Hoping For Rain

We have never had this much seed in the ground this early. As of today, we are down to our last two fields – which we could actually finish by Wednesday, May 11. That would be the FB_IMG_1462723488664earliest finish to seeding our farm has ever seen. For perspective, we could actually finish seeding before it even started in 2013.  At the same time, we have seeded more acres than ever; low spots that have been full of water for eight years are finally dried up. Our fields look better than they have for a very long time.

So what are we worried about? Well, the downside to such an efficient and early seeding season is that you need dry conditions for that to occur – and that is what we are experiencing.

And it is dry. We haven’t seen a rain since the 15th of April, close to a month behind us. At the same time, we have had very warm weather for late April/early May. We had quite a few days over 30 degrees Celsius; some of those with a gusty wind too. A lack of precipitation coupled with warm and windy conditions has caused a great deal of drying on our soils. What started out as near-perfect conditions for planting has since become concerning. Every day gets dustier and dustier. It becomes a little wearying when all day every day you are layered in dust from an unceasing wind, your eyes full of dirt and your clothes constantly dusty.

On the other hand, if there is a time of the year to be dry, it’s seeding. It is a big, complicated operation that takes all the manpower, will and determination we have to complete. It’s not just about getting it done; it’s about getting it done right. As we have seen over the past several years, frequent rains can cause serious problems for the planting season.

Nevertheless, crops need moisture to germinate and get out of the ground. If it’s not there, they will simply sit in the ground and wait for it. So, what you end up with in a spring like this is some parts of the field end up wetter than others (different soil types, elevation, etc), and consequently you get patchy emergence. A crop that comes up patchy will be a myriad of staging come harvest, which makes life difficult for the combines.

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Some of these have germinated, but some have not. Parts of the field are too dry to support germination.

The thing is, a patchy crop could be the least of our problems. In the 1980’s, particularly in 1988, the weather got so dry and so hot that crops simply couldn’t cope. Many fields had no crop at all. While I don’t believe we are headed for that scenario this year, it is always in the back of my mind – because it is possible. Long-range forecasts are calling for a near to above average temperature bias and below average precipitation. Add that to an already dry start to the growing season, and you have yourself a drought.

The good news is there is rain in the forecast. A major system is expected to move through here starting tomorrow. As usual when a system like this is forecast, the rain totals change drastically before we actually see the storm hit us. Last week, there were forecasters saying we could get 2-3 inches of rain. Today, it sounds like a half inch is what we will get. It’s always worrying to see rain estimates decrease when the storm is still more than a day away. You have no idea how frustrating it is when weather forecasters estimate a near certainty of rain – and then it doesn’t happen.

Although we all know the weak track record of weather forecasters, we have no choice but to DSC_0671manage our seeding decisions accordingly. With a major storm system forecast, we decreased the depth of our canola seeding outfit to ensure the fragile little canola seeds don’t get buried too deep. If it doesn’t rain, our canola seeded now will not come up. It will not be in contact with moisture. We have to make our best judgment call on decisions like this, even when we know the inherent uncertainty of weather forecasts.

One of the most annoying things at this time of the year is the way most weather people on TV and radio talk about the forecast. “Look at the week ahead! Nothing but 30 degrees plus! Fantastic!” Weather like that is not what we need in an already dry spring. We need rain and moderate temperatures. Weeks and weeks of hot weather is not good for freshly seeded crops. It would be nice to see a little more enthusiasm for rainy weather. Sorry about the tangent.

This is the most expensive time of the year for farmers. We are spending upwards of $100K a day between fertilizer, seed, chemical, fuel, repairs, depreciation and so on. With all of that depending on just a few well-timed rains, you can understand why farmers can be a little stressed out at this time of the year. A rain can truly make or break a farm. One storm can change everything. All we can do is seed our crops and hope for the best.

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Our Earliest Seeding Ever

My very first blog post was April 18, 2013, titled Spring – Where Are You? We were in the midst of a never-ending winter, so cold and so snowy it seemed spring would fail to come at all. To add insult to injury, 11 days after that frustrating post, it snowed again. I was genuinely concerned that the crop would not go in the ground. Despite my apprehension, we actually did get the crop in; we simply started three weeks later than normal, on the 11th of May.

This year, you couldn’t imagine a scenario more different. Winter didn’t just end early – it hardly came at all! We haven’t had snow since February, our winter wheat started growing in March, and we actually did some seeding on the 13th of April. How do you predict changes like that?

Of course, this is hardly the first time weather like this has occurred. The winter of 2011-2012 was actually warmer than this past one, and there have been numerous drier ones too. It is undeniable, though, that it is dry. We haven’t seen conditions like this in many years. It’s dry enough to be concerning; even after all the wet years we’ve experienced, drought is still a frightening word.

The reality is that we have received very little precipitation since November. We got a nice rain a little over a week ago that helped recharge us a bit, but with every windy, warm day that goes by, we lose more and more precious moisture. The thing is, despite all our advances in seeding technology, despite no-till farming and water-efficient crops, we still need spring rains to get our crop out of the ground. Once it’s established, it can tap into the stored soil water and go from there. But it has to have a chance to get there.

So, if moisture is a concern, and we have moisture now, why not get the crop in the ground as quickly as possible? Well, we live in the Canadian Prairies, where we experience the worst of every weather extreme (well, most of them anyway). If our crop gets out of the ground too quick in the spring, a mid-May frost (which is very possible) can cause a lot of damage; just ask the farmers that had to reseed over a million acres of canola last year after a May 30 frost. While that may be a rare scenario, it is one you have to consider when deciding how early is too early.

On the other hand, if it is going to be a dry year, getting the crop in as early as possible may be a game-changer for yield. Giving the crop its best chance to use that early moisture and cooler days could be critical for its development.

On the other other hand, if it starts dry but gets wetter later, the later-seeded crops could outperform because the rain happens to arrive at a more optimum stage for development; such as in 2015, when all that reseeded, very late canola yielded very well.

Here’s the reality: we simply don’t know what the year will bring. Everything we do now is based on our best guesses of how the year may pan out. Today, there is moisture in the ground, the soil temperature is over 5 degrees, and the fields are plenty dry enough to run equipment over them. That’s why our farm is seeding, and has been for the past 5 days. Other farms are waiting until we’re closer to May. Which one of us is right? Who knows.

This is why agriculture is such a challenging career. Our farm lives and dies based on the weather. We can’t predict it, so we just try to think critically about every decision we make and act on it. Then we hope for rain and sun – but not too much of each.

Seeding is an incredibly stressful but also exhilarating time of the year, when we lay all of our best plans and strategies in the ground and hope for the best. It may be a sprint to the finish, but it is awfully easy to trip on a crack on the way to the finish line. Details are everything. Tomorrow, we go back at it again, and I’m excited to see what it will bring.

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What Does Such A Warm Winter Mean For Farmers?

Everybody knows that agriculture heavily relies on the weather. A single storm can change an entire growing season. A drought can be devastating. But we rarely see such extremes. While much of the weather we get can be challenging and surprising, it typically averages out over time. This winter, though, has been a particularly weird one- right?

I’m not going to go into the details of the weather of this winter. Suffice to say, we moved snow once this winter, and you could probably make the case that we just really wanted to run the dozer tractor. This has been a winter with very limited snow and very mild temperatures. We had a couple weeks of extreme cold in January, but realistically this has been one easy winter. February was so warm that we lost what little snow we had before March even started. That is a rare situation.

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Seriously, it’s hard not to have fun moving snow with this thing.

So what are the implications of this? Are we headed for a drought? Is it climate change? Has this ever happened before?

To point out how short our own memories often are, take a look at this picture from 2012. This is February 22nd (photo credit- Sarah Leguee). No snow! That was also an incredibly mild winter. In fact, some2012 winter farmers in Southeast Saskatchewan started seeding at the beginning of April (spoiler alert: it didn’t turn out very well). My point is that winters like this are certainly rare, but not unheard of.

To figure out what a winter like this could mean for us, the best year to look at then is 2012. In this area, crops were good, and it was a pretty successful year. We saw excessive moisture in late May and June, followed by a lack of moisture into the end of July and August. The excess moisture in the spring caused some damage, but it probably saved us from getting burned up in late summer.

On the other hand, we had substantial disease and insect pressure. Was it because of the warm winter? I think it’s fair to say that it had an influence, possibly a major one. One thing our extreme winters give us is an inability for insects and diseases to overwinter here. Most of them must migrate up from the south. If they can survive the winter, it gives them a head start. We saw severe damage from Aster Yellows, we had trouble with Fusarium, and we had problems with a variety of insects. Separating what was caused by the warm winter and what was part of a normal cycle is difficult, but it is fair to say that we could face similar issues in 2016.

The challenge with farming is that every year is different. Parallels between seasons are very challenging to draw out, and due to the climate’s chaotic nature, forecasters have a very hard time forecasting what is to come. So what can we expect in 2016?

One thing we do know right now is that it is dry. Soil moisture is lower now than it was at this time last year, so we have less of a buffer to withstand periods of low moisture. This warm, dry winter has not helped our soils and water bodies recharge like they normally do. I have never scouted crops in the middle of March before, but I did just that the other day in our winter wheat. The soil is thawed, the crop may be breaking its winter dormancy, and it just pretty much felt like spring out there. It is concerningly early for the wheat to be greening up, and a stretch of more normal cold weather could wreak havoc on it.

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This picture could very easily be from the end of May, but it is actually from March 14th.

As the weeks go by and it stays warm, sunny and frequently windy, the soil will continue to dry. We could theoretically start seeding in a couple of weeks (we won’t) with how quickly the soil is drying up. So, yes, drought is a concern, and the longer the weather stays like this, the greater the worry will become.

On the flip side, when the weather does change, it could do so with a vengeance. We have seen time and again over the past several years that when we change weather patterns, the conversion is often harsh. In the spring of 2011, we were considering seeding in mid to late April, until a bunch of snow dropped on our doorstep, followed by cold temperatures and over a foot of rain over the next two months. The weather changed dramatically and pretty much prevented seeding altogether. However, our fields were already full to capacity when that moisture came, so it was a completely different situation.

I guess the point of what I’m trying to say here is that we honestly really don’t know what the growing season will provide. Right now, I’d place my bets on being dry, and that we will be wanting for rain most of the year. But “dry” doesn’t equal “drought”, and I’m far from ready to hit the panic button yet. While this weather may be unusual, we have seen winters like this before, and we will again.

As farmers, we have to take whatever nature throws at us and make the best of it. We never know what weather we have in front of us, and accordingly we have a hard time determining how much to invest in our crops. We can throw all the money in the world at our crops, but if it doesn’t rain, we simply can’t make use of it. However, it is far too early to start worrying about the year ahead. We will not go out and go seeding on the 10th of April, but we might be a few days earlier than normal. Anything can happen over the next 6 months, and that is what makes agriculture so exciting. I can’t wait to see what Mother Nature has in store for us in 2016.

Harvest 2015 In Pictures

September 22nd marked the final day of harvest for us this year. I have to say, that was one of the earliest, easiest and most enjoyable harvests I have ever been a part of- especially after 2014’s nightmare of a fall. For the first time since I started this blog, I hardly wrote at all about harvest; I had neither the time to write (very few breaks) or the material to write about!

Despite all that, the 2015 harvest was not all smooth sailing, and we are all more than ready for it to be done. Follow along and see how things went!

Even with late summer sun, there aren't enough hours in the day at this time of the year.
Even with late summer sun, there just aren’t enough hours in the day at this time of the year.

This was one of our earliest harvests ever. We fired up on July 29th, at least two weeks earlier than normal. A hot and dry summer brought crops in very quickly, and our winter wheat was ready before we were. It took more than a few late nights to get everything ready for the field. You don’t just walk out to the shed, fire up the combine and go harvesting. No, these large, complicated and expensive machines require considerable care and attention to ensure they don’t break down during one of the most critical times of the year.

New bins helped us reduce the excessive amount of grain bags needed for storage.
New bins helped us reduce the excessive amount of grain bags needed for storage. Last year, we needed over 20 bags, comprising close to 150,000 bushels of storage. This year, that number was cut by a factor of four, with a similar yielding crop.

Along with the combines, several other items needed preparation, such as semi trucks and trailers, tractors, grain moving equipment, and various other machinery. Grain bins needed to be cleaned, temperature cables checked and tied down, and augers needed a thorough checking over too. No matter how perfectly the combines run, if even the auger breaks down, everything is stopped. The entire chain has to be up to the immense task of harvest.

The first crop in the bin - winter wheat.
The first crop in the bin – winter wheat.

Winter wheat is a crop with advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, it establishes in the fall, using up fall and early spring moisture that other crops give up to evaporation. It can yield very well as a result, and it is a nice way to get a crop off early. Unfortunately, that is also a major downside – you lose a lot of summer. With this picture taken on July 29th, we gave up half of our summer. Unfortunately, with the early heat and drought stress this crop faced in June, it wasn’t very successful this year.

Lentils- not the easiest crop to get off the ground, but a very rewarding one.
Lentils- not the easiest crop to get off the ground, but a very rewarding one.

Sometimes, things work out better than you ever expected. While that doesn’t happen very often for this farm, this year it did. After I spent years avoiding growing this difficult crop, we finally eased back into them in 2014. Lentils are not water-loving, and the excessive moisture over the past 7 years really turned us off of this crop. Ironically, the same heat and dry conditions that burned up the winter wheat allowed the lentils to thrive, and we pulled off some great yields. It was actually a lot of fun harvesting these things.

There were more than a few firsts this year: one was straight-cutting canola, and another was this awesome new GoPro camera (thanks Syngenta)!
There were more than a few firsts this year: one was straight-cutting canola, and another was this awesome new GoPro camera (thanks Syngenta)!

For those of you who have never seen the inside of a combine cab, this is my view out of one of our John Deere 9870s. These cabs have gotten so much better over the years, with fantastic comfort, quietness, and user-friendly controls. While this machine is already 7 years old, it’s hard to complain about running it. But, try sitting all day in it every day for a month. Everything gets old after that.

Straight-cutting canola had its challenges, but the pros outweighed the cons.
Straight-cutting canola had its challenges, but the pros outweighed the cons.

Straight-cutting canola was a mixed experience. We learned a lot from doing it, which you can read more about here, but suffice to say it won’t be the last time we try it. We learned that the pod-shatter resistant varieties are worth the money in harvest efficiency, and we learned that if it’s not ready, it’s not ready. Four hours spent unplugging one of our machines was a harsh lesson for us on that one. Any way we can cut down on swathing is a positive for us (I despise swathing) and it keeps more of us around to combine. I look forward to continuing the experiment in 2016.

Trucking may not be as glamorous as combining, but it is every bit as important.
Trucking may not be as glamorous as combining, but it is every bit as important.

I think when people imagine harvest, they tend to think more about the combines and less about the support crew. It looks like way more fun, right?

Unfortunately, while that is probably true, combines are the easiest machines to operate in the harvest mix… which means that Dad, Sarah and I rarely get to run them. I think I only ran a combine for a total of two days this year, which was mostly evenings. We spend most of our time with logistics: getting the grain from the combine into storage without slowing them down. The process involves two or three steps: 1) using the grain cart to get the grain out of the combines and into the semis; 2) getting the semis unloaded into bins, or, and this is where step 3 comes in, into bags.

Grain bags have some downsides, but we can't go without them.
Grain bags have some downsides, but we can’t go without them.

While grain bags are difficult to work with (they are rather heavy to lift onto the bagger) and are all too attractive to wildlife (I have learned to hate raccoons), they are a fantastic short-term tool. Sometimes, the bins are just too far and the trucks cannot keep up. Other times, we are short on people to run semis. Besides, at the end of the day, we just don’t have enough bins for an above average crop. Grain bags fill all of these gaps, and keep those expensive combines moving at capacity.

Just when you think harvest can’t get any more complicated…

The most difficult job to complete every fall is seeding. Trying to keep three combines moving, harvesting over 25,000 bushels a day, and then finding a way to go and plant seed and fertilizer on 1,600 acres seems a recipe for disaster. Managing the logistics during the actual seeding season is difficult enough! Nevertheless, we always try and find a way to get the job done.

The great thing about this harvest was that we were almost finished when seeding started! Now that is a nice change of pace. In fact, we actually finished harvest (aside from the soybeans) as we really got rolling seeding. Getting the winter wheat in was not the challenge it usually is – but starting a job of this scale with over a month of harvest behind you takes a real effort. Running 15+ hour days for that long wears you down, to say the least.

As the end looms, logistics becomes a greater and greater challenge.
As the end looms, logistics becomes a greater and greater challenge.

As “easy” as this harvest was, after over a month of steady combining, you really start to wear down. Once the main binyard fills up, you start looking at anything that resembles a bin to try and store as much as you can. By the time we got to the flax, we finally broke down and rented a couple of 5,000 bushel hopper bins to take the pressure off.

The good news was that we got a two week break after finishing the flax, before the soybeans were ready. That gave us some much needed time to get some bins empty and do some required maintenance – and to catch up on sleep.

A frosty morning reminded us that fall had begun - and it was time to be finished harvest.
A frosty morning reminded us that fall had begun – and it was time to be finished harvest.

While late September is by no means a late finish to harvest, with a late July start, we had been in harvest mode for nearly two full months. This photo was taken the morning of our final day of harvest (excepting some low spots) and it was clear how the weather had begun to change. For the first (and only) full day of the year, I got to run our newest combine, our S680 John Deere. It made the final day breeze by!

When the smoke cleared on the 22nd of September and the combines entered the yard for the final time this year, we finally got to take a breath and look back on the year that was. 2015 was largely a hot and dry year, but excellent subsoil moisture from a very wet 2014 and a few key rains helped us bring in an above average crop. It’s not very often you get a harvest as relatively easy as this one with a great crop!

After 56 days, 1200 combine hours and nearly half a million bushels of grains, oilseeds and legumes, harvest 2015 has been completed. There is little time for rest though; we have grain to haul, disking and vertical tillage to do, fertilizer to spread and spraying to finish, all before freeze up starts in (hopefully) a little more than a month. But, these jobs aren’t harvest – the crop is in the bin.

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.

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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?

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.

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Welcome to Hell Week

Hell Week. The final week of preparation before seeding begins. A week of increasingly furious and, well, frantic work in a frenetic push to try and be ready to go seeding when the time is right. This is a week marred by stress and anxiety; but beneath it all, excitement starts to build.

Every year is a little bit different. Last year at this time (and the year before that), winter still had us firmly in its grasp, and any thoughts of seeding were still weeks away. The last two winters were long, cold and dismal, with spring coming disturbingly late. This year is quite different; the snow has been basically gone for a month now, and we have been blessed with warm, dry weather for some time. Fields are enticingly dry, and seeding is actually a tempting proposition– and could really begin at any time.

Getting ready for seeding is a hard thing to explain. Every piece of equipment on the farm (save Air Drillthe combines) must be woken from its winter slumber, pulled from whatever shed we could find to try and keep it inside. Everything has to be started, drug out onto wet, sloppy spring soil, and gone over with a fine-tooth comb to check for any potential problems that could arise. Every shank, hose, pipe, tank and clamp must be checked on our air drills before seeding begins; no downtime is acceptable for these components once seeding gets underway.

Meanwhile, liquid fertilizer tanks, full of hundreds of tonnes of fertilizer delivered during the winter, must be circulated to prevent settling, and final fertilizer plans must be completed to ensure enough product is booked. Grain hauling continues as it has all winter, and in between, seed must find its way home. Crop protection products of all kinds, from seed treatments to glyphosate, needs to be brought to the farm, with hundreds of thousands of dollars of jugs, barrels and totes accumulating for the busy season.

This year, we took on a few improvement projects, such as replacing the hose on our Valmar/heavy harrows, since the original hose was quite possibly older than I am. Of course, since these machines are much less common now than they were decades ago (they are mostly used for spreading and incorporating dry herbicides), nobody keeps this hose in stock. So, we ordered what we thought would be enough. Three days later, we got it (just before the weekend of course) and installed it last Saturday. Can you see where this is going? We didn’t order enough! And now we had to go and order more; which wouldn’t be here until the middle of the week! We planned on spreading herbicide on Monday, so this would substantially delay our plans. Simple mistake, complicated consequences.

Fortunately, we found a store that sells the hose, and the Valmar got in the field Tuesday. Our DSC_0010first field operation of 2015! Of course, the day ended with a broken harrow mount and the drive wheel for the Valmar falling off, because we wouldn’t want things too easy. Anyway, it’s going again, and that job should be completed today. Between all that, we continue to work on the drills, get other field operations rolling, such as our Salford, and prepare the sprayer for its turn getting out of the gate.

One thing about spring is that everything is happening at once. We still have grain to sell, and we will forward contract grain for harvest delivery at this time of the year as well. Budgets are still coming together as our numbers become more real, and ensuring we have enough cash flow to get through the summer is a constant battle. These are very real and very important aspects of the farm that cannot be postponed for seeding.

In years like this one, when spring comes early, sometimes the temptation to go out and seed too early is very strong. Given the past few years of wet weather, any opportunity to start early is hard to pass up– and shouldn’t be, to a certain degree. Planting too early in our part of the world is high risk; late spring frosts are a real possibility, and can devastate crops like canola, with their exposed growing point. In fact, in late April, we can really see any type of weather: hot, summer-like days or bitter cold, thunderstorms or blizzards, but above all else, indeed on most April days, a howling wind seems to be an ever-present annoyance. One day you look at the forecast and think you should start seeding tomorrow; the next day, you think it needs to wait another week. The timing is very difficult to determine.

Didn't expect to wake up to this Tuesday morning - but then, that's April for you.
Didn’t expect to wake up to this Tuesday morning – but then, that’s April for you.

As the days of Hell Week wear on, field operations slowly commence, with little jobs like picking rocks and draining sloughs coming first, transitioning to tillage and herbicide application, and finally seeding begins. As these days go by, jobs slowly get knocked off the list and planting looks a little closer. We are close now. The drills are almost ready, the sprayer is ready, and almost all the support equipment is ready to roll. Seed is treated and loaded in our trucks, and our fertilizer is ready to pump. Seeding is almost here.

For farmers, the anxiety of getting those first seeds in the ground grows every day that Hell Week drags on– but, beneath it all, that anxiety is really excitement; the joy of leaving winter behind, the anticipation of the crop that this year could bring, and the delight of getting all that equipment moving again. Hell Week may not be much fun; but the aftermath is unforgettable.