The Worst Drought in Decades

It has been two months since I posted “One Storm Can Change Everything“. That was the last – and only – significant rain event we have seen this year.

Making things worse was the incessant, unrelenting heat, burning up what little water we had. Want to know the best way to tell that farmers have a tough crop this year? Great beach weather! All those hot, dry days in July and August, while great for going to the lake, make for terrible growing conditions.

Make no mistake: I’m in an area that has at least received at least some moisture this year. We have gotten 88 mm (3.5 inches) of rain so far this year. While this is extremely low – less that 40% of our average rainfall to date – many farms further south and west of ours have seen even less (some have seen much less). So I’m not going to complain and say we are worse off than anybody else, as that is simply not the case. We are fortunate to have the crop that we do.

I think it’s important to understand the situation for farmers out there this year. Nothing anybody did caused this drought to happen, and we farmers do the best we can to utilize every drop of rain we can get in years like this. There’s just very little you can do if it doesn’t rain.

We can give our crops the best chance, with the best genetics, the best crop protection products, and get every job done right and on time. But if the rains don’t come; if the weeks slip by without a drop of moisture, with unceasing heat sucking water out of the crop like a sponge; the crop will fail. Sometimes the weather outweighs everything else.

Adding insult to injury is that sometimes droughts aren’t recognized as a problem by the markets. A world awash in wheat and soybeans doesn’t care about some poor crops in Western Canada. Grain buyers don’t care that we need $13 per bushel canola prices to break even. If the market determines the price should be $10.50 per bushel, that’s just the way it is.

A drought like this one hasn’t been seen on the Prairies in quite a long time. Comparisons are being made to 1988 in many areas, one of the worst droughts in recorded history in the Prairies. It is because of the changes in production techniques that we even have a crop at all. No-till (means the ground is rarely, if ever, worked) is a big part of the reason we have the crop that we do, and no-till only works if we have access to the best crop protection products. Genetically modified crops like canola allow for the minimization of tillage by allowing the use of broad-spectrum herbicides like glyphosate or others. We need every tool in the toolkit when conditions become challenging.

In times like this, we don’t ask for your sympathy, nor do we ask for hand-outs. We ask only for your understanding; that maybe it’s okay it rained on the weekend, possibly derailing lake plans. We ask that maybe you give us a little more room to complain about the weather. We ask for a bit of extra patience in dealing with us, with the extra stress that so many farmers are struggling with right now. The Farm Stress Line is very busy right now. Stress is very real in times like this, and don’t be afraid to ask how your farm friends are doing.

Farming is a complicated and stressful business, and droughts like this one certainly add to the burden. Farming is a long-term, generational business, with next year always at the forefront of our minds. I already worry for 2018; with severely depleted soil moisture, we will desperately need a recharge for the next crop year. If we don’t get it, we may remember 2017 as the deep breath before the plunge.

For now though, my main focus is on harvest. As the combines roll along, we are seeing decent yields coming off the fields. The winter wheat and peas are in the bin, and we should be back at harvest in a couple of days. Lentils are next, and canola and durum will soon follow. Given the limited moisture, I am satisfied with the yields we’re seeing.

There is a lot to be positive about. Just because soil moisture is low now doesn’t mean next year will be a drought too. There have been many flash-in-the-pan droughts (see Midwest USA drought in 2012), and there will be many more. Agriculture is an amazing way of life, and the silver lining of a slower year like this one is more time to spend with my wife and son – and the new little one joining our family in January.

 

Do Farmers Harvest 24-7?

This is a question I’ve been asked on several occasions: during harvest, are we running 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to get the crop in the bin? The answer to that is unequivocally no.

While harvest is an extremely busy and stressful time of the year, and getting the crop off as quickly as possible is our primary goal, there are limits to what we can do. There are actually a number of reasons why we cannot harvest all day and night.

  1. Weather conditions – Essentially, combines thresh and separate grain from straw. That’s pretty much the long and short of it. The header collects the crop in front of the combine, and it is pulled inside, where it is smashed against steel concaves that allow grain to fall through. To be able to do this, the crop cannot be wet; how would you break it apart if it isn’t dry? As the sun falls beyond the horizon, humidity goes up and temperatures usually go down. As this happens, the crop becomes “tough” and simply will not go through the combine. As the evening wears on, the straw usually becomes more and more difficult to process, until combining becomes all but impossible. Now, this doesn’t always happen, as a windy, dry night does pop up now and then, and you could actually go right through the night. So what do we do in those situations?dsc_0392
  2. Human limits – We all need sleep. There is no getting around that fact. No matter how hard you push yourself; no matter how determined you are to stay awake all night; if your body decides you need to sleep, you’re done. It’s as simple as that. You may run late a night or two and battle through with 3 or 4 hours of sleep, but that will catch up to you in a hurry. And besides, it’s not just you out there.
  3. Employee needs – Just like us, our employees need sleep too. They didn’t sign up to go a month without sleep! It’s one thing to have a tired manager; it’s another to have a tired crew. And that leads to…
  4. Safety – When you’re tired, your brain just doesn’t function the way it should. You think slower, you react slower, and you don’t notice things you should. Sure, you can run on limited sleep for awhile… but what’s the risk? Harvest involves a lot of heavy, dangerous equipment in the field and semi trucks on busy roads. Pushing too hard doesn’t just risk your life – it can impact the lives of many others.

No matter how much you want to, harvesting all day and night simply cannot (and should not) be done. It’s dangerous, it’s very hard on equipment, and all it takes is one mistake to ruin a life (or many lives) forever. Harvest is a long, busy and stressful operation, but overdoing the hours does more harm than good.

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Seeding Draws to a Close for Leguee Farms

It is often said that the hardest things in life are the most rewarding. That nothing good comes easy.

I hope they’re right, because 2014’s planting season was anything but easy.

The long, drawn out affair that was #plant14 has finally drawn to a close for Leguee Farms. It was a season full of challenges; from the frustrations of setting up a new drill, to the apprehension and anger over rain that just wouldn’t quit, this year’s seeding operation was difficult, discouraging and nerve-wracking, to say the least.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the wet weather cycle we were in started to fade, giving us the window we needed to finish seeding. A severe storm on the 26th of May stopped us for quite some time, and even when we did get back to the field, we were shocked at just how wet it was. While the surface was hard and fairly dry, digging even a quarter of an inch down yielded soggy, sticky mud. Seeding into these conditions is something we generally try to avoid; mud sticks to the openers, plugging them constantly, and one slip of the tractor tires can get you into trouble awfully quickly. Furthermore, our heavier soils tend to solidify if disturbed while they are wet, which often can severely compromise a plant’s ability to punch through and survive.

Nevertheless, the calendar and the forecast forced us to seed anyway, as June had already begun. We had no choice but to try and plant what we could. After all, we have been forced to do this for the past 4 years, so I suppose we really shouldn’t be all that surprised anymore!Seeding 2014 058

We pushed to finish seeding as quickly as we could, with even more rain just around the corner. The arithmetic was really quite simple: we had only a few days to seed 30% of the crop, a truly insurmountable task for the equipment we have. So, with the knowledge that we would likely be shut down once again, we drove on, trying to seed every acre we could before the next rain.

The rain began all too soon for us. Although we had managed to finally finish seeding our canola and durum (4 of 7 crops completed), over 1,300 acres still remained to go in the ground. I think the biggest frustration was something that every farmer has experienced some time or another; we were shut down on attempt #2 to finish our final soybean field. We just could not get that field finished! Sometimes, a field just happens to be in the storm track, and you can’t miss a single rain.

More rain fell after that, delaying us further, and a cursory glance at the calendar was all it took to realize our time was running out all too quickly. At that point, you begin to do some math. If we don’t get field X seeded, what will happen? What if we can’t get the flax in? What will happen with our production contracts? Will we still have a chance at a profitable year? And on, and on. Even the most optimistic farmer entertains the thought of the probability of unseeded acres.

But then, seemingly out of nowhere, the fields dried up (kind of- at least enough to seed) Seeding 2014 028and we were back out there again. With the equipment we have now, seeding that last 1,300 acres went pretty fast, first with the cursed soybean field, then the wheat, and finally, as of Saturday afternoon, only one field of flax remained. We seeded all day yesterday, and literally one hour from finishing the field, we got rained out. I couldn’t believe it!

This morning, we officially wrapped up seeding for 2014. Yes, there are still some low spots to seed, and yes, we probably won’t have everything cleaned up for a few days, but I’m calling it here- we are finished seeding!

The drill is finally parked!
The equipment is finally parked!

The completion of seeding always brings a mixed bag of emotions. Relief is the main one. Knowing that the crop is in the ground is an incredible feeling, but it comes slowly. Today, Nikon J1 251it is still sinking in, and I think it will be a few days before I can really relax. The unfortunate thing about finishing seeding so late is that there really is no celebration. There is no time to take a few days off, no time to sit and reflect on what has been accomplished. No, in-crop herbicide spraying has already begun, and just as fast as seeding is over, another marathon begins. There is a mountain of data from the controllers on the drills to sort through, Crop and Hail Insurance forms to fill out and send away, quarterly cash flow analysis to go over, and tons of yard work to do.

Yes, completing seeding is a wonderful feeling. But when it happens so late in the season, the marathon only slows down- it doesn’t end. Not yet, anyway. That day will come when the combines are cleaned up and put away and the first blanket of snow graces the landscape. I’m not ready for that anyway. Despite the exhaustion, the frayed nerves, and the now-empty bank account, I’m excited for the next stage of the season. We have arrived at what truly is my favorite time of the year: in-crop herbicide timing!

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