Well, it is the second half of July, normally a time of sun, heat hazes, cricket and the anticipation of the dust monster rolling out into the crops to start harvest; however, this year, it is more like rain, central heating on, ducks - and the anticipation of a mud monster once we get in the fields!
Harvest is such a great time of year, reaping the fruit of a full year’s work but the weather plays such an important part in a happy and smooth harvest. The sun is the key. Without this, the crops stand or lay wet in the fields, making it almost impossible for the combine to do its job of separating the seed from the stalk. We have to harvest the crops when they are dry, so that they store safely in the sheds on the farm. If they come in wet, then we have to spend money on drying them by burning diesel or LPG gas in giant hot air burners that heat up the grains on special floors. This is an extra expense that farmers don’t want - and our carbon footprint does not need! The sun is the best dryer; it is free and does it far quicker than we ever could, with the help of the gentle summer breezes. If the crop is not dry then we have problems like mould and pest infestations as the heaps of grain warm up and the mountains of corn can be deemed totally useless for their intended market.
So, apart from wet grain and the headaches of keeping it in best conditions in store, what are the other perils of a wet harvest?
I have mentioned the problem of the grain sample quality going into the combine, being wet, but there are other problems associated with crops staying wet in the field before the combine gets to them. Mould on the ear and a build up of micro toxins in the grains are very real and unavoidable problems. This means that any grain destined for a feed market, both animal and human, will need to be tested for the levels of these micro toxins caused by mould growth. We cannot stop this toxin build-up; only the sun can.
Once the grain is dry enough to combine, we start having problems with this operation. The top of the plant and the grain dries quicker, so the stalk is damper as the moisture moves up out of the top soil. The combine driver has to keep checking all the settings of the combine, making sure good grain is not wasted and thrown out of the back, either still on the stalk or off the back of the sieves within the combine. We also have to consider the straw left by the combine. If it is a wet year, most farmers will just chop the straw coming out of the combine, so instead of leaving it in a raised row to be baled for use in the livestock sector, it is smashed up and spread over the field like a carpet. This is then known as ‘trash’ on the field and that brings another problem in wet years as one of our main pests, the slug, loves to live in this wet mulch of ‘trash’, causing problems in establishment of next year’s crop later on in the autumn. Slugs have a population boom in these favourable conditions for their life cycle. The ’trash,’ if wet, also makes any early cultivation very hard, as it does not flow through the machinery very well and does not mix into the soil properly. This then alters our soil management for the preceding crop, making it more time consuming to prepare stale seed beds which is our main weapon against grass weeds.
Soil management is not just ‘trash-’, pest- and weed- control. Wet soil is much more prone to structural damage. Rutting and compaction will be a serious problem this year, due to the wet soil on the surface. A combine tank holds 10t of grain, which, added to the 25t weight of the machine, means we have somewhere around 35t of weight driving over every field at a spacing of 9m! Our combine has huge tyres on it to try and spread the weight out over the surface, to reduce the chance of compaction, but it can be unavoidable. This is why some combines are now built with rubber caterpillar belts to create an even bigger footprint to spread out the weight. The tractors and trailers will cause similar problems, pushing the soil down under their weight, especially when full of grain. This leaves deep structural problems under the surface, which, if it is not rectified by deep cultivation, will mean that the roots of the next year’s crop won’t break through this compacted layer of soil. The roots will then grow sideways and not down, making for weaker plants, as they fight for root moisture, nutrients and space throughout next year. This means expense to the farmer because, as a general rule of thumb, the deeper the cultivation the more horsepower required and the more money it costs to do it.
Mud on roads could also be an extra problem this harvest. Dragging mud onto the road is a danger to us and you the general public, so we have to prevent mud build-up off the fields. All our tractors will have a spade on them to scrape the worst of it off the road but still please be careful when driving during harvest, if the soil is wet. Please keep an eye out for mud and slow moving vehicles, we don’t do it on purpose and are only trying to do our job, so a bit of patience would be much appreciated.
Our own patience is another thing we have to consider. Hanging on to let the sun work is better sometimes than racing in and cutting too early, but this means that when it is fit to combine it will be ‘all hands to the pump’. Long hours on the seat can mean tired minds and body. Stress of harvest is guaranteed in the best of years but even more in wet ones. Weather watching and forecast predicting becomes a full time science and this also makes farmers first class moaners when the weather doesn’t do what it was predicted to do.
Farmers are renowned for moaning about the weather and the price of the crops; however, this is one thing that a wet harvest does help with! On the back of wet weather here, droughts in Australia, floods in Russia, frosts in Canada earlier this year and now the USA being hit with climate problems too, it has driven prices up and commodity investors see a possible short fall in supply. Our final load of wheat left from last year was sold at an all-time farm record of £208/t. David has only seen wheat prices hit over £200, 5 times in his life - all in the past 7 years. World food demand is huge as our world population spirals out of control. Unfortunately, this will be passed to the consumers as higher food prices and we will be hit by crop input rises, as manufacturers jump on the back of these prices.
Sadly, soon your breakfast cereal will be too expensive to buy - but your milk will be cheaper than what it costs to produce, as the supermarkets have hit the UK dairy industry with another 2p/pint cut, but that is another story that will - and has - pushed my grumpy stress levels through the roof!
Fingers crossed for the
Gulf Stream to move north and fill our
skies with high pressure and sunshine to make it a slightly easier harvest. It
is going to be difficult but we can only do what we can, when the conditions
are right. Make sure you give us a wave or a toot while we are in the fields to
make certain we are awake! BWB