Seeding- A Frustrating, But Rewarding, Marathon of Challenges

One week has passed in #plant14 on Leguee Farms, and I can honestly say I am exhausted. Last Saturday (well, Friday night) we started seeding – kind of. Our first three days were plagued by problem after frustrating problem, each one seemingly worse than the last. We were already a day later than we wanted to be, and the new drill wasn’t going to be easy to get to the field. I wrote this next bit sitting in the cab of the tractor trying to get seeding:

Sometimes seeding just sucks.

Right now, I am sitting in the cab of our Case tractor, hooked to our new Seed Master drill, where I have spent the past 10 hours. Normally, this would be just fine – but that would be if I were actually accomplishing something. Since 6:00 this morning, we have been fighting with this air drill, trying to get it working. The air drill is new this year, and it has been nothing but trouble so far.

Let me give you a little bit of background. Last fall, we leased a new Seed Master air drill, hooked to a John Deere air cart, and seeded winter wheat. Everything went quite well with that, and we pulled it with one of our old John Deere 9400 tractors. Now, thinking we were being smart, we bought a Case tractor to pull the drill. “Hook a Case to a Deere cart,” they said. “It will be fun,” they said. Well, they were wrong. Connecting two different systems into one has been a serious headache. Complicating things further was the addition of the liquid fertilizer system to the drill, which we have run on our previous drills for quite a long time, but clearly added complication to this new system. 

Why did we buy a Case tractor instead of a John Deere? Well, Case builds a Quadtrac tractor, which has tracks to replace the tires on all four corners. Deere also offers a track tractor, but they are single tracks on each side, much like a big industrial Cat, which is hard to steer and much less versatile than the quad track design. But I’m not sure it was worth it!

To make a long story short, I am sitting here with a $700,000 set of equipment doing nothing. It is supposed to rain tomorrow, and we are already late starting seeding as it is. Delays are not acceptable at this stage. I was expecting some troubles in getting this thing working, but not this much. Not even close. The worst part is, we still don’t know what the problem is! This is a nightmare.

–Saturday, May 10

And it was. It would be another full day of work to get that air drill going. Sunday evening, it finally seemed as though we had worked through the issues, and the new SeedMaster was finally rolling. Two full days of delays had cost us, but it was still early. We could make up the time. Thankfully, it didn’t rain.

The rest of the week was a blur, with only a few other major issues, such as a blown fertilizer pump on the new liquid wagon (still not really sure why, I only know that it cost us a half a day and $1,500 for a new pump) and only a couple of minor stucks. Despite the issues, in that week we seeded the Green Peas, the lentils, 40% of the durum, half the canola and some spring wheat. I’d say we did pretty well!

The nice thing about having two large air drills is that when things go right, you can accomplish a lot in a day. We had a couple of 700+ acre days, and if there hadn’t been such a heavy dew this morning, we could have done that again today.

Keeping up with these drills is a challenge, and the trucks are non-stop busy all day. Hauling fertilizer and seed to the drills is a full-time job for two people, so our drill operators do tend to get stuck out in the field longer than they should. We are trying to address that by getting on a drill in the morning to get it going, but other jobs keep getting in the way!

All the pea and lentil ground needs to be rolled to flatten the fields out (these crops grow very low to the ground, so the combine needs to be able to run its header on the ground without picking dirt), many fields need vertical tillage to clean up last year’s straw, and most important of all, the sprayer needs to stay ahead of the drills to kill weeds before the crop comes up.

All of this can come together with organization and enough people to help. This weekend, my younger sister and her husband came out to help. We need all the people we can get to keep everything moving!

That’s all for now; it’s late and I have to get up very early to get the SeedMaster rolling in the morning. Rain is forecast for Monday, so we need to get all we can done ahead of it. Sleep will be in short supply tonight and tomorrow night! We have had a great week, covering 4,500 acres and 41% of the land, especially considering the challenges we had to fight through. If we can keep up the pace we have been running, in a week there won’t be much left (assuming it doesn’t rain). The marathon continues…

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.

Seeding Progresses…

It is 10:45 at night and I have just had supper, so I will make this short. Seeding is progressing fairly well, with the half-way point at hand. Tomorrow we will cross the half-way mark of the 2013 seeding season after a little more than a week of seeding. This progress is impressive, but we actually were a little faster last year, so I cannot help but feel that we can do better. Tomorrow we will finish our soybeans, and the day after our peas will also be completed. If things continue at the rate they are currently progressing, by early next week we should have our canola completed as well, leaving only the remaining durum acres and our spring wheat.

If you would have asked me 3 weeks ago if I thought we would be half-done by the 22nd of May, I would have laughed. 3 weeks ago, the ground was still white! Today, unbelievably, we are wishing for rain. What we have seeded is quite dry now, and most of our crop has yet to show its face. Every day seems to be warm, dry, and windy, which we were once happy about, but are now beginning to become concerned. We did get a rain on Monday, but unfortunately the ground we have seeded basically missed it. Ironically, the only fields that did get a significant amount of rain are fields that are not seeded yet.

The wind is becoming frustrating not only because of its drying effect on the soil (and on ourselves!) but because it is seriously disrupting our spraying. Generally, you must spray a field before or immediately after you seed it to take care of weeds before your crop comes up. Weeds can have a devastating effect on the success of your crop; and for some uncompetitive crops with limited chemical options, like peas and lentils, they can literally wipe a crop out. Therefore, completing spraying pre-emergence (called “burn-off”) is vital to the success of the growing season. Very windy days keep the sprayer parked because the spray simply will be blown away before it reaches the ground. Too many days like this in a row can really disrupt our ability to stay ahead of the crops (and the weeds).

Still, we are keeping up (barely) and we may be able to more or less finish seeding within the first week of June. This would be nothing short of outstanding progress, considering the very late start. Indeed, it may have been our latest start ever, and we will be able to finish seeding at quite an average time of the year. This is, of course, assuming there are no major breakdowns and no major rain events. Hopefully we do get some rain, though, or our best efforts of getting the crop in quickly will be in vain. Waiting for that first rain is always very stressful. A lot of money has been planted in the ground, and it could all go to waste simply by missing a couple of key rains.

But enough of that worry for tonight. The goal right now is to get the crop in and get it sprayed with as few mistakes as possible. This may seem like a bit of an oxymoron, as the harder you go, the less sleep you get, and the less sleep you get, the more mistakes you make. But this is a fact of life of Prairie dryland farming.

Tomorrow we will try to post some big acres and get our soybeans planted. Wish us luck!