The crop is planted. Time to load up the camper and come back for harvest, right?
Once upon a time, summer was a much quieter time on the farm. Once the crop was in, there might be a bit of spraying to do to clean up weeds, and there was always the cultivating – the endless tillage that came with half the farm being left as “summerfallow”, as in, not seeded to build up water and nutrients for next year (not a common practice anymore). But these tasks weren’t all-consuming. No, what kept most farms busy during the summer in the old days were the livestock. A lot more farms were mixed in those days, ours included. When I was young and in school, dad had about 200 cows, along with his grain farm. My summers were spent running a round baler, making hay and greenfeed bales for our cattle. It was a great summer job – air conditioning, an AM radio, and endless hours in the field to ponder all sorts of things.
Okay, fine. It was a little boring at times.
When we let go of the cattle, I’m sure dad expected summer to be a little quieter. In reality, the opposite occurred. Summer is now dominated by spraying.
How did this happen? I’d like to say it’s one simple thing, but it isn’t; like everything, there were a number of factors that converged to cause this change to occur. We discovered that protecting our crops from stress resulted in higher yields, so more care was given to weed control, extending that application out a little later into June. Improvements to crop genetics created newer, higher yielding varieties, which generated more opportunity, but also resulted in denser canopies more susceptible to disease. We learned we could get significant return on investment in protecting our crops from these diseases, so we began applying fungicides more regularly. All that potential for high yields from our newer varieties resulted in a lot of risk in applying all the fertility up front at seeding. So, we began applying extra fertilizer as the crop was growing (called top-dressing). We tried plant growth regulators and micronutrients to give our crops a little extra boost in season, protect them from lodging, and to take advantage of all that extra fertility. After all, crops need a balance of all nutrients to develop properly. All these new practices and ideas dramatically improved our yields, while making them more stable year to year, reducing our overall risk to weather, insects, and pathogens. All these new products and technologies also allowed us to try more sensitive crops, like peas and lentils, that require more care. This broadened and improved our overall crop rotations.
The cost of all these products is steep, so regular scouting is critical to ensure they will provide a return on investment. Every year, we test out new products, requiring careful monitoring of the test strips to see what differences the new product will elicit. There truly is no more important job for a farmer than to be in his or her field, scouting out what’s happening.
I hear many people say this is a huge problem with modern agriculture: all this spraying is causing environmental problems, hurting vulnerable organisms. I hear none of this is really needed; just fix up your soil and make it more “regenerative” and all this work and expense can go away. Perhaps that’s true, and maybe someday we will discover ways to minimize our applications to our crops. But, for now, what we are doing is working, and I have yet to be convinced that spraying micronutrients, plant growth regulators, fertilizers, and fungicides are really all that harmful to the environment. Even our insecticides are becoming safer for non-target organisms. Take, for example, an insecticide called Coragen, which is highly selective and quite effective against terrible pests like grasshoppers and armyworms. Its toxicity is lower than almost any of the products we use to kill weeds, which really is saying a lot. It’s worth noting that we really don’t want to spray if we don’t need to. It’s expensive and time consuming, so we’re only using what we believe is needed based on our own scouting (or that of a professional).
Spraying isn’t all we’re doing. We’re still selling and hauling our 2021 crop. We’re cleaning and re-organizing bins for the 2022 harvest, which is just a short 6 weeks away. We’re cleaning up our air drills and preparing them for next year, ensuring they are absolutely ready to go when we hook up next spring. With the crop in the ground, an immense amount of work needs to be done with our bookkeeping, budgets, capital update plans, and more. We need to get out and see what other farms are doing, too, to try to find better ways of doing what we’re doing.
If you pay attention, and listen carefully, you can learn something from anyone. Every single farmer I’ve ever met has some insight that we haven’t thought of yet. It is in our best interest to seek these out.
Somehow, in the midst of all this, we still have a farmyard to look after. Our yards are huge, spanning multiple acres, with trees, grass, and gardens to tend to. We have many buildings, some new, some old, that need constant update and repair. Our binyard needs proper drainage, gravel, spraying and weeding, even just filling in gopher holes! There truly is no end to the work that could be done to make our yards better.
The thing that often gets lost in all this is the need to spend time with family and friends. Saskatchewan is home to roughly one hundred thousand lakes. Even deep in the south part of the province, where I live, there are gems like Kenosee and Diefenbaker. My kids, like most others I bet, love camping, and it’s so important to spend that time with them while they’re still little. My kids, 6, 4, and 1 years old, are starting to get involved in their own activities, like baseball, dirtbiking, and soccer, and love to have their dad there to watch them. Sometimes, that just isn’t possible. It was truly a rare occasion for my dad to come to any of that stuff when I was little. He was just too busy, and I understood that. But I know I need to be there as much as I can. I know how quickly it will all be over. And, of course, little kids do seem to have a way of spoiling parents’ plans to get away on their own, by getting sick right before it’s time to leave!
Somehow, even though there is no end to the work that can be done on a modern grain farm in the Prairies, we have to take the time to unwind and recharge, even just to look after ourselves – and our families. After all, fall isn’t really that far away, and we need to be ready for the biggest marathon of all: harvest.