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To Swath Or Not — Harvest Management Of Lentils

Success in lentil production is most often measured by yield production but equally important is the quality that farmers are able to pull out of the field. Each year is different and the last couple have dealt most of us a tough hand. Rain and poor weather at harvest is hard to handle, and at our farm the two to three weeks surrounding swathing and combining lentils has everyone on pins and needles, checking the weather forecast more times per day than is necessary.

If we are lucky enough to get the lentils off without poor weather, everything that follows seems to work a little smoother. We aren’t fighting with high moisture lentils, grading seems a little more on our side and marketing them through the winter is definitely a lot easier. However if the weather turns bad, it’s a struggle. It’s much more difficult to get the lentils in the bin in decent shape, and marketing off-grade lentils is time-consuming.

So what is the best way to manage lentils and get them into the bin in the best shape possible? Well, that depends on who you talk to. I asked four farmers from southeast Saskatchewan for their tips on managing lentils. Although they all have different perspectives and management practices, each has developed a system that works successfully on their farm.

SWATHING FOR TIMING, LOGISTICS

Probably the most traditional, tried-and-true method of harvesting lentils in Saskatchewan is swathing. Ken Fortner, who farms near McTaggart, said his number one reason for swathing is that he feels the lentils hold their colour better. He also said that when waiting for swathing time, it takes the lentils a little longer to mature than if they were sprayed, which often helps him obtain a better grade. Vaughn Johnson, who farms near Montmartre, agrees. While he concentrates on producing red lentils he also said he feels they have a much better chance to retain colour and quality when swathed. Johnson has both swathed and straight cut lentils, but in the past couple of years has gone completely to swathing.

Logistics is a major factor for him as swathing lentils increased harvest efficiency. “When we were straight cutting lentils, the acres combined in one day were not nearly what we can combine when they are swathed,” he said. “With our straight-cut equipment, we couldn’t get enough done in a day. We couldn’t combine fast enough.” Johnson also notes that cutting lentils slightly on the green side gives him a larger window to work in.

There is also the equipment factor. Most farmers are set up for swathing with very little change to their existing line of equipment. Swathing lentils reduces, if not eliminates, the risk of putting a rock through your combine — something that keeps the operator who straight cuts at the edge of their seat.

Both Fortner and Johnson say the most critical step is proper swath timing. If you are pushing the window and the lentils aren’t quite ready to go, they simply won’t cut well. Alternately, swathing on the late side definitely increases the amount of shatter loss. Picking the proper time can be hard depending on the amount of variability throughout the field. (Who hasn’t taken multiple trips to the field to determine if they are ready to go or not?) But swathing at the right moment can help reduce the amount of time the lentils lay in the swath. Both Fortner and Johnson aim for the lentils to be picked up in seven to 10 days, depending on the weather.

STRAIGHT-CUT RESULTS

But other farmers see better results by straight cutting. Jim and Pat Tanner farm west of Regina and straight cut all the red lentils on their farm. “We would never go back,” says Pat. They attribute much of their success to having the right equipment. The Tanners use a John Deere flex header with air reels. They say they experience virtually no shatter on the header, provided they can keep the speed of the combine up. If the crop is shorter or thinner, such as in low-lying areas last year, it can be difficult to keep the crop feeding well and the combine moving at the desired speed. More losses occur in a thin, poor stand than a nice thick crop.

For Allen Altwasser who farms near Yellow Grass, the benefits of straight cutting are all about time management. The Altwassers, who grow mostly large green lentils, have gradually “weaned themselves off of swathing.” Similar to most farms in the area, canola has continued to become a larger portion of their acreage. The time required for lentil swathing was too much and often overlapped when they needed to be swathing canola. They said they found that desiccating their lentils can be completed in a fraction of the time of swathing, and that has allowed them to concentrate their swathing time on canola while reducing the number of swathers on their farm.

Altwasser agreed that swathing lentils preserves better colour, but has found that it is not enough of an advantage compared to the time savings.

PROPER SPRAY TIMING

Both Tanner and Altwasser said it’s important to spray a desiccant at the correct time. “Guys tend to want to desiccate at the same time as they would swath,” says Altwasser.

Desiccation works more efficiently when it is sprayed slightly later, when the field looks fairly ripe across. It is also important to make sure you achieve good coverage to ensure that the stems dry down. Last year, the Tanners had their desiccation flown on by air due to the wet field conditions, but the dry down of the plant matter was not as good as in past years when they had applied it by ground.

I asked each of these farmers what they estimated their losses to be in the field. Not surprisingly, this was a tough question to answer as weather conditions can be a huge factor, as was evident last fall. After harvest it was hard to find a lentil field that didn’t have larger losses than would have be desired, regardless of when it was swathed or straight cut. The answers, which ranged from half of a bushel to three to four per cent would all have been in the range most farmers would be happy with.

On our farm, for many of the same reasons of Fortner and Johnson, we choose to swath our lentils. We would rather put additional production hours on our swather compared to our combine, which costs us much more to operate per acre. For our farm, we can swath and combine our lentils both at around six mph, whereas if we straight cut our lentils we would probably have to combine around four mph. Over a couple of years, these additional hours on our combine can really add up. This is often a cost most farmers don’t consider. However, I also understand the time sensitivity issue around lentil and canola swathing that the Altwassers have faced, and there are select years and fields that we will have to consider to manage by desiccation and straight cutting.

So should you swath or straight cut your lentils? I don’t think there is a completely right answer to that. Many farms successfully swath, while an equal amount successfully straight cut. What all of these farms have in common is a high level of urgency in managing the lentils, combining them and getting them into the bin. To successfully grow lentils, you have to prioritize them, and once you get a window to get them off of the field, you must seize that opportunity. That has never been clearer than over the last couple of falls. The wet uncooperative weather we have received has made the management of lentil harvest much tougher and more stressful than usual.

BobbieBratrudfarmswithherhusbandMark nearWeyburn,Sask.TheyalsorunBratrud AgAdvisoryServices( www.bratrudag.ca)

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