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.

John Deere 4940

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.

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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.

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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!