose its grip on us, and, even though it is more than a month away yet, spring is coming. Until then, I am going to enjoy the rest of winter, from the short days and quiet weekends to curling and snowmobiling; winter is a wonderful time of the year, and it often goes by too fast (except for last year, that is). And, of course, I will be enjoying watching the Winter Olympics. Good luck Team Canada!