Seeding 2015 Has So Far Been An Odd Experience

Ever since I became involved in the farm, seeding has been an endurance test. You push every hour of every day in the fight against time to try and hammer a crop in the ground. If you Seeding 2014 072delay, if you hold back, you will regret it – and the farm will suffer for it. Every spring since 2009 has been wet, cold and generally hostile to planting quickly and properly. The key to surviving these years has been to have a lot of equipment, a lot of people, and simplified crop plans to try and plant as quickly and efficiently as possible.

2015 could not be more different. Spring so far has been warm, dry and generally pretty pleasant. Sure, there has been cold, and no shortage of wind (surprise, surprise), but this spring has been very conducive to quick planting. We started seeding on one of our earliest dates ever, April 23rd, and have now seeded two thirds of our crop (that does include winter wheat). To be this far into seeding this early is unprecedented in my father’s career.

Previous years have certainly changed our planting model. When I started becoming involved with the farm back in the late 2000’s, we had one 60 foot-wide air drill to seed over 9,000 acres. We ran it hard and only stopped for a few hours during the night, and since it was drier then, we could quite reasonably do that with low risk of problems. Now, we have more than doubled our drill size and only moderately expanded our acres to seed. Any day that we can possibly consider seeding, we go, and we go hard. Not being ready or having mechanical breakdowns is not an option. We have been groomed to plant a crop as quickly as possible, and any mistakes we make, rain can be counted on to fix.

While we still have a great deal of moisture saved up in our soil profile, and the sloughs are still very full, we are in a dry bias. We now have to consider making a paradigm shift in our entire seeding strategy; slowing down. If we plant too much too early, we run the risk of a frost crippling our crop. If we push too hard and make mistakes, we may not longer be able to count on a rain coming along to save us. Fertilizer placement and seeding depth are now critical issues; if we plant too shallow, and not hit moisture, we rely on rain coming along to get the crop germinated. What if it doesn’t rain for a few weeks?  Sure, there is moisture underneath, but if that seed does not sense water around it, it simply will not start growing, and that subsoil moisture will be useless.

On the other hand, if we plant too deep and it does rain hard, we run the risk of the crop not breaking through the surface and going into secondary dormancy. How do we make this choice? We don’t know what the weather will do. Our soil type is very prone to crusting, and if we seed our canola too deep, we could lose it; but if it doesn’t germinate due to dried-out topsoil, we can lose it that way too. Any mistakes we make, or the electronics or hydraulics make, can seriously bite us in the future when we can’t rely on a rain.

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Cute little canola seedlings trying to get started in a dry seedbed.

It’s an odd feeling to worry over dryness when all I have done over the past 6-7 years is worry over saturation. The reality is that any small rain will get the crop going, and once those roots hit that subsoil moisture, we will be in good shape. Yesterday we may have gotten that; depending on the field, we got anywhere from 4-7 millimeters of rain, which although is quite minor, may just be enough to get germination.

What we need to do now is slow down and ensure everything we do is perfect. No mistakes can go on for long. When moisture is limited, you do whatever you can to conserve it and give your crop the best chance you can.

Of course, this sounds good in principle. But after years of pushing yourself to the point of exhaustion every single day to endeavor to plant every acre you can, it is very difficult to shed that mindset. You don’t need to run ridiculous hours. You don’t need to try and plant the entire crop in a week and a half. However, you do need to do the job right. There is no job we do all year that is more important to do perfectly than this one. There are no second chances.

Despite my concerns about the early calendar date and the drying topsoil, this is a wonderful change of pace from the last few years. The crops has been going into beautiful seedbed conditions, without being hammered by inches of rain every couple of weeks, with warm, cozy soil around them. We aren’t exhausted, seeding until midnight and starting again in the early hours of the morning, desperately trying to seed as many acres per day as humanly possible. As long as we get some timely rains, this is already shaping up to at least be a much less stressful year than we have seen in some time. We’ve had time to fix mechanical problems without pulling our hair out, we’ve had time to run some trials, and we’ve been able to check our work as we go – all very important components to proper seeding that have been avoided the past few years for lack of time to do them.

The next month and a half will be critical to the success of this year’s planting endeavor. We may finish seeding in a week or so, but we will be nervously looking at the nighttime temperatures and topsoil moisture. Will we get enough to get the crop growing? And, if we do, will it survive a month that often brings with it some awfully cold nights?

Whatever the case may be, I will say one thing: this drier, warmer spring? I think I like it.


Seeding Draws to a Close for Leguee Farms

It is often said that the hardest things in life are the most rewarding. That nothing good comes easy.

I hope they’re right, because 2014’s planting season was anything but easy.

The long, drawn out affair that was #plant14 has finally drawn to a close for Leguee Farms. It was a season full of challenges; from the frustrations of setting up a new drill, to the apprehension and anger over rain that just wouldn’t quit, this year’s seeding operation was difficult, discouraging and nerve-wracking, to say the least.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the wet weather cycle we were in started to fade, giving us the window we needed to finish seeding. A severe storm on the 26th of May stopped us for quite some time, and even when we did get back to the field, we were shocked at just how wet it was. While the surface was hard and fairly dry, digging even a quarter of an inch down yielded soggy, sticky mud. Seeding into these conditions is something we generally try to avoid; mud sticks to the openers, plugging them constantly, and one slip of the tractor tires can get you into trouble awfully quickly. Furthermore, our heavier soils tend to solidify if disturbed while they are wet, which often can severely compromise a plant’s ability to punch through and survive.

Nevertheless, the calendar and the forecast forced us to seed anyway, as June had already begun. We had no choice but to try and plant what we could. After all, we have been forced to do this for the past 4 years, so I suppose we really shouldn’t be all that surprised anymore!Seeding 2014 058

We pushed to finish seeding as quickly as we could, with even more rain just around the corner. The arithmetic was really quite simple: we had only a few days to seed 30% of the crop, a truly insurmountable task for the equipment we have. So, with the knowledge that we would likely be shut down once again, we drove on, trying to seed every acre we could before the next rain.

The rain began all too soon for us. Although we had managed to finally finish seeding our canola and durum (4 of 7 crops completed), over 1,300 acres still remained to go in the ground. I think the biggest frustration was something that every farmer has experienced some time or another; we were shut down on attempt #2 to finish our final soybean field. We just could not get that field finished! Sometimes, a field just happens to be in the storm track, and you can’t miss a single rain.

More rain fell after that, delaying us further, and a cursory glance at the calendar was all it took to realize our time was running out all too quickly. At that point, you begin to do some math. If we don’t get field X seeded, what will happen? What if we can’t get the flax in? What will happen with our production contracts? Will we still have a chance at a profitable year? And on, and on. Even the most optimistic farmer entertains the thought of the probability of unseeded acres.

But then, seemingly out of nowhere, the fields dried up (kind of- at least enough to seed) Seeding 2014 028and we were back out there again. With the equipment we have now, seeding that last 1,300 acres went pretty fast, first with the cursed soybean field, then the wheat, and finally, as of Saturday afternoon, only one field of flax remained. We seeded all day yesterday, and literally one hour from finishing the field, we got rained out. I couldn’t believe it!

This morning, we officially wrapped up seeding for 2014. Yes, there are still some low spots to seed, and yes, we probably won’t have everything cleaned up for a few days, but I’m calling it here- we are finished seeding!

The drill is finally parked!
The equipment is finally parked!

The completion of seeding always brings a mixed bag of emotions. Relief is the main one. Knowing that the crop is in the ground is an incredible feeling, but it comes slowly. Today, Nikon J1 251it is still sinking in, and I think it will be a few days before I can really relax. The unfortunate thing about finishing seeding so late is that there really is no celebration. There is no time to take a few days off, no time to sit and reflect on what has been accomplished. No, in-crop herbicide spraying has already begun, and just as fast as seeding is over, another marathon begins. There is a mountain of data from the controllers on the drills to sort through, Crop and Hail Insurance forms to fill out and send away, quarterly cash flow analysis to go over, and tons of yard work to do.

Yes, completing seeding is a wonderful feeling. But when it happens so late in the season, the marathon only slows down- it doesn’t end. Not yet, anyway. That day will come when the combines are cleaned up and put away and the first blanket of snow graces the landscape. I’m not ready for that anyway. Despite the exhaustion, the frayed nerves, and the now-empty bank account, I’m excited for the next stage of the season. We have arrived at what truly is my favorite time of the year: in-crop herbicide timing!

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The Farm Life is a Wonderful Life

If you have read my previous post (The Marathon Concludes… For Now), you know that seeding has been completed and we are well into in-crop spraying. This is a fascinating and exciting time of the year, in which we get to watch the crops we so carefully tried to plant come to life. Each field has its own personality; a visual depiction of the clay, sand and silt that is visible to the naked eye, and the incredible myriad of the microbiological ecosystems that thrive beyond our sight. Every crop, every field and every plant all provide clues with which to diagnose and analyze the sometimes confusing, but always interesting world of plant and microbiological life, and the relationships contained therein. The incredible diversity of the living things present in our soils becomes visible in every plant we grow.

Perhaps this all sounds a little over the top, maybe even a little on the nerdy side. But I have found in my life thus far that if you do not have something that you are so passionate about that you can go on about it the way that I have been, you are missing something vital to your happiness. It doesn’t have to be something as possibly obscure as plant life. Perhaps it is machinery, engines and things that move; perhaps it is books and stories of great and terrible deeds; maybe it is music and the creation of it; or maybe it is something much greater, like the love of another human being; a wife, a husband, a son, a daughter, a mother, or quite fittingly on this day, a father. Life is a wonderful thing, and if you are bored with it, you insult all that was given to you. Find your passion and let it consume you, whatever it may be. Just always remember that the first love must always be the things that truly matter. On that note, happy Father’s Day to my dad, the best man I have ever known, who taught me the difference between right and wrong, and that every action has a consequence that you must always be prepared for. I will never forget the life lessons he taught me.

Maybe this is all a little to deep for a post about a year in the life of a farmer, but if you believe that then maybe you don’t know farmers as well as you should. We get to walk out our front doors every morning and see the beauty of the world unfold in front of our eyes. We know what true silence sounds like, often on those nights so black you can’t see your hand in front of your face. Or sometimes when the sky is lit up like a brilliant mosaic of colours and light, with every star like a shot of brightness in the darkest night. Perhaps it may be on the night that the flickering arms of the Northern Lights reach across the sky, fingers outstretched as if reaching for something out there in the atmosphere that is just out of its reach, so close and yet so far from its brilliant green fingertips. Like I did the other night, when we were on our daunting and exhausting marathon. I had been up for 20 hours, running on only 3 hours of sleep and knowing that the following night would be just as short. I was loading the liquid fertilizer truck with nitrogen and sulfur in the pitch black of the night. When you load up with liquid fertilizer, it takes time as the pump has to deliver nearly 6,000 gallons of product up onto a trailer; it just is not that fast. As I waited for it to load, I saw the most brilliant Northern Lights show I had seen in years. When you have seen these things, and when you can just sit and watch them, sometimes you have a moment of clarity, a brief handful of seconds in which you see that we are indeed so very, very small.

As farmers, we get to experience incredible views like this frequently, and yet we still so often do not truly appreciate the majesty of what we are seeing. For instance, the sunrises and sunsets in Saskatchewan are truly a beautiful thing to watch, quite likely the most colorful in the world. And yet, most days I do not notice it. Sometimes you have to force yourself to just take a minute and watch; but in our busy lives, this can be difficult to do.

I hadn’t really intended to write about this subject today. In fact, I have a whole other subject to discuss. However, for today, maybe this will be enough. Funny how the mind goes off on a tangent. If you let it, you might be amazed where it will take you.

Going forward, I will continue to update you on our progress. We have had windy, wet weather for most days since my last post, so spraying has not advanced much. This will be a busy spraying week, in which we intend to spray the rest of our durum, our peas, and likely our soybeans again. We need to accomplish all of this before Farm Progress Show on Thursday (that is the day we are going to go). Hopefully the weather cooperates!

Furthermore, I hope that you will have interest in the posts that will come specifically about each crop. I am enjoying writing this blog, and maybe you will derive something of interest for you from it. Thank you for reading so far! One stage of the crop year is over, and another has begun.

Prepped, Primed & Ready to Go

As I compose this blog on the evening of Mother’s Day, more crosses my mind than just the farm, and the seeding operation that is set to commence. My parents gave me life, morals, and standards which I now live by, and are largely the reason I am where I am today. I owe more to them than I could ever hope to repay. Someday, I hope to be able to provide these things to a child (or children) of my own.

The air drills sit in our binyard ready to go to the field. We did a great deal of work to get them ready this year, and we even rented a new tractor to help get us through the spring seeding season. The sprayer sits in the shed, also ready to go, as well as our other major pieces of equipment. We are ready to begin seeding.

Tomorrow, we will load and calibrate the drills and take them to the first field, located around our home yard. This will give us an opportunity to test everything and make sure no major problems are going to pop up. Usually, the first day or two of seeding is slow, as the machinery usually has some issues, and it does take some time for everybody to get into the right mindset. By Wednesday, we should be going full out, with 10,000 acres to plant, hopefully completed by early June.

Right now, I feel a mix of emotions, as my excitement for the growing season juxtaposes my knowledge of how dearly I enjoy getting a good night’s sleep, which will be non-existent for me for the next while. Mostly, though, I am excited to get to the field and get this crop in the ground.

We went for a ride on our quads (ATVs) today to check some fields and roads and see how the water is running. There are big spots of water (as would be expected, since winter ended two weeks ago), but for the most part the fields are quite dry. Yes, I will admit, we will need a rain- but not for awhile. An inch of rain in 2-3 weeks from now would be wonderful, but Mother Nature plays by her own rules. For now, the focus will be on seeding, spraying and fieldwork, trying our damndest to get this crop in the soil in the best way possible. The quality of the job we do in the next few weeks will determine how the 2013 crop year plays out, and may well determine our financial success in the years to come.

When you plant millions of dollars in the ground and ask Mother Nature to help you out, you are taking a risk. A big one. I am well aware of this, and it does add to the pressure to not make mistakes. Errors can be extremely costly when you are spending $50,000 per day. A simple mistake in seeding at an improper depth, spraying the wrong herbicide on the wrong field, or forgetting to close the tank lid on the seed/fertilizer cart can be devastating in some scenarios.

But, I try to put that aside, and do my job to the best of my ability. Unfortunately, sometimes that comes at the expense of safety, as I learned yesterday when I accidentally sprayed myself directly in the eye with seed treatment. Yes, it is a dangerous substance, and I should have been wearing safety glasses; or at least glasses instead of contacts. But no, I had to pull out my contact and wash my eye immediately to prevent possible damage. These products protect the seed against seed and soil borne diseases and insects, but they are mildly dangerous. Care must be taken against mistakes like this, and against all the other hazards that heavy machinery, toxic chemicals, and a general lack of sleep can cause.

Finally, I cannot forget that my wife needs to have a husband around sometimes too. Right now, she is wondering when I will be coming to bed, as I instead type away on a computer alone. Relationships can be difficult to maintain when you are not around very much. But she understands that this is a critical season for us, and I think she understands how important this life is to me- because I think it’s important to her as well. But she will always come first.

Tomorrow, seeding begins. Talk to you soon.