The Marathon Concludes… For Now

It was a long road. Sometimes exhilarating, often frustrating, and consistently exhausting, the 2013 planting season has finally drawn to a close. It is Thursday, June 13, and we “officially” finished seeding two days ago. Today, we fired up a drill again to seed some lower areas of a field that we could not previously get into, but I still consider our seeding season to be finished.

It has been awhile since I have been able to find time to post. My last post was two weeks ago, after a significant rainfall event stopped our drills in their tracks. Indeed, it could have been worse, as I indicated in my last post; but perhaps I didn’t realize just how difficult that rain would make the rest of our seeding operation. We started up again on the Tuesday of that week, June 4th, to exceptionally wet field conditions. I worked the field first with our vertical tillage machine, branded a Salford RTS, a 40 foot-wide tool that combines wavy, vertical discs with long teeth and basket-like harrows on the back (see image).Image

This machine, while expensive to buy and to operate, works wonders on wet fields. Although we as a rule avoid tillage as much as possible, this machine has been a Godsend for getting us into wet fields. This machine is driven across a field at 8-11 MPH (the track tractor makes this a much smoother operation), flinging up soil behind it and thereby mixing it with the straw left over from last year’s crop,

Despite the effectiveness of this machine, the field was still very wet to try and seed. We left about 25% of it unseeded, which is why we are going back now to seed those previously wet areas. You might wonder why we just didn’t wait longer to start, letting the field dry further. Unfortunately, with still 30% of the crop left to seed and a forecast for significant rain for the weekend, we simply could not wait any longer. June 15th is our deadline for coverage by Saskatchewan Crop Insurance, so we needed to make sure the crop was in before that, otherwise it just becomes too risky. The odds of a frost in early fall ruining the crop becomes too high, and without insurance, it is just not worth it.

So, we fought through the mud, hoping that the canola (this was the crop we were seeding in this field) would be able to penetrate the soil after the packer wheels run over it. You see, if it is too wet, when the opener lays the seed in the furrow and the packer wheel seals the soil over it the ground may become too hard, and the crop may not have enough power to punch through it. If it cannot penetrate the soil surface, it will run out of nutrients and die. We farm heavier clay-type soils, so this is a risk that is very real for us.

Nevertheless, we pushed on, finishing that field the next day. We then attempted to seed the final field of canola, a large 1,000 acre block of multiple quarters. Frustratingly, this field was even wetter than the last one! We came close to giving up on that field that day. It was very tough going; and besides, what is the point of investing $150/acre of seed, fertilizer, fuel and repairs into soil that may not even allow crop emergence?

The decision we came to was a compromise. We sent our hoe drill, the John Deere, back to durum, of which we had about one day of seeding left. The other drill, the independent opener SeedMaster, stayed on the field to try and finish canola.This is a big field for that 40 foot drill, and we hoped that this would allow the field to dry down as we went. Luckily, this turned out to be the right decision. We ran the SeedMaster almost all day and all night, allowing ourselves only three hours of sleep each night for three nights in a row. Conditions improved, and seeding on this field actually progressed quite well. Below is a picture of the SeedMaster early in the morning on Friday, June 7th:

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We finished seeding this field that day, which almost felt like finishing seeding entirely. However, during the SeedMaster’s marathon, the John Deere had a good run as well. It finished the durum on Wednesday and switched to Hard Red Spring Wheat (HRSW). There was still 1,500 acres to go of that crop yet, and the anticipated weekend rain was coming all too quickly. But there are only so many hours in the day, and everybody still needs at least some sleep, so we could only do what we could do. On Friday, the SeedMaster rejoined the John Deere to try and finish the HRSW, and thereby finish seeding.

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We went late that Friday night, working until the early hours of the morning. When you are that short on sleep, sometimes it is hard to stop yourself from nodding off. Somehow, though, we managed, and we finished the field. We moved to the final field that night, preparing for one more night without much sleep, ready for the last big push of the season.

Saturday morning arrived… and it was wet… kind of. It was one of those annoying days that doesn’t really rain, it just spits and mists and makes you wonder all day if you could be seeding. Finally, it did actually rain, so I spent most of the day sleeping! Sunday it rained again in a quick thunderstorm. The first rain we didn’t mind; but the second one we most definitely did not need. Altogether, throughout the weekend we got about 3/4 of an inch of rain, which was enough to stop us until Monday night. We fired up again and finally completed seeding!

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One frustrating fact about finishing this late is that there is no celebration; no day off, not even time for a drink with the family to celebrate. No, we have already started in-crop spraying. It is an exciting time of the year for an agronomist/farmer like me, but it means that there will be no time off. We have spraying to do, crop and hail insurance forms to complete, and data to retrieve and analyze from the drill tractors. The work continues on, and will continue on until winter. That is the nature of farming; and I would not have it any other way.

Could’ve Been Worse

The rain event we needed came on Monday. The rain event we needed to avoid came on Thursday.

Yes, the rain that was forecast reared its ugly head early Thursday afternoon. Accumulation expectations varied, but most seemed to be in that 2-3 inch range, with more expected for Monday. Indeed, the outlook was nothing short of grim, with soil that was already saturated incapable of supporting another deluge of rain, thoughts quickly turned to the horrible poundings of rain that slammed us in 2011. Rains that washed out roads, flooded basements, and all but wiped out whatever crops that were in the fields.

The reality was surprisingly positive. Before the rain occurred yesterday, the rains forecast for Monday/Tuesday were backed off to just a chance of showers, which was a big relief. And, now that all is said and done and the rain is finished today, we ended up with a grand total of “only” 1.2 inches of rain. Hardly the amount feared, but still not an insignificant number. Certainly, it was enough to flood out some crops, make the roads wet and sloppy, and will generally make future seeding difficult, but it was not the downpour that was feared. Furthermore, after the rain ended this morning, the sun came out and the wind picked up (a lot), quickly moving water off of many spots in the fields. Things are not as bad as was feared, and it appears that, with the present forecast, we may be back in the fields early in the week. With the calendar flipping to June tomorrow, this is an excellent development, as we may yet be able to finish seeding before the tenth of June.

In a side note, the psychological aspect of farming in this area of the world has been fundamentally altered. For decades, the greatest fear was not getting the rains when they are most needed. Memories of the 1980’s are still fresh in many farmers’ minds, including my father’s. However, we have been in a wet cycle for many years now, in which rain falls in inches rather than tenths of an inch, and farmers now worry about excess moisture rather than missing it. At least, we younger ones do, the ones that didn’t farm in the 80’s. For those that did, drought is an ever-present fear, one that I believe haunts them to their very core. They say that the 80’s were likely worse than the Dirty 30’s; the dust bowl that decimated the prairie landscape, that still leaves scars today in the topsoil piled up in old fencelines. Better farming practices, including conservation tillage made possible by pesticides, were all that held off the horrid dust storms that plagued my grandparents’ homes. My father’s father experienced this firsthand, including the hunger that went with it; they spent many days waiting for the trains to bring food relief. In fact, as my father tells me, my grandfather never even owned shoes, instead saving all the money they could to purchase winter boots. I cannot imagine a time like this; nor do I believe can anyone else in this part of the world.

In reflection of such a terrible time in this province’s history, perhaps our wet cycle isn’t so bad. Cattle aren’t starving to death, we are still getting by, and our homes aren’t caked with dirt. Excess rainfall is frustrating, expensive and difficult, but at least we aren’t choking on dust.

One positive development out of this rain was that I was able to take my wife out to the city for dinner and a movie for her 25th birthday. Since her birthday is in May, it often gets missed out on, which is unfortunate and unfair. She keeps me sane, protecting me from the stress and frustration farming often brings, even if she doesn’t realize it. I am so lucky to have her as my wife.

Being stopped for a couple of days has given us time to evaluate our marketing position as well, which caused us to make new-crop sales of canola and durum to ensure we can make our cash-flow commitments in the fall. Growing the crop is only part of running a business like this. Marketing and finance are vital aspects of the operation that too often get overlooked. This is something I am working on improving, which has led to a massive set of Excel spreadsheets to track every cost and income on this farm. Knowing our cost of production down to the penny has been a huge benefit to us, and we can still do better.

Now that the feared weather event has passed by, we can focus on getting back in the field and finishing seeding. It is time for it to be wrapping up, and I look forward to getting back out there. Maybe Monday will be a go. We will see.

The Swinging of the Pendulum

The rain I have been waiting for has arrived. Yesterday morning I awoke at my usual time, 5:15 am, to get ready to go spraying. As was usual of late, waking up that early was not easy; we had been going very hard the past two weeks, and 5 hours of sleep had become the norm. I woke up to an unusually dark bedroom. I stepped out into the kitchen and lo! it had rained! It was still raining! The soft pitter patter of raindrops bouncing off the roof and the deck, which lay before the kitchen window, was like the sound of Bach No. 1 playing softly through my stereo.

This rain has been looked for for quite a few days, with most of the crop not yet germinating; its soil just too dry to support water imbibition. Indeed, as I explained in my last post, we needed a rain, and if we had gone through this week without one, we would have been worried. In fact, this was the first shot of precipitation on most of our land since the snow on May 1st (see “Winter Returns”). That is an abnormally dry May, by a long shot.

Throughout the day on Monday we received a total of 9 tenths of rain. I realize that living in Canada should mean that I should say we received 23 mm of rain, but we still measure it in inches here for the most part. Anyway, it came down lightly and slowly, allowing for maximum soil absorption and less chance of crusting off the topsoil. It really was an ideal moisture event.

Yes, if you were expecting a “but” to come in here somewhere, you’d be right. I know, typical farmer, always finding a reason to complain. But if you give me a moment, I think I can explain my concerns to you in a non-complaining fashion.

You see, while this rain was nice, it is still the 28th of May. We still have a third of the crop to put in, which will take approximately one week. Our time window is tightening. We still have more than half of our most economically important crop to seed yet: canola. Seeding this crop late often has significant yield repercussions. It is looking more and more like this will be the case.

The forecast does not look good. After a rain like this, sun and heat are what we need. Instead, we are receiving cool, showery weather for the better part of the 7-day forecast. Worse yet, we may be in the unfortunate position of receiving 2-3 inches of moisture from Thursday to Friday. That would set us back heavily, keeping us out of the field for days and hurting the crops that are currently in.

Since 2010, we seem to swing from one extreme to the other, from wet to dry to wet to dry, with wet dominating. We cannot seem to break from this frustrating weather pattern. Our land cannot handle such downpours of rain. It is too flat, too heavy (clay) and too saline to effectively allow precipitation like this to drain away quickly. Rains like this can cause severe damage, and not just to our crops. Flooding is a very real possibility, which affects us all.

Perhaps I am being too overdramatic. This is after all only a forecast, which are known to be wrong (often) and we do not yet know what effect a rain like this would have. Time will tell. I can assure you of one thing: when we can get back into the fields, it will be an around the clock endeavor. Time will not be on our side; and the pendulum has swung away from the dry cycle we were in. Rain will be our enemy now.

The Rain Conundrum

We have now reached the 2/3rds mark on our seeding progress. I feel that this is acceptable, given that we only started seeding two weeks ago, but I can’t help but feel that it could be better. This feeling is of course unfounded, as there are only so many hours in a day; sleep needs to be a part of life too. This is an activity that has been in short supply. I have not gotten more than five to five and a half hours of sleep per night for two weeks now. For someone that is used to seven to nine hours, this is a bit of a shock. Interestingly, despite the difficulty in getting out of bed in the morning, I seem to be handling it relatively well. We will see what another week brings.

With two thirds of the crop in, two crops out of the way (the peas and soybeans are finished) and one more almost completed (durum), I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. We are getting close. One more week should finish it off. We still have half the canola and the spring wheat to seed, but these will go quickly. 

Not everything has gone on without a hitch. Seeding rate problems in our soybeans cost us thousands of dollars in little more than a few hours, and inoculant rate problems gave us trouble as well. It is impossible to know what the full ramifications of these issues will be until the crop is out of the ground, but suffice to say that yield will likely be affected. 

The seeding rate problem in the soybeans was a simple yet difficult issue. You see, every time you change crops, you must calibrate the metering rollers (long cylinders with notches in them that are run at a set speed for a given rate) in the touchscreen monitors in the tractor cab. 99% of the time, this results in the product or seed being metered at the proper rate. Sometimes, unfortunately, something goes wrong, and the rate turns out to be wrong. Rarely, however, does it turn out to be as wrong as in our soybeans this year. We wanted to seed them at 60 pounds per acre, and calibrated for that. The result was that they went down at 100 pounds per acre. This may not seem like a big deal, but these soybeans cost $100 per acre at 60 pounds per acre. The math is hurtful.

Once the tank went empty, the problem was identified and fixed. But money was still lost. This is farming in the 21st century; tiny mistakes cost big dollars. The pressure on us to get everything right the first time has never been higher, and even the most sophisticated computer software cannot completely eliminate human error. Lack of sleep exacerbates this issue.

Usually in the inexorable march through the acres, a rain or two will shut everything down for a couple of days. This has yet to happen; which is nice in that seeding is progressing quickly, particularly given the late start this year, but a fear is growing in the back of my mind.

A month ago, nay three weeks ago, snow was still a major part of our landscape. We worried that we would not get our crop in due to snow and water persisting well into June. Even a week ago, snowbanks still sat tall in the yards and sloughs. Now, it is dry. Quite dry. Concern gnaws at the back of my mind, waiting for the day when the first rain will come, knowing that we have not had moisture since that ugly day of snow in the beginning of the month. That was not the concern then.

Today, we have a great deal of our acres seeded, and many of our crops sit in the ground, waiting for a rain before they will germinate. While this is not an unusual amount of time to wait for a rain, we do need one- and soon. The hundreds of thousands of dollars we have sown into the soil will not be returned to us without rain. Yet, it is still late, and we do need to avoid delays to ensure the crop goes in on time. It is somewhat of a conundrum. Nevertheless, we need it, and although the forecast calls for it, that is no guarantee. Let me just say this: if it has not rained by this time next week, I will be worried. 

Back to the grind tomorrow. Hopefully the wind stays down so I can try and catch up with spraying. It has been a windy week of 40 km/hr gusts every day (I am not exaggerating) and I am sick of it. This windy province has been too damn windy lately. It’s exhausting, not to mention its frustrating barricade against the sprayer.

Talk to you soon.

Seeding Progresses…

It is 10:45 at night and I have just had supper, so I will make this short. Seeding is progressing fairly well, with the half-way point at hand. Tomorrow we will cross the half-way mark of the 2013 seeding season after a little more than a week of seeding. This progress is impressive, but we actually were a little faster last year, so I cannot help but feel that we can do better. Tomorrow we will finish our soybeans, and the day after our peas will also be completed. If things continue at the rate they are currently progressing, by early next week we should have our canola completed as well, leaving only the remaining durum acres and our spring wheat.

If you would have asked me 3 weeks ago if I thought we would be half-done by the 22nd of May, I would have laughed. 3 weeks ago, the ground was still white! Today, unbelievably, we are wishing for rain. What we have seeded is quite dry now, and most of our crop has yet to show its face. Every day seems to be warm, dry, and windy, which we were once happy about, but are now beginning to become concerned. We did get a rain on Monday, but unfortunately the ground we have seeded basically missed it. Ironically, the only fields that did get a significant amount of rain are fields that are not seeded yet.

The wind is becoming frustrating not only because of its drying effect on the soil (and on ourselves!) but because it is seriously disrupting our spraying. Generally, you must spray a field before or immediately after you seed it to take care of weeds before your crop comes up. Weeds can have a devastating effect on the success of your crop; and for some uncompetitive crops with limited chemical options, like peas and lentils, they can literally wipe a crop out. Therefore, completing spraying pre-emergence (called “burn-off”) is vital to the success of the growing season. Very windy days keep the sprayer parked because the spray simply will be blown away before it reaches the ground. Too many days like this in a row can really disrupt our ability to stay ahead of the crops (and the weeds).

Still, we are keeping up (barely) and we may be able to more or less finish seeding within the first week of June. This would be nothing short of outstanding progress, considering the very late start. Indeed, it may have been our latest start ever, and we will be able to finish seeding at quite an average time of the year. This is, of course, assuming there are no major breakdowns and no major rain events. Hopefully we do get some rain, though, or our best efforts of getting the crop in quickly will be in vain. Waiting for that first rain is always very stressful. A lot of money has been planted in the ground, and it could all go to waste simply by missing a couple of key rains.

But enough of that worry for tonight. The goal right now is to get the crop in and get it sprayed with as few mistakes as possible. This may seem like a bit of an oxymoron, as the harder you go, the less sleep you get, and the less sleep you get, the more mistakes you make. But this is a fact of life of Prairie dryland farming.

Tomorrow we will try to post some big acres and get our soybeans planted. Wish us luck!