The Big Three “to-do’s”: Experts offer their post-harvest advice

Whether it’s in the office or the field, there are some jobs 
that should be at the top of your to-do list

Reading Time: 9 minutes

For many producers, this harvest is going to seem to drag on forever.

But, of course, it won’t.

The combine will be parked, the farm meetings and shows will get underway, Christmas will come and go, and before you know it, you’re in the shed getting the seeding rig ready.

So with that in mind, Alberta Farmer reporters Alexis Kienlen and Jennifer Blair asked six experts a simple question: What are the three big things farmers should attend to once harvest is over?

Three want you to get in the office and three say there’s important things in the field to be done. You’ve likely heard most of this advice before, but that’s not the point. Rather, it’s that time slips by and some jobs shouldn’t wait.

A changed landscape

Get those grain samples tested, sharpen your pencil, and shop around for marketing options, said Brenda Tjaden Lepp, co-founder of FarmLink Marketing Solutions.

“Get samples tested to get quality results,” said Tjaden Lepp. “Wheat quality really matters to the price, to the value, and to the end-use market, and it really can vary a lot.”

While oil content is the No. 1 consideration for canola, it’s a different story for wheat. Sprout damage, protein, grade, and fusarium levels are some of the items on the “long list of factors that will have an impact on the value,” she noted.

Start with third-party testing, such as that offered by the Canadian Grain Commission.

Brenda Tjaden Lepp
Brenda Tjaden Lepp Brenda Tjaden Lepp

“As a farmer, if you just take your samples from one elevator to the next and see what they grade it, you don’t necessarily have all the information to start that negotiation,” she said.

Next, “pencil out returns for next year.”

“It’s never too early to start working on crop budgets for new crop. The best decision on what to plant should be based on — after agronomics — relative return.”

There’s been a big change in the futures markets in the past few months and many producers are now around their cost of production. The problem is that many don’t have a good handle on their expenses.

“If your cost of production figures are a year or two old, you really have to refine those because cost of production has gone up quite a bit,” said Tjaden Lepp.

“The earlier you can get started on that, the better your final decision is going to be on what to grow.”

The last item on her Big Three is: Shop around.

“The last couple of years has seen an enormous amount of change in the structure of grain marketing in Western Canada, and with that has come new opportunities for new entrants into the market.”

Established grain buyers from the U.S. and beyond see Canada’s now fully open market as a prime opportunity to expand their business, she said.

“It might be surprising to a lot of growers to find out just how many different buyers there are for their crops,” said Tjaden Lepp.

Make a list of all potential buyers, old and new, and then work the phone.

“Every time you want to make a sale, you want to be calling literally 10 or 15 different buyers, and they should come from different sectors,” she said.

“The variability between one buyer and the next can be $2 to $3 a bushel for the same grain in the same town on the same day.” — Jennifer Blair

Develop relationships

Tjaden Lepp’s main points are echoed by Charlie Pearson, provincial crops analyst with Alberta Agriculture — get your grain tested, have a marketing plan, and shop around for buyers.

But he also urges producers to recognize that the three are uniquely linked this year.

Charlie Pearson
Charlie Pearson Charlie Pearson

“In the last couple of years, farmers have mostly had high-quality wheat,” said Pearson. “This year, their wheat will be a real dog’s breakfast.”

Prices have dropped substantially from a year ago, so don’t get your hopes up if you’re selling feed wheat, he said. But since so much wheat has been downgraded, it’s a different situation for top-quality wheat.

That’s why Pearson recommends having a chat with grain buyers when taking in samples.

“If you have a conversation with the grain companies, they kind of know what you’ve got in the bin,” he said. “In that conversation, you’ll know what they are looking for.”

It’s not just about knowing what you have to sell, it’s also about the relationship, he added.

“The better relationship you have with the company, the more that company knows what is in your bin, and they’ll be more aggressive about approaching you too. If the company has needs and they know people who can meet those needs, it’s a simple phone call.” — Alexis Kienlen

Cash is king

It’s no surprise that the manager of business structure and financial policy at Alberta Agriculture is big on crunching numbers.

But Joel Bokenfohr’s advice centres on both knowing your production costs right now and your cash flow needs in the longer term.

joel_bokenfohr_cmyk.jpg
Joel Bokenfohr

“It’s a good time to go back and look at the cost of production and what it costs to produce over the year,” he said.

Take the time to ensure every production cost goes into your spreadsheet and that includes the cost of your time and any other labour.

Then turn to face the future. What is your immediate cash flow situation? What payments are due? What are the opportunities when it comes to pre-pricing inputs? What are the tax implications of selling versus storing grain?

On that last score, Bokenfohr said he’s seen a lot of grain deferrals in the past five years. But this might not be a year to take one.

“It might balance out some income if they are selling in this quarter here,” he said.

Of course, some who would like to hold on to grain in hopes of a price rebound may have to sell because of their cash flow or storage situation. In that case, consider taking a futures contract or option on it, he said.

But above all, think about where you could be a year from now, Bokenfohr said.

It’s been a disappointing year for grain and oilseed prices, but 2015 could be even more of a crunch, he said. — Alexis Kienlen

Next moves

Office work may not be the most fun task, but getting it done early has allowed Gary Stanford to be out on his land this month.

“During the month of October, we’re going to deep band the fertilizer for next year,” said the Magrath-area grain farmer. “We’ve found that it opens up our land a little bit so it will warm up a little quicker in the spring.”

He also hopes to save money.

gary_stanford_cmyk.jpg
Gary Stanford

“Urea right now is below $500 a tonne to buy it. Last spring, it was around $800 a tonne. It’s a significant savings of around $300 a tonne if a person can put some on in the fall.”

It helps that most of the grain Stanford delivered this fall was contracted “a long time ago.” Having attended to his cash flow needs means he’s got options on what’s not sold.

“We’re hoping the wheat price will go a little higher during the winter,” he said. “I know there’s a lot of wheat in the world, but the good-quality wheat — the Grade 1 and high protein — we’re hoping there will be a little bit of a premium for that. Some of that, we’re just going to hold on to for a while.”

The second thing on his mind is post-harvest weed control.

“What I’m finding is where the crops were harvested in August and the first part of September, the fields are turning very green with weeds and with volunteer grain,” he said.

The plan was spray with glyphosate before the hard frost hits, and that will impact what he plants in the spring, another decision he plans to make this month.

“We have to be careful that if we’re going to seed canola, we have to use something that’s not going to carry over and cause bad germination in the spring,” said Stanford.

“We have an idea on a lot of the fields, but there are still some fields that are up in the air.”

But as always, field time has to be balanced with office work — and that means thinking about the marketing of the next harvest.

“If we’re going to contract any grain now, it would probably be looking forward into 2015 and seeing what the futures hold there.” — Jennifer Blair

Last look

Agronomist Dan Orchard has another priority for field work — analyze what happened this year.

Look at stubble and count the number of plants per square foot, and also check to see if you hit your yield targets, said the Canola Council of Canada specialist.

dan_orchard_cmyk.jpg
Dan Orchard

“And then you can go back in time and figure out why you didn’t hit your yield target,” he said. “It could be weather or fertility. Then you can make some corrections over the winter.”

Growers should also check out clubroot-resistant canola varieties and the latest info on clubroot infestation levels in your area. (An updated map will be available shortly at www.agric.gov.ab.ca. To find it, type ‘clubroot map’ in the search box.)

“I think most of the Prairies should be growing clubroot-resistant varieties, but the updated map may offer better information on how many fields are affected,” he said.

You can also survey your canola fields for the disease.

“In some of the hot spots, it’s hard to find it in the stubble, and some of the galls are starting to decay right now, but it’s still possible,” he said. “I can still find it and identify it.”

Looking forward, Orchard said he gets a lot of questions about cutting seeding rates to save money, and he knows many producers who lowered rates and had good crops this year.

But don’t discount the risk.

“There are some things that work better in some years than others,” he said. “Don’t take what happened this year as gospel truth that it will happen that way every year… I think it’s best to look at multiple years of research that would show things like seeding rate and fertility recommendations that seem to work over the long run.” — Alexis Kienlen

Weeds, residue and stubble

Taking care of weeds, managing residue, and looking for issues with your air drill are agronomist Steve Larocque’s Big Three.

He’s been recommending granular herbicides to clients for six or seven years, with good results.

“I typically use them on my heaviest weed pressure fields, those with the heaviest amount of buckwheat or heaviest amount of wild oat pressure. Those are the ones I target in the fall,” said Larocque, who runs Beyond Agronomy near Three Hills.

He applies Avadex on his wheat fields “just prior to the snow.”

Steve Larocque
Steve Larocque Steve Larocque

“As much as possible, we’ll do it as late as possible, and we won’t even incorporate. We’ll use the drill in the spring to do the incorporation,” he said.

“Ideally, we would broadcast granular herbicides, then heavy harrow it in. But in late fall, the fields are already harrowed and the weather is less than ideal for managing straw. Broadcasting Avadex in late October and prior to the snowfall has worked well for us.”

A post-harvest glyphosate burn-off is used to tackle perennial weeds, such as foxtail barley and Canada thistle, if there’s not “a ton of residue on the surface.”

“If you heavy harrowed early and you’ve got three or four weeks after harvest, you may have a chance of doing a fall burn-off.”

A late-fall application of PrePass or Express Pro, a Group 2 residual, on canola fields provides some control for volunteer canola in the spring.

Even though conditions were tough during harvest, residue management is “not rocket science,” he said.

“There won’t be many good days of heavy harrowing this fall, so be sure to choose the fields that need it the most first,” said Larocque.

“If you did a really poor job of spreading residue because conditions are tough, just look around. Not every field is going to need to be heavy harrowed.”

But stay away from vertical tillage, he said.

“It is all the rage right now, but I would definitely be cautious with vertical tillage unless you’ve got serious residue issues you need to take care of that a heavy harrow won’t,” said Larocque, adding that pea stubble often requires shallow vertical tillage.

At the same time, measure stubble patterns, he said.

“If you’re really keen on figuring out how many stems per foot you’re achieving, you can start measuring your stubble and figure out what your pattern is, specifically in canola.”

It’s a good way to identify distribution issues with your air seeding system, he said.

“If you can find out the row direction or the direction your drill was travelling, you can start measuring which shanks are performing well and which ones aren’t. Oftentimes, you will find a difference across the drill.”

Larocque recommends measuring plant densities in fall rather than spring because “those plants don’t always make it to fall.”

“It’s a really good time to go out and measure the plant spacing to see if it’s clumping or bunching or leaving big gaps.” — Jennifer Blair

About the author

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Reporter

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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