How many tens — or hundreds — of millions of dollars might pour out of the backs of Prairie combines this harvest?
No one can say for sure, but Vegreville producer Darcy Sarafinchan knows that if he’s not checking for issues when combining canola, the number can get big in a hurry.
“When you start getting into $10 to $12 canola and you start throwing more bushels over, all of a sudden, your losses are considerable,” said Sarafinchan. “Over 1,000 to 1,500 acres, you’re up to 75 grand pretty quickly.”
That calculation is based on losses of five or more bushels an acre — but that seemingly extreme loss isn’t as unusual as you might think.
“The potential for canola threshing losses is huge,” said Angela Brackenreed, an agronomist with the Canola Council of Canada. “I’ve seen it climb just over five bushels an acre. We haven’t done a great survey of just threshing losses but just anecdotally, it’s pretty typical to see two bushels an acre.
“(That) represents huge losses across Western Canada in general and for individual producers in particular.”
At $11 a bushel and about 22 million canola acres to be harvested, those two bushels an acre translate into near half a billion dollars.
A realistic goal is two per cent of yield (four-fifths of a bushel on a 40-bushel-an-acre crop) — and half a bushel is an achievable target, she said.
“There are certain crop conditions and weather conditions that might not be possible, so at that point, a producer needs to decide if they are willing to accept higher losses or if they are willing to wait for better conditions,” said Brackenreed.
But many producers are flying blind because they don’t measure how much canola seed is being blown out with the chaff and straw.
But not Sarafinchan who uses a drop pan to collect samples, removing the chaff and straw before weighing the seed. He then uses a chart to calculate his losses.
“We’ve always checked to make sure that we’re doing a reasonable job and throwing as little seed grain as possible,” he said. “We used to go behind with a shovel and then we went with a controlled pan.
“With combines getting bigger and bigger, they’re moving a little faster. With the drop pan on the bottom of the combine, it’s just safer.”
Saskatchewan producer Terry Youzwa also uses a drop pan to ensure that he’s not losing too much from his combine.
“If we’re under two per cent, we’re pretty happy,” said the Nipawin farmer. “It’s worth the time to know that you feel better.”
A number of factors can increase losses, including improper fan speed, cylinder or rotor speed, and sieve settings. And of course, going too fast can be a killer — as little as 0.2 m.p.h. too much can dramatically boost losses.
Bigger combines with more horsepower just ups the risk.
“They have that much more power to put it through and just because you’re putting it through doesn’t mean that you’re doing a good job,” said Youzwa. “It’s probably a bigger issue now than it was 20 years ago.”
Youzwa hasn’t seen large losses, but knows it’s an issue for some.
“Most of us have gone to straight cutting larger portions of our crop and that slows you down and you’re doing a better job of separating it,” he said. “It’s always worth it to check what’s coming out of the back of the combine so that you know that you’re doing a good job and capturing all the value that you can.”
No ‘magic bullet’
So what does a ‘good job’ involve?
“Scratching around on the dirt doesn’t cut it, especially with modern choppers and spreaders,” said Brackenreed. “We can’t really do anything with setting adjustments until we know what that number is. Once you’ve done that, we’ve always encouraged people to change one setting at a time and then check again.”
And while it’s a cliché, there is a new app for that — and it can make that job of adjustments easier.
The web-based tool — developed by the canola council and the Prairie Agricultural Machinery Institute — works by asking a series of questions. It then narrows down a list of choices for setting adjustments.
It’s best to move from the front of the machine to the back. So there’s rotor speed adjustments, concave clearance adjustments, speed adjustments and top and bottom sieve adjustments. The app can help producers consider the implication of one adjustment on the next.
“For example, if we decrease our rotor speed or decrease our concave clearance, we’re now threshing a little more aggressively,” said Brackenreed. “That can really change what’s happening in the cleaning system in the back end.”
While the app can both speed and improve the process, it doesn’t change the fact that adjustments are a never-ending job.
“I think every producer, and I completely sympathize with this, we’re all looking for that magic bullet recommendation for combine settings,” she said. “Unfortunately, it’s just not feasible.
“We need to be checking our losses, checking our grain sample quality as conditions change as we change fields and as the weather changes.”
The app can be found at www.canolacalculator.ca.
The canola council also has a video that shows the wide variety of devices that producers use to take samples, how to properly use them, and how to calculate losses. Both Sarafinchan and Youzwa are in the video as are a number of other Alberta farmers. The video ‘Harvest Management & Mitigating Loss’ can be found on YouTube.
The original seven-minute video only attracted about 2,300 views so the council recently put out a shorter version.
“We are really encouraging producers to check behind their machines to see what those losses are,” said Brackenreed.
“Canola is such a small seed. Losses can be substantial.”