Here are my observations of the 2008 crop from the highway and the combine cab

If nitrogen prices stay at 80 a pound and up, pea acreage could get a bit scary for next year.

This growing season I saw crops and soils from Saskatoon to the mountains and in both northwest and northeast Saskatchewan. In the good old days, I would see all of Saskatchewan and bits of our neighbours, so my sample is smaller this year. But I still made some interesting observations.

Moisture is still a huge factor determining how hard the truckers work in the fall. West of Rosetown and from Radisson to north of North Battleford, many crops were showing serious moisture stress in mid-July. Although I did not see it, phone conversations with farmers gave reports of dry conditions in the great southwest.

But despite all of that, 2008 will go down in the record books as above average. The agronomic package of most modern farms makes much better use of limited moisture than was the case a decade or more ago.

Zero-till and continuous cropping are now conventional. In the deep south, where some fallow is still present it is almost all chem fallow. I continue to worry about our reliance on one chemical for so much of what we do. Without glyphosate, most of our farming systems would quickly be toast.

Crop rotation of cereal, oilseed, cereal, pulse — or some variation thereof — is now standard practice. Pea was once considered a Black Soil Zone crop, but is now standard practice in almost all soil zones. If nitrogen prices stay at 80 a pound and up, pea acreage could get a bit scary for next year.

I had the opportunity to run a JD 9760 combine at my nephew’s farm at Nipawin. With the monitor registering 47 bushels per acre of canola over 220 acres, it was an interesting day. These new machines are grand pieces of engineering and so easy to run. Even an old fossil like me can manage.

In mid-September, Saskatchewan’s harvest was most advanced in the northeast — where harvest is often late. Tisdale has always been a huge area for flax, but not much was evident from the highway.

I had a second opportunity to drive a combine while at my son-in-law’s farm near Annaheim. This machine was a big, new MF 9885. In a 120-bushel oat crop, it and a field companion Case IH 8010 kept three semis and two 13-inch augers busy. The MF 9885 machine rubs out oats so fast that it would fill the hopper of the first combine I ever ran (an Oliver 30 pull-type) in a minute.

The biggest observation from the yellow line is the predominance of clean, weed free crops and the lack of any obvious nutrient deficiency. The agronomic package of most modern farms is well established and, simply, it works. In good years, it works in spades and in some mediocre years the results are still fair.

How things change

Road trips in May and early June painted a dismal picture for 2008. Canola germination was poor due to lack of rain and cold temperatures made for slow development. (Where is a good shot of global warming when you need it most?) Even in July, it was my opinion that a 25-bushel canola crop in our area at Dundurn would be considered good. In the end, 30-plus bushels per acre was common and some quarters went as high as 40. But we must give Mother Nature just credit: Many of the good canola yields of this year are due in no small measure to a cool July and warm August with no frost.

So 2008 will go down on most balance sheets as a good year. Many inputs were priced at last year’s prices. Some farmers were smart enough to recognize a good profit staring them in the face and priced in some of the crop at what now looks like windfall prices.

Be careful to keep some cash handy. With the goings on with the three-piece suit crowd on Wall and Bay Streets, who knows what the future holds.

J. L. (Les) Henry is a former professor and extension specialist at the University of Saskatchewan. He farms near Dundurn, Sask.

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