Seeding 2015 in Pictures

For the last number of years, seeding has been a sprint to the finish. Difficult weather conditions, with constant rain in the forecast, pushed us to hammer the crop in as quickly as possible. This year has been a a very different – and welcome – experience. However, it has not been without its challenges, with cool May nights and rains causing real concerns.

We completed #plant15 on Saturday, May 23. It’s hard to believe it took that many weeks, considering the relatively relaxed atmosphere that it was, being that we actually started on April 23rd. We had a few breaks, including a 5-day rest before the final run. It rained last weekend, shutting us down just as we completed the flax. We started again on Wednesday with the soybeans and one last field of canola.

I think one of the best ways to tell you about seeding is to show it to you. So, what follows is a collection of photos from the seeding season.

Preparing to start seeding is always stressful.
Preparing to start seeding is always stressful.

Getting ready to go seeding is, as a previous blog stated, hell. There are endless jobs to do: cleaning, treating and organizing seed; checking and loading drills and air carts; finding and fixing the numerous problems that pop up every spring; hauling and marketing grain; and the non-stop job of managing cash flow. All of these things are all in preparation for the most  important job of the year: seeding. Dad rather accurately refers to this time as “Hell Week”.

The first couple of days of seeding tend to be slow - it takes awhile to get in the swing of things.
The first couple of days of seeding tend to be slow – it takes awhile to get in the swing of things.

We usually start seeding with peas. A large-seeded crop that does well in cool soils, peas are a flexible crop that work well early, especially since they are a shorter-season crop that can be combined early as well.

We have two drills: one is an old-style hoe drill, as shown above, with a fixed frame that each shank is directly attached to. Since the shanks are not independent of each other, depth control is pretty poor. The frame of the drill cannot follow the contours of the ground very well, so all shanks are essentially controlled as one. Our other drill, a SeedMaster, has independent depth control; meaning, each shank is hydraulically pressured against the ground to consistently follow the contours of the soil. For small seeded crops like canola and, to some degree, cereal crops like wheat and barley, this is a vital tool to ensure proper depth of each seed. For large seeded crops like peas and lentils, this is rather unnecessary, and we find the hoe drill works just fine. The advantage of the hoe drill is simplicity. They are cheap, easy to fix and handle all kinds of tough field conditions – but they do have their limitations. That is why we usually have our drills split up throughout seeding.

Spraying is an intense, fast-paced operation.
Once the drills get moving, burn-off begins. Spraying is an intense, fast-paced operation.

Once seeding really gets going, it is time to get the sprayer out and get some “burn-off” done. Burn-off, or pre-seed spraying, is a very important operation to do precisely. The wrong chemical on the wrong field could spell disaster, and it is important to try and stay a couple days ahead of the drills. Since we can seed upwards of 700-800 acres per day, that makes for some very long days in the sprayer. These machines are marvels of technology, with automatic boom height control, prescription-applied products, touchscreen controls and a variety of performance-enhancing features to make you more productive every day. They do, however, come with a steep sticker price!

It is critical to ensure burn-off is done properly. The best defense against weeds is to simply not have them at all; a well-timed burn-off with the right products at the right rate can mean the difference between a clean field and a dirty one, which can make all the difference in your farm’s ability to produce a profit. Chemistry is a surprisingly important aspect of farming today.

Treating seed is a difficult but vital component of seeding.
Treating seed is a tricky but vital component of seeding.

One aspect of farming that has seen significant change in the past few years is treating seed. Only a few short years ago, most of Dad’s crop went in the ground without seed treatment. That was due to a few factors: treating equipment was poor, the products were pretty weak, and there was a general belief among farmers that it was a waste of money. Today, seed treatment products are a vast improvement over their predecessors, with some of the best chemistries in agriculture going into them. Treating equipment is much more accessible, affordable, and accurate. With the massive investments that go into the ground during seeding, adding a treatment to protect the seeds is just good management. Although getting good coverage and proper application rates is still difficult, the end result of a protected seed is well worth it.

These little canola seedlings may have a long way to go - but every journey has a first step.
These little canola seedlings may have a long way to go – but every journey has a first step.

Seeing the first little seedlings push their way out of the ground is a wonderful feeling. It is at that moment that you know you’ve got a crop, that all your planning and hard work is finally starting to show for something. But, the reality is that there is a lot that can go wrong yet, and one disadvantage of our early start to seeding this year is the threat of frost. You see, it is quite common for us to get freezing nighttime temperatures well into May. Canola is very susceptible to freezes, as its growing point is exposed as soon as it cracks the ground. This canola crop emerged in early May.

Last weekend a system moved in, referred to as a “Colorado Low”, that clashed with a very warm weather system we had been experiencing. These two weather systems reacted violently together, with substantial rainfall and even snow falling east of here. We got some rain out of it, which was rather unwelcome; but the more concerning part was the cold nights to follow. As the skies cleared Monday evening, the temperature quickly dropped below freezing. In fact, for ten hours that night the temperature was below the freezing mark, and maxed out at -5.1 degrees Celsius. That is a very cold night for our little seedlings, and I was sure our early canola would be lost. Amazingly, all of it survived it just fine! I’m counting my blessings on that one; we don’t usually get that lucky.

As seeding wears on, the days tend to get longer and longer.
As seeding wears on, the days tend to get longer and longer.

It is about the halfway point of seeding that you really begin to feel it. The late nights, the early mornings, the constant planning and math that you have to do. The drive for perfection, or as close to it as you can get, pushes you to do everything as perfectly as you possibly can. But, as seeding drags on, it can be hard to keep the intensity up. That is precisely why a good rain delay is incredibly important.

Winter, Spring 2014-2015 237
Managing the logistics of seeding is not easy – you have to do everything you can to keep those drills moving. Loading is not all that dissimilar to a NASCAR pit stop.

Seeding isn’t all about tractors, drills and sprayers. Some of the most important jobs are keeping those machines moving. Our liquid fertilizer truck never stops moving all the way through seeding. Those two drills, on a typical canola or wheat field, burn through approximately 9,000-11,000 litres (2,400-2,900 US gallons) of liquid fertilizer per hour. Moreover, they are using up tonnes upon tonnes of seed, dry fertilizer and diesel fuel. The sprayer, tearing along at 175 acres per hour, uses thousands of litres of water each hour, and is often too far from home to drive back to load each time. Keeping up with all these demanding machines takes an incredible amount of planning and logistics. And, with all the wet weather we’ve been having, driving highway semi trucks up and down some of our back roads is no easy task.

Each field requires a lot of logistics to complete efficiently - even the final one.
Each field requires a lot of logistics to complete efficiently – even the final one.

The last field is always a fun one to start. The end is so close you can taste it, and you start to think about all the other jobs to start on when you’re done. But, that final field can often be a total nightmare. This particular field has been extremely wet for the past few years, and, just like in 2014 and 2012, it was our final field this year. Last year, it took 4 days to seed this 500 acre section; we can normally seed that in one day with just one of our drills. In 2012, both drills hammered away at this field for days, with numerous stucks and difficulties making it an infuriating experience. With eyes wide open as to how difficult this field can be, we headed down there with our SeedMaster.

As the other drill finished up the soybeans, we switched back to canola to get through this DSC_0141horribly cut-up field. Amazingly, we actually plowed through it with very few issues, and in a day and a half, it was completed. The finished map for the field was a bit of a mess (see insert at right), but that was kind of expected. It has been quite a few years since we seeded through many of the low spots down there.

Even though seeding is now “completed” there is still some seeding left to do, with previously inaccessible low spots now dry enough to seed. And, although seeding is definitely one of the busiest times of the year, there is a lot to do as we move into June, with in-crop weed spraying starting up very soon, drills to clean up and put away, grain to move and fields to scout to ensure no pests take away our hard-earned crop. Beyond that, initial preparations must begin for harvest, which will be early this year.

For now though, we will celebrate another crop in the ground and another successful planting season. Summer in Saskatchewan is a beautiful time, and we have to find time to enjoy it. After all, while we all love farming, we do need a break from it from time to time; and what better way to do that than a weekend at one of Saskatchewan’s fantastic lakes?

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Is a Record Crop a Bad Thing?

In Western Canada, 2013 will be a year long remembered – but maybe not for the reason we expected. This was a crop larger than any in history for the provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, with improving genetics and fertility plans coinciding with a growing season that would make Iowa jealous. Our farm participated in this, with a crop unlike anything we had ever seen before rolling off the fields at harvest (click here for more on this). It was one of the most exciting harvests I have ever been a part of, with an incredible crop coinciding with some still-good prices to generate profits surpassing any in our farm’s history.

Too much of a good thing?

As the realization began to dawn on grain buying companies like Viterra, Richardson Pioneer, Cargill and others that this was going to a true monster of a crop, the proverbial sh*t began to hit the fan.

Source: http://www.flynnbros.com/mhandling-cbins-featureproject1.html
Source: http://www.flynnbros.com

Picture your local professional football team. Say the stadium has seating capacity for about 45,000 people, which usually gets filled for home games. Every game, traffic getting out of the stadium is slow, but liveable, because it is largely expected. Then the announcement comes that the championship game, say the Grey Cup or the Superbowl, is going to be held at you home stadium. Awesome!

Source: http://www.dreamstime.com
Source: http://www.dreamstime.com

So, to draw in more fans and more revenue, the seating is expanded from 45,000 to 60,000. Suddenly, traffic goes from slow to stopped. Getting out of the stadium after this game with an extra 15,000 people, or another 33%, is a huge problem. People get mad, people get frustrated, and things just generally become difficult (especially if you have a few fans who have enjoyed too many beverages). Why didn’t the event planners think of this? Why didn’t they do something ahead of time to prevent this traffic jam?

That is the grain movement situation this year. Too much grain has to move in too short of a time. So what happens? You get a backlog. A traffic jam. Things slow to a crawl, and frustration grows (but without the inebriated fans, I suppose). So again, why didn’t the line companies (our grain buyers) or the railways do something about this ahead of time? Put simply, because a) they didn’t know the crop was going to be this big (who did?) and b) the system is designed for an average crop, not a record crop.

Who’s to Blame?

Does that excuse the railways of responsibility? No way. Over the past 10 years, farmers have been applying more and more fertilizer and seeding better and better genetics. This crop was coming; it was only a matter of time. Records are made to be broken, and a record-breaking crop like this was only one good growing season away.

Source: http://flickrhivemind.net
Source: http://flickrhivemind.net

Our rail system in Canada is almost exclusively controlled by two companies, Canadian National Railway (CNR) and Canadian Pacific Railway (CP). Yes, there are a number of scattered short line railway companies, but they all have to work around CNR’s or CP’s schedule. These two big guys have an oligopoly (market controlled by a small number of players – think smartphone operating systems: Apple, Google, Windows) so they can pretty much haul what they want, when they want, regardless of what farmers and line companies want them to do. Our country is huge, and our grain has to go a long way to move it to one of the coastal port facilities, such as Vancouver, Churchill or Thunder Bay. Far enough that movement by truck is horribly uneconomical. We rely on the railways – heavily. And, frankly, they are failing us.

Falling Prices and Falling Profits

The result? The price is not good – really not good. Last year at this time you could sell your canola for about $12 per bushel. Today, if you can even find a price, you might be able to sell it for $8.60 per bushel. That`s nearly a 30% loss in market price. The worst part is just being able to get it sold at all and get it moved. We are already looking into 2014 and 2015 crop years to figure out how we are actually going to be able to move it.

Source: www.123rf.com
Source: http://www.123rf.com

Is this another case of farmers always finding a reason to complain? Maybe. But selling canola at $8.60 per bushel today and not being able to move it until July presents serious cash flow problems, not to mention the fact that this record crop has suddenly become little more than a breakeven year for many farms. Running the farm business suddenly became much more complicated.

Fortunately, we sold most of our crop ahead of time, when prices were still pretty decent. We have also sold much of the 2014 crop. There are risks to selling this far in advance, but this year the benefits far outweighed them. We were lucky to have made this decision, but we also carefully considered that selling durum at $6.75 per bushel early last fall was still very profitable, so why be greedy and wait for it to go to $7?

Just the Tip of the Iceberg

We have had good times in agriculture for many years now; it has been since 2007 that prices have been very strong (excepting 2009) and it is time for the cycle to swing the other way. Can we afford it? Can we survive a trend to lower prices, a trend that, if history teaches us anything, could last for 25 years? Exacerbating this long-term trend is the very real threat that if we grow another decent crop in 2014 on the Prairies, how will we move it when we are still overloaded from the 2013 crop? Put another way, can we host the Grey Cup two years in a row?

The 1980’s through the early 2000’s saw some pretty tough years for a lot of farms. In all likelihood, these are the times we are returning to. Did we build enough net worth to survive it? Or, did we learn enough to prosper in these upcoming lean times?

Time will tell. I will never lose my optimism and my faith that agriculture is the best industry in the world, and is the best way to raise a family. We will find a way to survive, even prosper, no matter how tough things get. We are farmers; survival is what we do, in spite of the odds.

The Wonder of Winter on the Prairies

We knew it was coming.

As harvest draws to a close in the Prairies and the sounds of flocking geese fill the air, the days grow shorter and the nights colder. The beautiful mosaic of colour once present on the trees has now all but vanished, replaced instead with empty branches and open air.

Photo from: billywoerner.wordpress.com
Photo from: billywoerner.wordpress.com

The grass, once a brilliant green, has faded to a deathly brown. The fields, once full of golden wheat and lovely swaths of canola, have been stripped of their cover, left with only the cut edges of what were once stems. The wind brings with it a bitter chill, and the mornings bring a sharp bite to every breath. The sounds of change are in the cold air; winter has arrived.

Don’t tell me to look at the calendar. I know what day it is. I know that the winter solstice is over 6 weeks away. Today, we have seen the first snowstorm of the year. Well, maybe not here, but in Alberta and Northern Saskatchewan, winter has come. The forecast calls for daily highs around zero, and the lows will dip down in the double digits. We have truly begun our inexorable, inevitable plunge into the deep freeze that is a Saskatchewan winter.

Soon, it will be dark by 5:00 PM and the sun will not emerge until 8:30 AM the following day. Blizzards will wreak havoc on travel. Sitting in cold vehicles will be commonplace. And worst of all, power bills will become awfully expensive.

20130406_160755Perhaps the worst part of this winter is that winter really didn’t end that long ago. We had 8 foot snowdrifts and white fields in early May, which by my math, wasn’t very long ago. In fact, we will have more days of winter in 2013 than spring, summer and fall all put together!

Despite the cold, and the wind, and the shortness of the other seasons, there is this tiny, evil little part of me that is… looking forward to winter. With winter comes the knowledge that fieldwork is finally complete. The tractors and implements can be put away, with the recognition that they will be out of mind until spring. The rush is over; the crop is in, the fields are ready to seed (kind of) and the equipment is ready to put away (mostly). Yes, this time of the year brings a sigh of relief; a chance to sit back and relax. No doubt, the work is not over. We have hundreds of thousands of bushels of grain to haul throughout the winter, and to do that unfortunately likely means moving mountains of snow. But that’s okay. That means 2013 was a great crop year.

Photo By YellowcloudI believe that we are lucky to live in a place that experiences winter. How boring would it be to just live in summer all year, or to never see what fresh snow looks like? How empty would the Christmas season be without all the lights and snow? There is something so magical to snow falling from the sky; the unique and wonderous snowflake, slowly descending to join its companions, already waiting for it on the ground; joining with it to create one unvarying drift of snow.

Winter. It is the ending and the beginning. Death and rebirth. White and black. The contrasting themes of this season are compelling, and each and every human must someday experience the wonder of winter. For truly, how can you see the light without knowing the darkness?

Harvest – What is it?

Harvest time on the farm is nothing if not busy. We are going full out, trying to get this massive crop in with as little quality damage as possible. And it is a big crop. Bigger than Dad has ever seen. This, while wonderful, does create challenges logistically. Running our large combines to capacity requires good operators and a good support crew. The grain cart, semi trucks and augers must not have problems, and keeping everybody alert all day is a challenge all in itself.

I know some people that run their equipment through most of the night. Personally, I don’t know how to do that. Keeping our two combines running at capacity throughout the day is a challenge all in itself, and shorting yourself on sleep can be a dangerous practice, both for equipment and for people.

I thought I would give you a rundown of what exactly a typical harvest day is on a Saskatchewan farm. If you’ve never been on a farm, you may not even know what a “combine” is!

1) We get up early in the morning, around sunrise, and go to the combines to get them ready for the day. There are a lot of moving parts on these machines that require regular lubrication (greasing). While this is not required every day, it can take a significant amount of time in the morning to do. While we are greasing, we fuel the machines up and check them over. Some preventative maintenance can save you big delays during the prime part of the day.

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Early mornings can be very pretty!

2) We fire up the machines and start harvesting. The time for this can vary. Most mornings, we cannot start until at least 9:00 am. Heavy dews and cloudy mornings can make for a later start than that. This is referred to as “tough”. The plants are too wet to run through the combine, so we must wait for them to dry down. The later in the year harvest gets, the later in the day we can start. For example, in August we can start at 8:00 am most mornings, but by October we usually don’t get started until 11:00 am. This can really prolong harvest.

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Lots of work to do to get ready to go.

3) Once the combines are rolling, it is the grain cart’s job to keep them rolling by emptying them on the go. the cart runs from combine to combine to truck all day long. Meanwhile, the semis are hauling grain to our binyards or to the elevators nearby. If neither is available, we store the grain in bags, short-term. We try and run steady until supper time, when we usually take a break. My wife and/or my mom usually prepare supper for everyone, which provides a much-needed rest.

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The grain cart with our Case IH Quadtrack tractor. With this unit, speed is not a problem in even the roughest fields.

4) Re-energized from supper, and often switching operators, we start again, running until we are too tired or it gets too tough to go. In some crops, like peas, which are viny and tough to pick up off the ground, we can be finished at 8:00 pm. In crops like canola or cereals, we can sometimes go as late as we want. In any case, we are usually done by 10-11:00 pm.

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Good lights are oh-so-important!

A combine is a complicated machine. Suffice to say, it threshes and separates grain from straw. The combines we run, John Deere 9870’s, are 2008 models. In the above picture, we are combining durum, which was yielding 72 bushels/acre, a record for this farm (a bushel is unit of measurement for the yield of a crop; there are 60 pounds to a single bushel of wheat). These machines, when set right and operated properly, were processing 900 bushels/hour. This is more than combines used to do in a day!

This is hardly a thorough explanation, but it should give you an idea of what we do. It is a very stressful operation, often dirty and exhausting; but it is also exciting. Breakdowns are the worst part of harvest, which are inevitable. Sometimes they are minor and are fixed within minutes. However, sometimes you can be shut down for an entire day, which can be infuriating, especially if rain is on the way.

You may hear of “Big Ag” and “factory farms” that care nothing for their land or the consumer. The reality could not be more different. On this farm, we are a family operation with some outside employees. We all care about this land and the crops we grow. It is what we do; it is our life. Yes, our farm is a larger one, and yes we have millions of dollars of equipment out in the fields. But that does not change who we are as farmers and just how exciting this time of the year is. We grow quality food for a hungry planet, and it is a lot of fun to harvest it. And above all else, safety is our main concern. This is a dangerous time of the year, and no amount of success in farming is worth severe injuries. Sleep is vital!

I encourage anyone who wonders what real farming is like to visit one. Learn where your food comes from, from the people who grow it. I’d be happy to show you around!

The Cinderella Crop of the Prairies

Rapeseed. The crop with quite possibly the worst imaginable name to try and market as a health food source. A plant with undesirable components, such as erucic acid and glucosinolates, and lacks many necessary attributes to be successful in today’s marketplace.

Everything changed when several Saskatchewan scientists decided to take this cool-season crop, relatively well adapted to life on the prairies, and convert it into something amazing; we now call it canola.

In the Canadian Prairies, we generally do not receive enough heat in a growing season to successfully grow corn or soybeans on a large scale (although that is changing with new varieties- a topic for another day). Traditionally, we are known as wheat growers, and for good reason. We export a pile of wheat from our farms, and we always have. Canola is relatively new, but it has been a godsend for us.

Rapeseed, the origin plant for canola, was grown in Asia for thousands of years for cooking and lamp oil. With the introduction of the steam engine in the eighteenth century, rapeseed oil was proven to be a very useful oil, and was grown extensively in Asia and Eastern Europe before the Second World War. During the war, rapeseed supplies were short in Canada, and it became a cropping option for many farmers. But, prices weakened after the war, and acres slumped.

Saskatoon was the birthplace of rapeseed research on the prairies, and after 25 years of work by many brilliant scientists and technicians, a new crop was developed. Indeed, this plant was so different from the rapeseed it came from that it needed a new name to differentiate it. In 1978, “canola” was coined from “Canada” and “oil”. Since this incredible innovation, canola has overtaken wheat as the primary crop of choice for prairie producers, with over 20 million acres grown in 2012. It is now grown in many areas of the world, including Australia, Brazil, Europe and the United States.

Yes, this crop is genetically modified. No, it is not a Monsanto product. There are a few different companies that produce canola genetics large-scale, including BASF, Monsanto and Bayer CropScience. Bayer has been immensely successful with its InVigor line of canola, which is our farm’s genetics of choice. Try not to look at the GM crop as “evil”, as these varieties have saved us from having to use much more toxic chemicals to control weeds in this crop. Glyphosate and glufosinate tolerant canola has allowed us to prevent the overuse of many chemicals that are prone to cause weed resistance, despite what you hear about glyphosate resistance. We would be in trouble without these chemical options, which would damage not only our economy here, but it would limit access to one of the world’s healthiest options for cooking oil. Canola has an excellent mix of saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated oils, which have been linked to a reduction in cholesterol levels, among other benefits.

Growing canola has its challenges, but it is one of the easier crops to grow, thanks to its competitive nature. We seed canola as shallow as we can, or it may not come up at all. That is why we use precision air drills, such as this one:

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Once the little seed germinates, it is slow to get going. The plant starts out very small, and adverse weather can really wreak havoc on it. Excess moisture, a late frost, or insects called flea beetles can be very damaging. Here is a young seedling that is still only about 1-2 inches tall:

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Once canola gets a couple of leaves developed, it quickly becomes a formidable plant. The root system delves into the soil while the leaves gather energy for its fight against its opponents. This next plant is a couple of weeks older, and is far more competitive:

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It is at or before this stage that we try to apply a weed control product, which for this variety is glufosinate (Liberty) and clethodim (Centurion). Since canola is genetically resistant to glufosinate, and because clethodim is a product that works only on grassy weeds, the canola will not be injured (unless excessive rates are applied, in which case injury can occur). In the next photo, you will see canola reach a stage that will make any farmer excited- rosette stage.

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This is where the hybrid vigour of canola really hits hard. These leaves are six inches in length, allowing them to gather a great deal of sunlight energy. The ground is now essentially covered, preventing germination and growth of weed competition. Again, this is another benefit of these powerful varieties. In other crops, the ground is not covered as quickly, and more chemicals therefore are needed to control weeds. Once canola reaches this stage, weeds are no longer a concern.

These plants are using a huge amount of nutrients at this point, consuming lots of nitrogen and sulphur every day. For a crop like this, synthetic fertilizers are a necessity. There is no way organic farming can provide enough nitrogen, sulphur and phosphate to allow this crop to reach its potential. For this reason, we apply nitrogen, phosphate and sulphur at seeding time.

In the next photo, you can see canola push past rosette stage into stem elongation, or “bolting”. Farmers refer to this stage as bolting because of how quickly the stem grows up from the base of the plant. While it usually takes a month to reach rosette stage, bolting happens within a week.

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The tinge of yellow you can see atop these plants are the flowers. At rosette stage, buds are formed at the base of the growing point. When bolting occurs, the buds are pushed upwards, with yellow flowers opening as they move upwards. Very soon, as the flowers continue to unfold, summer on the prairies begins with the magnificent beauty of bright, yellow fields of canola:

Nikon J1 July 293

In the Prairies, the striking beauty of these fields now is a common sight. As the flowers unfold, pollinate, and eventually fall to the ground, more flowers continue to develop in a seemingly never-ending loop. Generally speaking, the longer this crop flowers, the better the yield. Hot weather, especially above 30 degrees Celsius, is very damaging to these flowers, causing them to “blast”. The flowers will simply dry up and pop off the stem. Consecutive days of weather like that is very damaging to yield. This crop uses a lot of moisture, and rain at this time of the year always puts a smile on farmers’ faces.

There are a few dangers at this time of the year. Weeds are no longer a concern, but disease and insects are. Sclerotinia sclerotiorum is the primary disease of concern (Sclerotinia Stem Rot, or just Sclerotinia). The flowers are littered with spores released from little mushroom-like organisms that live on the soil surface, and as they fall, they land on leaves and stems. The disease moves into the plant and chokes off the flow of nutrients from the root system to the flowers and pods. Fungicides control this disease, which are usually a worthwhile investment in warm, wet summers.

Insects such as grasshoppers, lygus bugs, diamondback moth larvae and Bertha armyworms can induce severe damage to canola during flowering and into podding, chewing on stems, leaves and pods. We determine whether we need to spray for these insects by way of economic thresholds, which are developed by agronomists with government agencies. These economic thresholds are calculated from a number of factors: insect numbers, cost of application, value of the crop and number of predatory insects that will feed on the negative ones. We always try to spray in evenings and early mornings, as bees tend to forage in the heat of the day. Spraying insecticides is not fun, and it is very expensive to do. We avoid it as much as we can, but sometimes we must spray to save our crops from utter destruction.

As flowering finishes up, generally after 2-4 weeks, the fields lose their yellow colour and pods are the dominant feature. Each pod contains many little seeds of canola, which slowly mature over a period of 20-30 days after flowering has finished.

Nikon J1 July (2) 174

Once flowering is completed, the countdown to harvest begins. Our canola is in a variety of stages, with some still yellow and some just like the picture shown (obviously; that is where the picture came from!). Swathing occurs about 20-30 days after flowering ends, with harvesting occuring 10-18 days later. We are excited for this time period to come.

Hopefully this has given you some information of value on our most economically important crop. Canola has been a wonderful experience for us, and it will be a part of our rotation for the foreseeable future. If you want to know more about crop diseases, insects, and other parts of crop production, check out some of my other posts. Now you know where your cooking oil comes from!

Harvest Still Feels Very Far Away

Fungicide season is over (mostly), insect populations seem to be on the decline, and our seeding equipment is cleaned up and put away. Our harvesting equipment is mostly ready to go to the field, and there aren’t too many summer projects to work on. Crops look nothing short of excellent, as stated in the last post, and our farm and many others have a great opportunity for profit this year. Finally, after a long, hard run this spring and summer, we can sit back and relax a bit. 

Or can we? 

Last night was a dark reminder of the climate we live in. Temperatures dropped dangerously close to the freezing mark, with some lows dipping down to between 3 and 4 degrees Celsius. We have been in a cool weather pattern for the past few days, and yesterday was the coldest, with temperatures improving going forward. Nonetheless, a night like that sends a chill down a farmer’s spine, with reminders of the year 2004 still fresh in everybody’s minds.

The growing season of 2004 was, by all accounts, a great one. Crops were fantastic across the prairies, with huge potential. I remember my dad, I think it was in June, saying “We are set up to have our biggest crop ever.” Summer, however, was quite cool, with many nights dipping into the low single digits and daily highs only in the low twenties. This is great weather for growing canola; the flowering plants hate weather warmer than 28 degrees Celsius, and do very well in low twenties. Wheat and peas enjoy similar weather.

Things were looking phenomenal- until the night of August 19th. Temperatures dropped below zero, and did again only a couple of days later. Frost that early causes some serious issues for immature crops. Temperatures below zero are alright if only for a limited time; but that year it was about -2 to -4 for 2-3 hours. This kind of cold essentially kills a plant as it stands. Immature seeds contained in pods and in heads lose ability to mature, and end up staying green. Some seeds may finish their filling, but will be shrunken and light. These characteristics are worse in some crops than others. In wheat, the flour made from these seeds will not rise properly to form bread, and must therefore be sold as animal feed. Canola will not develop its oil content required for crushing to produce cooking oil and biofuel. Malt barley will not germinate properly in the process to create beer. In other crops like lentils, where appearance is everything, grading can be harsh.

Crops are graded in Canada as a #1 on down to feed. Major price discounts are common for a grade reduction from a #1, particularly in wheat, durum and malt barley. A drop from a #1 to a #2 or even a #3 may not be too bad, especially if there is a lot of #1 wheat around. A drop to feed could cost $2-4 per bushel, depending on the year. In 2004, since most of the Prairies was hit by this frost, most wheat was feed, so the price was pitifully low. Even back then, selling wheat for $2/bushel does not pencil out well.

Many farmers that year nearly went bankrupt, with the only saving grace being a good crop the following year. Even though that was only nine years ago, the numbers have grown larger, and I know our farm would be devastated by a frost that early this year. We are still a month away from harvest, and we must avoid a frost until at least the middle of September. Because of the late seeding this year, our crops are behind normal, and we need a later frost and a nice fall.

Farming is a difficult business, mostly because of the catastrophic effects Mother Nature can have on our crops. Drought, excess moisture, hail, wind, insects, disease, weeds and frost are all things that a crop must overcome, sometimes all in the same year. We have reached the end of hail season, but now we must worry about heavy rainfall and frost. Harvest looms in front of us, but the fact is that it is still a long way away- too far away. Just as my stress level started to decrease from severe weather, it rises again now from the possibility of an early frost.

Time will tell. All we can do is wait- and pray.