The Marathon Concludes… For Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Rain Conundrum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talk to you soon.