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Cousins working together on our family owned farm with the aim of running a commercial modern farm producing high yielding, high standard crops while maximising wildlife diversity. Brian is said to be the farmer and conservationist, whereas Patrick is a conservationist and farmer. This mix has given a new direction for the farm, building upon the work that our fathers and grandfather has done to improve the overall success of the farm business. The farm has gone from strength to strength with the farm being recognised at a national level winning the coveted National FWAG’s Silver Lapwing Award for farming and conservation in 2009 and then Patrick and Brian were named Countryside Farmer of the Year by the Farmers Weekly in 2010.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Harvest Secrets

 Harvest Secrets
So what happens behind the scenes of a farm at harvest?
You may have been out and about in the countryside and heard the murmur of the combine in the nearby field, seen tractor and trailers brimming-full roaring up the village then bouncing back empty again for another load as the combine’s warning light starts to flash. All these sights people see from their car windows, homes and while out on the evening walk but what really is going on?
This is a day in the life of me during the wheat harvest:
6.40am – ‘Nellie the Elephant’ by the Toy Dolls jumps into action on my phone next to my ear and a sleepy-eyed zombie climbs out of bed (actually a couple of snooze buttons later).
7.12am – Me, one dog and lunch box are en route to the farm; wave at the dog walker and same cyclist as I do every morning on the same stretch of road.
7.30am – All are on deck at the farm, John and Nick are busy getting machinery ready for the day’s big push.
 John will be out with the big-tracked tractor either Mole draining; Sub soiling, if the soil structure in the fields requires it; or using our new cultivator to pulling down the stubbles and prepare them for next year’s drilling. Fuel will be filled up: the tractor takes about 500L a day to run; the cultivators need greasing and wearing points need to be checked; radiator and air filters need to be blown out so that the tractor runs as efficiently as possible.
Clean down from day before
Nick will be busy going through all the daily checks on the combine. More fuel: another 800L a day is fed into this thirsty monster! Belts, chains and sensors need checking; grease points need to be lubricated; windows and mirrors need to be de-dusted and cleaned; the whole combine will be blown down with the air compressor to clear flammable dust and debris from the day before. This is done as a matter of course as the engine is running so hot that dry dust and straw can easily combust if it builds up on or around the engine, starting a fire.
I will be planning the day ahead: which fields, where the tons of wheat need to go in store, how much we did yesterday, where the different varieties are in store and at what moisture they have come in at. I will be checking tyres on the trailers and filling the tractors with fuel. Yes, more fuel – less in the small tractors. The Fendt requires about 250L a week, as it is much more efficient and good on the road. A lot of planning would have been done in advance of harvest.  I have a idea of which fields need to be cleared early so that rape can be drilled in good time; I know which fields had a black grass problem so I need them stubble-raked to see if we can make the weed seed germinate on the surface prior to the main cultivations.
10.30am – The day will be warming up by now and the preparation would be finishing up, John would be out on the fields already and would be set for the day, returning at the end or if required by us on the combine. Nick would have a bite to eat before we stick the combine in the field and get going.
The moisture at this time will hopefully be around 16%. We have a hand-held moisture meter and the combine has one on board, so we double check before getting into top gear. We aim to harvest wheat at below 15%. This is the magic number for us as it can go straight in the shed and will store ok as long as we suck the temperature out of the heap with our set of stirrers and air suckers. If it is over 15% we have to dry the grain by using hot air blown through special holed sections set into the floor of our grain store. This is obviously more expensive, so we aim to let the sun do its work in the field, as the combine will still cover the ground quickly if we wait for an extra hour.
11.30am till late – Sun is shining and the moisture is dropping down to around 15.5% and the combine has now done 3 rounds of the field edge (called the field’s Headlands) and these are slow and fiddly. As the field is opened up, the grain starts to come in thick and fast. The Combine has a 30ft header on it and it can combine up to 55-60 tonnes of wheat an hour depending on the standard of crop. I will be carting away from the combine, taking two tank-fulls per load back to store. As the combine takes the crop in the front and thrashes out the grain, the on-board computer is recording weight, speed, area etc and is constantly telling Nick how it is running. The tank fills and when the tank is 70% full, an alarm sounds and the warning light on the outside starts to flash. This is the signal to me to get into position with the trailer so that there is enough of a straight run up the field to unload on the move. If I’m not in the right position, we both have to stop and unload stationary, which means less area is covered and time is wasted. A unload can take about 150 metres and that means 150m x 9m width = 0.135ha more ground covered. You can do 400 Tonnes in a good day: about 30 trailer loads.  If you stop for all of them, you will waste time and combine about 4ha less! Keep the combine moving – that is the key to a speedy harvest. Nick and I have worked out a good system of hand signals and gestures so we know when to unload, Pat helps out sometimes and has his own system!
As I take a load back to the farm, Nick carries on his merry way, opening up large block work as he works over the field to make sure the full width is always being taking in at all times. The combine has a special magic eye on the front that helps the driver keep the header full. This magic eye uses infrared beams to indentify the edge of the crop and so it steers the combine remotely to follow the uncut crop. Nick just needs to watch out for telegraph poles and obstacles and he can then spend more time getting the internal setting more efficient, so that the grain sample is cleaner and we harvest more. 
I would be getting back to the farm. If I was unsure of the moisture, I would stop and take a reading by scooping some off the top and putting it in our moisture meter that is calibrated to weigh the grain to a certain level so it calculates the moisture content. Then, if it was the right moisture, I would unload in the correct place by backing the large trailer into the shed and opening the remote hydraulic tail gate. Tip it up, mind the roof, shut the tailgate and pull out of the shed. Depending on the field we are combining, I may have enough time to use the loader to push up the heap of new grain into the corner or up on to the main heap. If I am tight on time, Dad would be back at the farm doing the loader work in store. Sometimes we run two trailers when the field is further away from the farm and this gives us enough time to push up our load, as the pressure to get back to the field is less.
This process continues until it starts to get late. Normally the moisture will stay below 15% through until about 7pm, depending on the weather. You have to start to watch out for the moisture creeping up as the dew comes in, this will mean that the grain will need to be put on the drying floor and also the dew will affect the efficiency of the combine thrashing the grain out of the straw.
Loading at night
Any time from 10.00pm – 1.00am (occasionally), we will start to pack up. The last load will be brought home and stood up in the barn to be sorted in the morning. The tractors are all locked up and the combine returns to the workshop. The large 30ft header has to be unhitched off the front of the combine so that we can get the combine through gateways and barn doors. The header usually comes home with the combine to the safety of the barn.
Three weary-eyed zombies walk through the yard, closing doors and locking up before heading back for a shower and bed. Then, if it is dry the next morning, we do it all again! Harvest is a busy and tiring time of year but a very satisfying one as it is the culmination of a year’s work. BWB

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