Ever since I became involved in the farm, seeding has been an endurance test. You push every hour of every day in the fight against time to try and hammer a crop in the ground. If you delay, if you hold back, you will regret it – and the farm will suffer for it. Every spring since 2009 has been wet, cold and generally hostile to planting quickly and properly. The key to surviving these years has been to have a lot of equipment, a lot of people, and simplified crop plans to try and plant as quickly and efficiently as possible.
2015 could not be more different. Spring so far has been warm, dry and generally pretty pleasant. Sure, there has been cold, and no shortage of wind (surprise, surprise), but this spring has been very conducive to quick planting. We started seeding on one of our earliest dates ever, April 23rd, and have now seeded two thirds of our crop (that does include winter wheat). To be this far into seeding this early is unprecedented in my father’s career.
Previous years have certainly changed our planting model. When I started becoming involved with the farm back in the late 2000’s, we had one 60 foot-wide air drill to seed over 9,000 acres. We ran it hard and only stopped for a few hours during the night, and since it was drier then, we could quite reasonably do that with low risk of problems. Now, we have more than doubled our drill size and only moderately expanded our acres to seed. Any day that we can possibly consider seeding, we go, and we go hard. Not being ready or having mechanical breakdowns is not an option. We have been groomed to plant a crop as quickly as possible, and any mistakes we make, rain can be counted on to fix.
While we still have a great deal of moisture saved up in our soil profile, and the sloughs are still very full, we are in a dry bias. We now have to consider making a paradigm shift in our entire seeding strategy; slowing down. If we plant too much too early, we run the risk of a frost crippling our crop. If we push too hard and make mistakes, we may not longer be able to count on a rain coming along to save us. Fertilizer placement and seeding depth are now critical issues; if we plant too shallow, and not hit moisture, we rely on rain coming along to get the crop germinated. What if it doesn’t rain for a few weeks? Sure, there is moisture underneath, but if that seed does not sense water around it, it simply will not start growing, and that subsoil moisture will be useless.
On the other hand, if we plant too deep and it does rain hard, we run the risk of the crop not breaking through the surface and going into secondary dormancy. How do we make this choice? We don’t know what the weather will do. Our soil type is very prone to crusting, and if we seed our canola too deep, we could lose it; but if it doesn’t germinate due to dried-out topsoil, we can lose it that way too. Any mistakes we make, or the electronics or hydraulics make, can seriously bite us in the future when we can’t rely on a rain.
It’s an odd feeling to worry over dryness when all I have done over the past 6-7 years is worry over saturation. The reality is that any small rain will get the crop going, and once those roots hit that subsoil moisture, we will be in good shape. Yesterday we may have gotten that; depending on the field, we got anywhere from 4-7 millimeters of rain, which although is quite minor, may just be enough to get germination.
What we need to do now is slow down and ensure everything we do is perfect. No mistakes can go on for long. When moisture is limited, you do whatever you can to conserve it and give your crop the best chance you can.
Of course, this sounds good in principle. But after years of pushing yourself to the point of exhaustion every single day to endeavor to plant every acre you can, it is very difficult to shed that mindset. You don’t need to run ridiculous hours. You don’t need to try and plant the entire crop in a week and a half. However, you do need to do the job right. There is no job we do all year that is more important to do perfectly than this one. There are no second chances.
Despite my concerns about the early calendar date and the drying topsoil, this is a wonderful change of pace from the last few years. The crops has been going into beautiful seedbed conditions, without being hammered by inches of rain every couple of weeks, with warm, cozy soil around them. We aren’t exhausted, seeding until midnight and starting again in the early hours of the morning, desperately trying to seed as many acres per day as humanly possible. As long as we get some timely rains, this is already shaping up to at least be a much less stressful year than we have seen in some time. We’ve had time to fix mechanical problems without pulling our hair out, we’ve had time to run some trials, and we’ve been able to check our work as we go – all very important components to proper seeding that have been avoided the past few years for lack of time to do them.
The next month and a half will be critical to the success of this year’s planting endeavor. We may finish seeding in a week or so, but we will be nervously looking at the nighttime temperatures and topsoil moisture. Will we get enough to get the crop growing? And, if we do, will it survive a month that often brings with it some awfully cold nights?
Whatever the case may be, I will say one thing: this drier, warmer spring? I think I like it.