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 that). 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 grow 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, so 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. The 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.
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!