Editor’s Column: What you can do now to mitigate the risks and challenges associated with later harvests

Does this fall harvest scenario seem familiar to you — the crop is a little tough so the farmer thinks he or she will wait a week to see what the weather does in hopes of taking the crop off dry.

And then the bad weather rolls in.

Now the farmer is stuck because the crop is really tough. If this has happened to you in the last few years, you’re not alone. In fact, it’s something Joy Agnew, grain storage expert and associate vice-president of applied research at Alberta’s Olds College, hears all the time from farmers in the fall.

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Based on Saskatchewan and Alberta Ministry of Agriculture harvest progress reports over the past 12 years, a trend has been emerging toward later harvests, says Agnew. Later harvests mean less capacity for natural grain drying in the field and an increased likelihood of storing grain at higher risks of spoilage.

With less opportunity to naturally dry the grain down, there are increasing risks of losing grade or losing value of the crop as it’s stored in unfavourable conditions. In addition, farmers are more reliant on heated air-drying systems to mitigate spoilage risk, she says.

In a few short months, harvest season will be upon us once more. Although we’re all hopeful for a return to more “typical” harvest conditions, there is a chance we will see more of the same this fall — wet, cold, even snowy, weather.

Last year, estimates of crop acres left out in fields were reported around 1.6 million in Alberta, two million in Saskatchewan and just under 420,000 in Manitoba after immature crops, rain and early snowfall delayed or halted harvest.

Short-term solutions

If this trend for later harvests continues, what can you do to manage tough or damp grain and decrease your risks of grain spoilage? Agnew has some short-term suggestions, but foremost is to think like a Scout and “Be Prepared,” as the motto goes, to ensure the safety of your grain after harvest. “Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. I hope this fall season trends back toward what we consider normal, but there’s no guarantee of that. Let’s be prepared,” she says.

For example, Agnew recommends if you haven’t had to dry grain yet, learn how. Online tools and resources, fact sheets and other sources of information will help you understand the dos and don’ts of grain drying and what will work in your area and what won’t. Go into the fall season as educated as possible, she suggests.

If you have the capital available, start investing it in some of the tools you need to manage tough grain, such as fans and supplemental heater systems. Also, invest in equipment before a wet fall begins so you’re not faced with empty retail shelves and no access to the tools you need, Agnew recommends.

Start thinking now about all the options available to you if your grain is tough or damp coming off the field so you can make good decisions when the crunch comes, she suggests.

For example, consider the following questions well before harvest:

  • Do you have a neighbour with a dedicated drying unit you could use?
  • Do you know someone you can borrow a heating system from?
  • Do you have access to mobile grain-drying systems you can bring onto your farm?
  • Is there an elevator close by that will dry grain for you without a high penalty?
  • Do you have adequate access to heating fuel?
  • Will you have a propane supply issue?
  • Can you pipe in natural gas?

On the horizon

At the Olds College Smart Farm, Agnew is working on a number of projects to mitigate the challenges and risks of later harvests. For example, she’s considering whether or not certain agronomic practices, such as adjusting seeding dates, play a role in decreasing harvest risks. Another area of interest is whether variable-rate applications and variable-rate seeding — which usually results in more uniform stands and maturity at harvest — might allow farmers to harvest earlier than if the stand wasn’t uniform and didn’t have even maturity; thus, decreasing the risks associated with a later harvest.

None of these are easy, quick fixes, admits Agnew, and have to happen well in advance of the harvest season. “It’s looking at the entire practice as a whole to make sure that crop can come off as early as possible,” she says.

At the Smart Farm, she’s also looking into microclimate sensors and tools that provide hyper-specific forecasting on a field-by-field basis. The theory is, if a farmer had specific, accurate, weather forecasts for certain areas of the farm, it might help with managing decisions around harvest.

Agnew is also thinking about creating a project on decision support tools. Presently, there is equipment available that aid decision support tools, such as in-bin drying monitors, which help farmers predict how many days are needed to run a fan to dry grain based on forecasting and in-bin and external environmental conditions. These types of tools are great, says Agnew, however, they still have to be integrated into a larger decision support platform that takes into account many factors (e.g. fuel costs of grain drying), which is a large endeavour. “A lot of those pieces that are needed to build that platform are already there, someone just has to put it all together,” she says.

There’s no telling right now what the harvest season will be like in Western Canada this year, however, it’s good to know people like Agnew are already trying to figure out how to decrease risks that cut into your profits. If you have solutions that have worked on your farm to mitigate the challenges and difficulties of later harvests, please drop me a line at [email protected].

Stay healthy, safe and happy this summer!

About the author

Editor

Kari Belanger

Kari Belanger has been a writer and editor since graduating from the University of Calgary with a B.Sc. in Biology and a BA in English Literature in 1996. For more than twenty years, she has worked in many different industries and media, including newspapers and trade publications. For the past decade she has worked exclusively in the agriculture industry, leading a number of publications as editor. Kari has a particular passion for grower-focused publications and a deep respect for Canadian farmers and the work they do. Her keen interest in agronomy and love of writing have led to her long-term commitment to support, strengthen and participate in the industry.

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