ONE FOR THE BOOKS: Lessons learned, and a look ahead

‘Don’t wait for the perfect day’ is one of the key lessons from 2016, 
and sticking to rotations may be one for this year

Allison Ammeter didn’t see the inside of a combine in October. As harvest carried on across the province, Ammeter was left waiting and wondering when the rains would stop and whether she and husband Mike would finish harvest before the snow started flying.

They didn’t.

“We got not quite two-thirds done, which is fairly average in our area,” said the Sylvan Lake-area farmer.

“We did our peas and most of our barley in September, and didn’t do any wheat or canola until November. We’ve still got a fair bit of wheat out, a little bit of canola, and all our fababeans are still out.

“Nobody in Alberta has seen this in the last 60 years. We’re all kind of making it up as we go along.”

At first glance, this looks like a typical harvest scene, except it took place in November. After spending all of October waiting to get back into the field, Allison Ammeter was finally able to continue harvest in November.

At first glance, this looks like a typical harvest scene, except it took place in November. After spending all of October waiting to get back into the field, Allison Ammeter was finally able to continue harvest in November.
photo: Supplied

But despite the unprecedented weather and record-long harvest, the lesson she learned from it was nothing new — “weather changes, and you have to roll with the punches.”

“We seeded probably the earliest we’ve ever had our entire crop in the ground, and we were prepared that we might be combining in August given how early our seeding was,” she said. “But it was a cool, cloudy, rainy summer, and everything was later, despite when it got started.”

Like Ammeter, D’Arcy Hilgartner didn’t quite finish harvest on his farm near Camrose, despite a strong start to the growing season.

“We started out the year fairly dry. As we came into May, there wasn’t a lot of moisture out there, and as we came to the end of seeding, it was getting really dry,” said Hilgartner.

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“But seeding went better than it has in years. We didn’t have any weather delays. We didn’t get stuck. We didn’t have any issues that way.

“We got it all seeded and then the rains came, which was perfect. But the rains really never stopped until it snowed.”

The delayed harvest was a good reminder to “take advantage of every possible opportunity,” he said.

“There was no such thing as a perfect spraying day this year. It was more like, ‘it’s pretty close,’ or, ‘the crop is almost dry,’” said Hilgartner, who still has some flax and fababeans out in the field.

“We probably could have got a little further along in harvest before the rains hit again in October if we had done that a little more, but that’s one of those areas that you learn.”

Not all bad news

On the other hand, Dave Bishop was one of the few farmers in Alberta who lucked out in September.

“We were luckier than most of the rest of the province because everyone down here got everything off, even if it was later,” said Bishop, who farms near Barons, just north of Lethbridge.

“But it was a good reminder that Mother Nature rules the roost and can sometimes kick you in the butt when you least expect it.”

Spring seeding was drier than normal for Bishop, who has both dryland and irrigated crops. But in the end, “everything came off pretty good.”

“We started seeding pretty dry, but then it started raining and we ended up with a pretty decent crop. I feel very fortunate that the weather co-operated more so down in the south here and we were able to get our crops off.”

It was the same story on Greg Sears’ farm near Sexsmith.

“In our immediate area — and when I say immediate, I’m talking about 10 miles around us — people ended up being done fairly fast,” said Sears. “Ourselves, we were finished before the end of September before the really horrible weather set in.”

The dry spring was a nail-biter for Sears, but he learned quickly that “you always have to stay optimistic about what’s going to come.”

“Going into the season, in the spring we were dry and I don’t think there was much optimism when we were putting seed in the ground,” said Sears.

“But it turned out to be quite the opposite at the end of the year, and our yields were really good in our area.”

And harvest was a prime example of “making hay while the sun shines,” he added.

“A lot of people regret maybe waiting that extra day for something to get perfect instead of getting a little more aggressive and harvesting things when conditions were first appropriate.”

Spring harvest

But even though Sears finished harvest, he didn’t get his fall work done, including his normal fall application of fertilizer, and that’s “definitely going to make for more work in the spring.”

“With a little better preparation, I think we probably could have got the majority of that fall work done,” he said.

Bishop managed to get his fall work done “a week or two later than normal,” so he should be set to seed on time in the spring.

“I really feel for the farmers who still have crop out there because it’s going to be a big delay in the spring — they’re going to have to deal with the crop laying out there,” he said. “That’s going to delay their spring, and if it happens to be a wet spring, it’s just going to delay them further.”

For Hilgartner, “the harvest of 2016 will continue into the spring of 2017, unfortunately.”

“If things start to dry off in mid-March, it won’t take us very long to finish harvest off. But it’s always out there looming above us that we’re not quite done,” said Hilgartner. “How it will impact seeding is hard to say.”

That’s the big question on Ammeter’s farm, too.

“We’re going to have to do something fast, because our priority is to seed the next crop, or else we’re going to be in exactly the same place next fall,” she said. “We don’t want to start getting into that cycle.”

Ammeter expects they will at least be able to combine their canola, but options are limited for the wheat.

“I think we’re going to be dealing with it in some rather environmentally unpalatable ways, like burning it or doing some deep tillage,” she said. “We’re a low-till or zero-till farm, so that goes against our grain. But there’s a lot of 100-bushel wheat out there getting chewed up by mice.

“I think there will be a lot of people lighting matches around here.”

Cropping plans

The potential for a late start could also see a shift in some crop acres — mainly away from long-season crops toward shorter-season options.

“In the areas that have been hard hit, I think we’re going to find that if people can’t get crops off fast enough, they’re going to have to put in really short-season crops,” said Ammeter.

“Usually people make decisions based on price, but from the standpoint of what do we have time left to seed, we might see more of the short-season crops seeded unless we get a really early spring.”

Fababeans, for instance, take around 110 days to reach maturity, and they’re usually the first crop in the ground, said Ammeter. Peas, on the other hand, are a 90-day crop, so that’s going to factor in when people are pencilling out their cropping plans for 2017.

“It’s a whole different type of decision-making,” said Ammeter. “Normally, we’re looking at what’s our rotation, what are the best varieties for our climate, what are the prices looking like worldwide, and right now, we’ve thrown in this additional thing of when will I be able to get onto my land and do I need to choose something shorter season.”

Sears agrees.

“I suspect around the province there’s going to be a shift to shorter-season crops with the additional work of spring harvest and spring field work that has to be done.”

Sears is planning on reducing his wheat acres and increasing both field pea and malt barley acres, mainly because of a lack of fall fertilizer. But he doesn’t expect that most farmers will “change up their rotations a huge amount.”

“Making wholesale changes to rotations is usually not the best idea.”

Likewise, Hilgartner will be sticking to their rotation, come what may this spring.

“We have a rotation, and we follow it. We might not get the crops all at a high, but we won’t get them all at a low either.”

And as far as Ammeter is concerned, rotation is the “best tool they have” to spread their risk around and weather this storm.

“Last year (2015), we probably had the easiest harvest we’ve had in 10 years, and this year, we had the toughest harvest we’ve had in 70 years — but I don’t think that means that you change rotations,” said Ammeter. “For the most part, we still think that crop rotations are the answer, that the best thing you can do is stick to a rotation.

“I think this will be a year that really proves that one out.”

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Blair

Jennifer Blair is a Red Deer-based reporter with a post-secondary education in professional writing and nearly 10 years of experience in corporate communications, policy development, and journalism. She's spent half of her career telling stories about an industry she loves for an audience she admires--the farmers who work every day to build a better agriculture industry in Alberta.

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