It’s Time To Go Seeding, But Mother Nature Disagrees

Tomorrow is the day. I hope.

It has been a whirlwind this spring, spinning us from hope, to frustration, to anxiety, and nearly to despair. Back in early April, for the first time in many years it looked like seeding would begin early. Fields only had a light coating of snow, and a long and brutal winter was finally drawing to a close. The days were growing warmer, and the snow was finally beginning to melt. It appeared as though spring had arrived, and the forecasts for May looked excellent, with cool but dry weather taking us through seeding, until a wetter June would arrive just in time to germinate crops and get everything growing. There were some real concerns about dryness, with fields looking almost concerningly dry.

All of that has now changed.

20140428_074931In April through the first weed of May, we received twice our normal rainfall (and snowfall!), coupled with far below normal temperatures. The ground went from dust to mud, and the cold weather never even let the frost come out. The soil profile still has frost in it a few feet down, and now every low spot is wet. We have reached the 8th of May with virtually no fieldwork happening in the entire region. In fact, until just recently, almost all of the Canadian Prairies were stalled; few farmers could even get in the field to do rudimentary fieldwork.

This weather pattern has been frustratingly persistent. 2009 was a late start to seeding, and was a cool, wet year right through until harvest. Of course, although seeding was difficult and harvest even more so, a year like that grows an amazing crop. The next year, 2010, was much worse, with snow arriving in late April, shutting us down for some time. We were unable to finish seeding that year, and the crop was very poor, with saturated soil conditions killing much of our crops.

2011 was the worst of them all, with seeding being virtually nonexistent. That was a tough year to be a farmer; we all need plants and crops to tend to. It’s why we do what we do. Since 2011, we have had two great crops, but spring has still been difficult, with wet and cool weather plaguing us. Low spots are continually underwater, despite our best efforts to look after them, and our drills spend more time turning than they do in the ground.

We need a weather pattern change. We need to get to drier and warmer weather, or we again run the risk of not completing seeding. We get a very short window to get the crop in the ground here. Usually, it starts in late April and ends on June 15, when the Crop Insurance deadline is. Lately, it starts in mid-May, and the Crop Insurance deadline is what it is. We are losing three weeks of normal seeding weather, and this year will be no different.

Oddly enough, last year was in some ways more conducive for seeding than this year. Although we still had snow all over the place a year ago today, warm, bright, windy weather swooped in just in time at the beginning of May, melting the mountains of snow and getting us to the field surprisingly early. This year, we had very little snow, but cold weather has kept drying rates down to nothing. In reality, this is simply one of the weirdest springs I can ever remember.

20140507_201346Well, that’s the bad news. The good news is that the weather is improving, and the last couple of days have been much better, and tomorrow looks to be beautiful. There was a lot of rain forecast for this weekend, but that has now been reduced to next to nothing. So we have a goal of getting one of our two drills to the field tomorrow, and maybe getting some fertilizer spread on our winter wheat (it looks excellent, by the way; I wish we had more of it!). If the weather cooperates, we could see some real progress by this time next week.

This is one of the most stressful times of the year for every farmer, when frighteningly large sums of money are thrown into the soil and into Mother Nature’s unreliable and often thrifty hands. The last question any farmer, especially this one, wants to ponder is, “will I be able to get my crop seeded this year?” Unfortunately, I have been on the “no,” side of that question before, and it is a terrible feeling. It is so frustrating to once again be faced with that question. Frighteningly, we are one large rain event away from being in real risk of not seeding this year. All we can do is hope that that rainfall event doesn’t come, and that heat graces us over the next few weeks.

Some say optimism is blind, and sometimes I agree with that. But if we want to truly have a shot at getting the crop in the ground this year, a little blind optimism is not a bad way to go. Tomorrow is the day that we try to get a drill in the field, and if the equipment cooperates, maybe we can make that happen. If we do our part, all we can hope for is that Mother Nature does hers.

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Grain Bags in January – What Could Be More Fun?

20140104_131641 (1)January. The first true month of winter, a time to see the spectacular views of lovely, snow covered streets and roads; a time to enjoy a hot chocolate on a horse-drawn sleigh; a time to enjoy the wonderful season that we call winter on the prairies.

Yeah, right.

Maybe instead, January is a month of cold and snow, a month to avoid the outdoors wherever possible, instead hiding inside to avoid the frigid temperatures and brutal winds; indeed, January is a month to try and spend indoors, praying that the furnace doesn’t fail and water pipes don’t freeze.

As I write this, the temperature outside is a chilling -32 degrees Celsius. However, add in the so-called “wind chill” of a 44 km/hr wind, and it feels like a brutal -52 degrees outside. Fortunately, today is Sunday, so there is no compelling reason to leave the house.

First, I might point out that today is not an anomaly; it has been an exceptionally cold start to winter (which began in mid-November), with December being a dreadfully cold month, and January proving to be no better so far. We have a fair amount of snow, although I don’t believe it is abnormal by any means. And I should also point out that we do usually experience weather like this during our winters in Saskatchewan, but just not usually for this long of a stretch at a time. Nevertheless, this is life on the Western Prairies, and we just have to deal with it.

Hauling grain in this weather is not exactly the first idea of what I want to do on days like this. However, in their typical fashion, the grain companies we contracted wheat and canola through suddenly decided they all wanted their grain at once, starting Thursday of last week. Now, it was not horribly cold at the time, so we started hauling, extracting from grain bags.

Source: www.agri-tec.com
Source: http://www.agri-tec.com

Extracting grain bags is an interesting task. As much as we can, we store our grain insideĀ bins, such as the large steel cylinders you see at the top of this page. Bins are, unfortunately, quite expensive, so we can only store so much in them. We usually haul a lot of grain off the combines to the grain handling facilities, such as the one to the right (Weyburn Inland Terminal – one of the largest of its kind in Canada). If you have read some of my other posts, you may recall that we had the crop of a lifetime this year. Well, so did the rest of Western Canada, so moving it is a challenge (more on that later). So, with no bins or elevators to haul to, we stored our grain in bags.

Harvest 069These 200-300 foot long plastic bags can hold a lot of grain and they are easy to fill. You simply dump grain into the “bagger” which pushes it into the bag. The bag then fills as it is pushed off of the bagger, a little bit at a time. Once filled, the end is tied up and the bag is left for later. As you might expect, animals can be an issue with them, tearing holes and eating grain out of it, walking along the top and punching holes, and generally wreaking havoc. For this reason, we try to empty the bags before spring. Otherwise, they can tear open and can be brutal to clean up.

20140104_145702We are in the process of extracting the bags, which involves a contraption with a knife to slice the bag open, a caged auger inside the bag to remove grain from it, and an auger to move the grain into a semi. It all works quite well, assuming wildlife hasn’t mauled the bags too badly, and assuming the extractor runs straight down the bag. In the winter, it becomes more challenging, such as the past two days, when heavy winds and snow came in just in time for us to be extracting. You can imagine how annoying wind is on a large plastic bag. Visibility on the roads was very poor from the blowing snow, and they quickly became difficult to drive on, with large snow drifts all over them. Semi trucks are designed for clean highways, not snow-drift covered roads.

20140104_151132

Looks like fun, right?

Nonetheless, we emptied the bags yesterday, in a -45 degree wind chill afternoon. We had to push the snow out from the bags and back roads again, thanks to the lovely winds. 20140104_133205Although difficult, cold and sometimes painful (Google “frostbite”), there is a certain sense of pride that comes from having “beaten” Mother Nature at her worst, knowing that despite the cold, wind and snow, you were able to get the work done. There’s just something about going out into the worst of winter, toughing it out and getting the work done, that is somehow kind of satisfying.

Well, there is more grain to haul and more bags to extract, so hopefully winter will ease off! Otherwise, it is going to be a long wait until spring.

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 theĀ 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?

Winter Returns

My last post, published only last night, was written too soon. Winter has returned, and with a vengeance. After the rain and thunderstorms last night, who could have expected that we would wake up to a white coating of atrocious wet, deep snow that measures at least 6 inches in depth. Many highways are closed, the grid roads that only just became dry and clear again are layered in snow and mud, and the fields are covered again in white.

This is like some sort of sick joke, a nightmare that I cannot wake up from. A few minutes ago I almost believed for a moment that it was some sort of horrible dream, a reminder of the hurt of the 2011 crop year, a punishment for my futile belief that we could seed our crop in good time this year, a slap in the face for the hope that 2011 was behind us.

It is not a dream, but a frustrating reality that I cannot escape from, and every look out my window further deepens my mounting anger and fury that Mother Nature has once again struck us with a blow that we cannot withstand. When will we be given our chance? When will we be given an opportunity to do what we love to do? I can’t go another year without a crop, without something to tend to and help grow.

I am not trying to sound defeatist, nor am I trying to imply that I am the only one dealt this kick to the stomach. No, I am all too aware that this storm has covered a great deal of the southeast of this province, and while misery may love company, this knowledge does not help my black mood this morning.

I know what you are wondering. Will you still be able to get a crop in the ground? Yesterday, I stated unequivocally yes. Today, my opinion has changed. The truth is, I don’t know. I just don’t know.

 

Note: if it looks like this post is written in continuation of another post, it is. Another one was written that for whatever reason was lost while I tried to publish it. Hopefully you can understand it without the previous article!