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!

Grain Bags in January – What Could Be More Fun?

20140104_131641 (1)January. The first true month of winter, a time to see the spectacular views of lovely, snow covered streets and roads; a time to enjoy a hot chocolate on a horse-drawn sleigh; a time to enjoy the wonderful season that we call winter on the prairies.

Yeah, right.

Maybe instead, January is a month of cold and snow, a month to avoid the outdoors wherever possible, instead hiding inside to avoid the frigid temperatures and brutal winds; indeed, January is a month to try and spend indoors, praying that the furnace doesn’t fail and water pipes don’t freeze.

As I write this, the temperature outside is a chilling -32 degrees Celsius. However, add in the so-called “wind chill” of a 44 km/hr wind, and it feels like a brutal -52 degrees outside. Fortunately, today is Sunday, so there is no compelling reason to leave the house.

First, I might point out that today is not an anomaly; it has been an exceptionally cold start to winter (which began in mid-November), with December being a dreadfully cold month, and January proving to be no better so far. We have a fair amount of snow, although I don’t believe it is abnormal by any means. And I should also point out that we do usually experience weather like this during our winters in Saskatchewan, but just not usually for this long of a stretch at a time. Nevertheless, this is life on the Western Prairies, and we just have to deal with it.

Hauling grain in this weather is not exactly the first idea of what I want to do on days like this. However, in their typical fashion, the grain companies we contracted wheat and canola through suddenly decided they all wanted their grain at once, starting Thursday of last week. Now, it was not horribly cold at the time, so we started hauling, extracting from grain bags.

Source: www.agri-tec.com
Source: http://www.agri-tec.com

Extracting grain bags is an interesting task. As much as we can, we store our grain inside bins, such as the large steel cylinders you see at the top of this page. Bins are, unfortunately, quite expensive, so we can only store so much in them. We usually haul a lot of grain off the combines to the grain handling facilities, such as the one to the right (Weyburn Inland Terminal – one of the largest of its kind in Canada). If you have read some of my other posts, you may recall that we had the crop of a lifetime this year. Well, so did the rest of Western Canada, so moving it is a challenge (more on that later). So, with no bins or elevators to haul to, we stored our grain in bags.

Harvest 069These 200-300 foot long plastic bags can hold a lot of grain and they are easy to fill. You simply dump grain into the “bagger” which pushes it into the bag. The bag then fills as it is pushed off of the bagger, a little bit at a time. Once filled, the end is tied up and the bag is left for later. As you might expect, animals can be an issue with them, tearing holes and eating grain out of it, walking along the top and punching holes, and generally wreaking havoc. For this reason, we try to empty the bags before spring. Otherwise, they can tear open and can be brutal to clean up.

20140104_145702We are in the process of extracting the bags, which involves a contraption with a knife to slice the bag open, a caged auger inside the bag to remove grain from it, and an auger to move the grain into a semi. It all works quite well, assuming wildlife hasn’t mauled the bags too badly, and assuming the extractor runs straight down the bag. In the winter, it becomes more challenging, such as the past two days, when heavy winds and snow came in just in time for us to be extracting. You can imagine how annoying wind is on a large plastic bag. Visibility on the roads was very poor from the blowing snow, and they quickly became difficult to drive on, with large snow drifts all over them. Semi trucks are designed for clean highways, not snow-drift covered roads.

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Looks like fun, right?

Nonetheless, we emptied the bags yesterday, in a -45 degree wind chill afternoon. We had to push the snow out from the bags and back roads again, thanks to the lovely winds. 20140104_133205Although difficult, cold and sometimes painful (Google “frostbite”), there is a certain sense of pride that comes from having “beaten” Mother Nature at her worst, knowing that despite the cold, wind and snow, you were able to get the work done. There’s just something about going out into the worst of winter, toughing it out and getting the work done, that is somehow kind of satisfying.

Well, there is more grain to haul and more bags to extract, so hopefully winter will ease off! Otherwise, it is going to be a long wait until spring.

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!