What Do Farmers Do After Harvest?

The end of harvest may bring a huge sigh of relief, but it doesn’t mean that the work is over. When harvest is completed at the end of October, there isn’t the same excitement that comes with finishing a few weeks earlier. Why? Well, because there is the sudden realization that winter is only a very short time away.

The beginning of winter on the Prairies is inherently unpredictable. Sometimes it starts in December, sometimes in mid-October. When you reach the end of October to early November, the weather can turn very quickly. You can go from 10 degree days of sun to -10 degree days of blizzard in only a day or two. So, the long hours can’t stop; there is still much to be done.

Fields need to be prepped for spring seeding, some post-harvest spraying needs to be finished up (and the sprayer needs to be put away), combines need to be cleaned up and put away, and there are hundreds of thousands of bushels of grain to sell, move, and monitor.

So what do farmers do after harvest? Here is a short list:

1) Fieldwork: It’s a never-ending job. Even as we were combining, we had a tractor running down stubble with our Salford. The Salford RTS is an interesting tool that we Salford_RTSbought a few years ago now, with wavy coulters on its main frame and harrows at the back. It is designed to tear through a field at 10+ miles per hour, hurling clumps of dirt and stubble up from the coulters, and smoothing them out with the harrows. It does a fantastic job of smoothing out small ruts, knocking down moderate-sized weeds, and incorporating stubble into the soil to aid in breaking it down. Heavy wheat stubble, like we have this year, is very difficult to seed through, especially with our SeedMaster air drill. The straw builds up on the shanks, causing plugging issues and leaving a messy finish to the field.

Although we consider ourselves to be a minimum to no-till farm, sometimes a little bit of tillage is necessary. If we can’t do a quality job of planting our crops because our fields are too thick with stubble, then we really don’t have much of a choice but to till it up. The Salford works great for this because it really isn’t tillage in the conventional sense; the coulters are vertical disks, rather than the angled ones that you typically see. This is referred to as “vertical tillage”, which allegedly helps fracture the soil to reduce compaction. While that is a debatable point, the Salford is still nonetheless a low-disturbance tool that still leaves lots of stubble standing behind it. It’s a great compromise.

However, despite its advantages, there are many things that the Salford simply cannot do. tandem_diskFor those jobs, the tandem disk is still a vital tool for our farm. Cleaning up sloughs and flooded out low spots requires angled blades that can cut through old cat-tails (big, tall, nasty weeds) and bury the deep ruts. The disk is not a fun tool to run. It has dozens of bearings that never take grease and constantly fail, it’s a slow machine to run, and the rear blades constantly plug up in any sort of wet soil conditions. While it is a necessary tool, it’s one we use minimally.

2) Spraying: Even though October may seem very late to be spraying, we actually sprayed right up until the 23rd. We had such nice weather in late October that spraying was quite effective. At that time of the year, we are basically controlling weeds for next spring. I was spraying residual-type products on our winter wheat that will remain active on weeds until next May, which will really help the wheat get a jump on the weeds. The best defence against weeds is a competitive crop, after all.

John Deere 4940

3) Equipment clean-up: The most miserable job of all of harvest comes after it is completed. By that time, the combines are dirty and muddy, covered in chaff from multiple different crops, with cabs that have seen nearly 300 hours of threshing time. The combines need to be cleaned, and cleaned well. Every belt, bearing and chain must be checked during the winter to ensure the machines are ready for next harvest, and to do that properly, they really need to be clean.

We rented an industrial air compressor to clean our combines this year. With a gas-powered engine, a 3/4 inch line and a steel end, cleaning combines can progress much faster. No matter how you do it though, it is still a nasty job. You need to be prepared to breathe in a lot of dust, dirt, and a myriad of bacteria and fungi that grow on the built-up chaff. It’s a dirty, itchy, tiring and rather thankless job. And, not only do the combines need to be clean, the other machines do too. We try to wash and blow off other equipment, like the sprayer and our tractors, but sometimes the weather shuts us down before we can get all that done.

4) Marketing: In a year like this one, with a harvest plagued by rains and humidity, selling our cereals will not be a fun or easy task. Bleached, diseased, ugly looking kernels wheathave filled our bins and bags, and, for the most part, they simply don’t meet the specifications required for good grades. So, we have taken dozens of samples of our wheat and durum to elevators, independent inspectors and the Canadian Grain Commission to try and get an idea of what we have in the bins and bags. Having good relationships with our buyers is an important asset this year, as some ugly stuff can be blended to improve its grade. Sometimes, that can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars!

Even when all those jobs are done (except for marketing- that job is never done), there is still much more to do. Until the ground is frozen solid (which may be next week from the look of the forecast), we will continue disking, running the Salford, burning flax straw (and that may continue even after freeze-up), and, of course, the never-ending job of hauling grain.

No, even when harvest is finally over, all you can give yourself is a moment of satisfaction and relief, because the work is far from over. I guess if you really look at it, we are already preparing for the 2015 seeding season. While it is many months away, it is already a pressing consideration in all of our minds as we transition to winter. The next crop year will come all too quickly- but a little, tiny part of me is already looking forward to it.

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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.