The Harvest of a Lifetime

If I could sum up the 2013 growing season in one word, it would be this: rollercoaster. As I look back to my very first blog post on April 18 of this year, it’s hard to believe what came from such a crazy start to this growing season. We had snow until late May, heavy, pounding rains that disrupted seeding and caused severe flooding in our crops, and we had the constant threat of storms and frost hanging over our heads for the entire summer. This season has been so full of ups and downs and twists and turns that it still makes my head spin. Despite all of the hardship, frustration, devastation, anxiety and fear I have experienced over the past 7 months, and the very real risk of severe economic trauma to this farm and my family, we may just have harvested our biggest and most profitable crop ever.

A Spring from Hell

I took this picture on the second of May. Usually we have started seeding by then. Seeding looked very far away at that time.

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Yet, somehow, it all melted, and we were in the field in only 11 days after this photo. During seeding, heavy rains pounded our fields, delaying us and damaging already seeded crops. Despite this, we got the entire crop in, just as we thought we would fail, and leave vast tracts unseeded once more. As the crop grew, more rains pooled water into small lakes in already saturated fields, choking our crops to the point of death.

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A Summer of Stress

The crop managed to recover from the less than ideal spring surprisingly well. The weather improved drastically once July rolled around, with warm (but not too hot), sunny days becoming the norm. A stressed, damaged crop was coming around very well; so well in fact, I began to see real potential develop in our fields. However, the crop was a long, long way from the bin yet.

Severe summer storms pummeled crops south, east, west and north of us, seemingly on our doorstep every day. Apocalyptic hail storms stripped bark off of trees and killed birds right out of the sky – but not here. Somehow, we slipped between seemingly every storm that rolled through, which desecrated farmers not so far from here. But even as that threat began to fade, another took its place. Cold days and near-freezing nights came oh-so-close to devastating the Prairies, keeping me and every other farmer on edge. But the early frost I feared so greatly never came.

“Bumper” Doesn’t Quite Cover It

There is a saying in agriculture for good crops. The best ones are referred to as “bumper crops”. To quote the infamous Western Producer, for this year, “bumper” doesn’t quite cover it.

Two days ago, we completed harvest on our farm. It was a long process, interrupted by rains and cloudy weather that damaged our sensitive durum crops. Indeed, it was 50 days ago today that we started swathing canola. It seems like a lifetime ago.

Today, every single bin we have, good and bad, along with every grain bag we could find are all packed full of the largest crop we have ever grown. It is not an exaggeration to say that this may very well be the biggest crop ever produced in Saskatchewan. This has of course reduced the price for them, but nonetheless we are looking at record profits. The woes and hurts we went through over the last decade have finally been put to rest by two consecutive years of record-smashing profits. We still have a long way to go; our farm is still tight on cash, and this winter will be a cash-flow challenge. We are only just now getting close to the place I want our farm to be at, which has been a goal now for a few years.

Farming truly is an incredible business to be in. You can start off a growing season prepared for disaster, only to wind up with a financial windfall. Don’t worry, the opposite is true too, which we have also experienced not so long ago. The pendulum can swing so far from one extreme to the other, in weather, markets, and emotions. Dealing with the stress of it all is a difficult thing to master, but it is a necessity if you are to survive the ups and downs. This year was one of our greatest ever. But next year could be a disaster. All we can do is plant the next crop and hope for the best. After all, who are farmers if not eternal optimists?

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Weather Can Be Frustrating

While rain can be good and bad in farming, perhaps today’s rain is for the best. Well, it actually started showering yesterday, and continued through today. A part of me wanted rain, a part of me didn’t. You see, mature crops can be heavily damaged by rain.

Durum, one of our farm’s most important crops, is extremely sensitive to moisture at harvest time. Durum, a species of wheat, is used to make pasta. Most of your pasta noodles in your house started out as Amber Durum, milled into flour, or semolina. This crop grows particularly well in our climate and soil zone and usually outyields other wheats. However, it is the most sensitive crop we grow to rain at maturity (excepting malt barley, which we did not plant this year). Rains at harvest time can wash the lovely amber colour out of the seed, causing potential quality downgrades, which can be quite costly. Furthermore, rains can wash the weight out of the seed, decreasing the total tonnage of grain, and thereby reducing the yield of the crop. As you can see, rain is very undesirable at harvest time until the durum is in the bin.

The other side of the coin is that we actually could really use a rain. It has become very dry, due to the lack of rain for 3 weeks and the wonderful heat wave we have experienced since. 30 + degree days have been a mainstay for weeks, which have helped bring a very late crop in almost on time. If you read some of my other blogs of late, like this one, you will see how concerned I have been with a potential frost on our late crops. It was a genuine concern; but is now a concern no more, with most crops already safe, and a warm forecast still in the works.

Anyway, tangent aside, it is now dry, and our plans to seed winter wheat are being threatened by very dry soils. Winter wheat is a great cropping option: it absorbs early spring moisture, matures early in August, and reduces the workload in a tight seeding season. It does, however, have some drawbacks. Trying to seed during harvest is extremely challenging. Running our combines demands every person we have working on the farm every hour of every day, and sparing even one to go seeding is difficult, to say the least. Secondly, seeding takes place in late August to early September, which is normally a very dry time of year, like this year.

So, all this is to say that despite the risk of damage to the durum, rain will be conducive for seeding winter wheat. I guess this is what we do as farmers. We manage risk. Growing multiple crops allows us to take advantage of many different weather patterns.

The good news for harvest is that the rain was light and it looks to be clearing up outside. Harvest may even resume tomorrow. And the crop? It’s excellent. Our first canola yielded better than it has in many years, our peas were record-breaking, and the first field of durum is unbelievable. We have a long way to go, with about 28% of the crop harvested, but if things continue as they have, we will do very well this year.

It is hard to describe harvest time on the farm. Suffice to say… it’s busy. There is a great joy and excitement in rolling the combines out to the field, discovering what all your labour and careful decisions have resulted in. All the equipment that we use every day is every young boy’s dream; massive, 450 horsepower combines that thresh and grind the crop, large tractors carting grain from the combines to the semi trucks, not to mention all the swathers, augers and other tractors for support equipment. The fuel we go through every day is staggering. But, harvest is also exhausting, and is a long, stressful grind, often lasting many weeks or months. No matter how great the crop is or how much profit there may be (and usually, profits are small or non-existent!), you do get tired of the repetitive grind of harvest.

Sometimes, a rain is really what you need to unwind for a day, and get a short break from the hard work (sometimes, it even gives you time to blog!). We will likely be back at it tomorrow. After this two-day break, I am excited to get back out there. After all, with a crop like this one, whats not to love?

Too Many Storms, Not Enough Time

It has been a summer of storms… and summer has barely started.

I write this as yet another storms deluges us with rain, a raging downpour that changes our already saturated soil into a series of little lakes. Storms have become a daily occurance for us for the last few days. While we usually welcome rains like we have been getting, for we are frequently dry at this time of the year, this has become too much of a good thing. Water is pooling on our fields, choking the life out of the fledgling crops that desperately need sunshine and warm weather.

Some crops are better than others in dealing with excess moisture. Soybeans are quite tolerant, followed by cereal crops like oats, wheat and barley. Our two other main crops, canola and peas, do not tolerate this amount of moisture well, especially not when they are small. The plants aren’t directly injured by the water itself, rather it is the lack of oxygen that kills them. Like you and me, plants need oxygen for survival, using it for cell division, growth, and the transport and uptake of nutrients. Water slows the movement of oxygen in the soil, rapidly creating deprivation in plants. In short, plants are drowning, just like you or I would if we fell into deep water and could not swim.

It seems that we have entered into a climate in which we receive weather extremes. While “normal” weather is nothing more than a fantasy, my parents’ generation of farmers did not experience extreme wet cycles we do today. Indeed, drought was their biggest concern, which we have not experienced in earnest in a decade. It seems that we no longer get 2 or 5 tenths of rain at a time. We instead get 1-3 inches at a time.

In a general sense, too much rain is better than not enough, as crops can usually handle excess moisture better than a lack thereof. But try telling that to the people living in and around Calgary, Alberta where there has been devastation from this weather. We experienced that in 2011, but without a population base exceeding 1.5 million, it didn’t quite make the news the same way. Not that that is right or wrong; it’s just the way it is.

The frustration I feel from weather like this is due to multiple factors, but what really gets me about it is that we try to do everything right throughout the growing season. We try to use the best seed, use seed treatments, seed at the right depth, use the right herbicides and fungicides at the right time, and so on and on. And yet, despite doing (almost) everything right, weather like this can ruin it all, from no fault of your own. This is why farming is such a difficult business, and why you see so many frustrated farmers throughout the growing season. It is a tough business to make a living at, despite what you may hear of high grain prices. These don’t do a thing for you if you can’t grow a crop to sell. So don’t be too hard on your farming neighbors for complaining; everybody needs to vent sometimes, and farmers often have a lot to vent about.

Hopefully the weather improves and the ugly yellow colour our crops are turning to will reverse. It is not too late for that. We still have potential for a great crop here, but Mother Nature needs to back off.

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.