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 inside 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.

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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 the 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?

Harvest: The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Another summer has flown by. Days are shorter, nights are longer, and days at the beach (few as they tend to be!) have all but ended for 2013 for Prairie farmers. The countryside brims with potential; with heavy, thick crops maturing into beautiful golden-brown landscapes, crops look better than they have in years. The end of August looms ahead, and with it brings the beginning of harvest.

We have been busy preparing our equipment for the long road ahead. Tuning up the combines, fixing the headers, cleaning bins and organizing tools and people has been keeping us busy for the last couple of weeks. Getting ready for harvest is a monumental task. The amount of machinery involved is staggering; multiple trucks and semis, combines with sensitive mapping software and sophisticated threshing and separating components, swathers for cutting canola, bins, tractors, grain carts and augers. Not to mention that throughout all of this, the sprayer continues to run on a semi-ongoing basis, spraying out low spots to prepare them for next year, spraying crops to finish them off for easier harvesting, and constant monitoring for insect threats. Even after harvest begins, we must be ready to seed winter wheat. Indeed, harvest is an operation that brings everything to the table; all the employees, equipment and the entire family must come together to make this happen.

We have started some preliminary fieldwork, such as swathing this field of canola:

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It looks awesome!

We have also preharvested all of our peas, which means we have sprayed them to help finish the plants off. Peas, like some other plants, will just keep growing as long as conditions allow. Glyphosate plus saflufenacil works very well to kill the crop and weeds quickly and completely. Diquat (Reglone) is faster but doesn’t really kill the weeds. They will grow back. Worried about residues in the seeds? Don’t be. The plant no longer has the ability to push much chemical into the seeds. Besides, maximum residue limits are established for all products, and they are extremely strict.

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Field peas ready for a Reglone application to assist crop drydown. Harvest should be ready to commence in 5-8 days.

Although all this preparation may sound a lot like work, the reality is that excitement brews in all of us. The crop looks nothing short of phenomenal, and early harvest results from our neighbors look fantastic. True to farmer fashion, I will not put a yield number on our crop until we get into it, but suffice to say that if it comes off as anticipated, we will make a great deal of financial progress. We are all excited to dig into this crop and see what is out there.

Harvest is the culmination of everything we do all year; all the planning and preparation during the winter months, agonizing over cropping decisions and chemical and fertilizer plans; the marathon of planting that brings us to the edge of sanity; the constant scouting for weeds, disease, insects and nutrient deficiencies throughout the season, desperately trying to avoid a spraying error; and finally, the preparation of all the harvest equipment to ensure the crop comes off on time. Every decision and every error we make throughout the year shows up in the fields as we combine them. Every mistake can now be quantified from our yield maps as we roll through each field. All of our marketing choices can either burn us or gratify us as we determine not only the size of our crop, but the size of the North American crop as well.

Yes, harvest is a season like no other, with equal parts excitement, hope, fear and stress all coming into play. Many things can still go wrong: a strong wind could come through all blow away our swathed canola, heavy rains could downgrade the quality of our wheat and durum, and severely damage the yield at the same time, and, lest we forget, the final factor that has been on all of our minds since that cold night in July; frost (read about that here).

The threat of an early frost still hangs over my head like a heavy black cloud, a fear in the back of my mind that haunts my dreams and darkens the brightest days. While the forecast looks hot and wonderful, and while we know that we will get at least half the crop mature in that forecast period, a great deal of crop is still very green and very late. We need the 20th of September without a frost to gather this crop as it stands. Even if our early crops are record-breaking, freezing out the remaining half would still lead to a losing year. We are not out of the woods yet.

But, these are things that are out of our control. Right now, all we can do is prepare our equipment and do the best damn job we can to harvest this crop in a timely and efficient manner to capture the most yield we can on whatever we can. Tomorrow we will take the first bite out of the first crop we seeded- canola. Will it be ready? It was swathed a week ago today, which may be borderline for readiness. We will try it anyway and see what happens.

We have put a lot of time, money, blood, sweat and tears (literally) into the 2013 crop of canola, durum, peas, hard red spring wheat, and soybeans. I cannot wait to see what it will yield, and I pray that the cold weather will hold off just one more month. This is an exciting crop, and I will be dancing in the streets if we can get it (that’s not really a joke- I’m serious about that). Wish us luck!

Excitement or Fear?

There is an interesting and frightening juxtaposition when you look at crop conditions today. Crops look good. No, scratch that; crops look fantastic. We haven’t seen a crop like this since 2009, which was a record-breaking year for our farm. But, incredibly, this year could actually be better than 2009.

The other side of this coin is that the reason crops look so good is because summer has been so cool. We have not seen a high breach 25 degrees Celsius since mid-July. We have had many days of cloudy, cool weather with some disturbingly cold nights. In fact, some areas of northern Saskatchewan actually had patchy, soft frost last night. While we have escaped any of this so far (as have most) and forecasts look for an improvement in temperatures, tensions are building for everyone here. Will the crop mature in time?

In the Northern Prairies, we grow mostly cool-season crops, like wheat, peas and canola. These crops do not like temperatures above 30 degrees, especially when they are flowering. These hot temperatures can cause seed and pod abortion, which reduces yield. This was what we experienced last year, although the crop was still a good one, for the most part. Canola especially loves flowering in cool weather, which is why it looks so phenomenal. 

Due to warm weather the past couple of years, we have been experimenting with long-season crops like soybeans and corn. These crops, and especially corn, require hot weather to mature in time before our usual frost of September 10th.

As we near the middle of August, it almost doesn`t matter whether your crop is warm or cool season. All crops are at risk. A frost in the next 3 weeks would be devastating. Our farm is simply not prepared to deal with that kind of financial hardship, especially not after the difficult years we have experienced in 2010-2011. We have invested a lot of money in this year`s crop, totalling over 1 million in direct inputs alone, not to mention the new machinery we have purchased to upgrade ageing equipment. We cannot withstand a significant frost event until at least September 15. Beyond the 20th or even the 25th would be wonderful. The risk has become very real.

It is odd to talk about such a wonderful crop in the field and then complain about the weather. But there is no event, not hail, wind, drought or excess rainfall, that causes the financial and emotional hardship that an early frost creates. You can quite literally lose the entire crop if it freezes too early, as many experienced in 2004 (read more about that year and its devastation here), which was one year all farmers in the Prairies will remember. 

Harvest is coming, and the crop of a lifetime is out there.

The calendar is ticking ever closer to September, with fields still green and flowering.

Will we make it? Only time will tell.

I’m becoming very nervous.