Thursday, 25 September 2014

Canola Harvest

Towering dust clouds attract my attention as I drive the back roads of rural Alberta on this hot, late summer day. Combine harvesters are running flat out threshing standing or swathed grain. Wheat, barley, canola with some peas are the main crops grown in this region located north and east of Edmonton. The area around Fort Saskatchewan is some of the very best agricultural crop land in Western Canada. Deep, dark, fertile soil combined with adequate rainfall, long sunny days and relatively long growing seasons produce above average yields of grain.
Geese Heading to Harvested Fields of Grain
 I stopped to take some photos of one of the larger farm operations in the region on Saturday. They are running four new S-680 John Deere combines with 35 foot straight cut headers. It is an impressive sight to see:  four machines travelling down a standing field of canola as the grain cart operator rushes from one to the other dumping hoppers full of black seed on the fly. 140 feet of grain is cut each length of the field at over 4 miles per hour means a quarter section of land is harvested in just a few hours. Each combine should be able to cut 160 acres per day given decent harvesting weather. You couldn’t design a better day than today for this farmer. It is about 25 degrees and the west wind is blowing about 20 miles per hour. Hay and straw bales are scattered accross many fields as geese vee their migrating way through blue skies as dust and chaff billows out the back end of each combine while reels bat the standing crop into the front end.
I flag one combine down for a ride and get a new education. These new machines hardly resemble the combines of my youth. First of all, they are large. The 35 feet of header is hydraulically controlled automatically by computer with the help of sensors located underneath.  The reel doesn’t just flail away either. It is also controlled electronically. These combines are steered, not by human operators, but by Global Positioning Systems (GPS) assistance. I watched as the operator turned at the end of the field then let the combine strike off a new swath through the standing crop. The next combine will have exactly the correct width of swath for the full length of the field. The GPS system knows where in the field it is at all times and runs perfectly straight lines as well. This is impossible to do manually. We used to try it with the old machines but could never come anywhere near perfect. Think of the efficiency of operation when you drive these huge machines to full potential all the time. There are no more pie shaped or narrow strips to cut with a small portion of header unless the field is cut up by obstacles.
Another 35 Foot Swath Harvested
 Electronics continuously monitor yield and moisture content of the crop as well. I remember having to drive to town to get the moisture content tested at the grain elevator before knowing if the grain was safe to store. Dry grain will store in the bin safely while waiting for delivery to markets. Tough or damp grain will heat and spoil very quickly making it worth much less money or destroying it completely. The field of canola being harvested today is testing 8% moisture at 52 bushels per acre. This is an average yield in this area but well above average for other regions of Alberta. This field is a bit cut up by sloughs, bush and a small farmstead so has about 400 acres so will yield approximately 21,000 bushels of canola. Each bushel weighs about 50 pounds. Right now the fluctuating price of canola sits at about $9.00 per bushel.
Each bushel of this oil seed contains about 45% oil so there should be about 1200 liters of oil per acre or 480,000 liters of high quality cooking oil in this field.
4 In a Row
The 55% remaining of the seed is meal which is used as a high protein supplement in animal feed.
Years ago, the one of my first jobs was working for a large farmer in the Wanham area of Northern Alberta. They had 5 model 95 John Deere combines and we wondered if that was as big as it could get. That was only about 15 years after the combine took over from stationary threshing machines. Since then it has been about 55 years to advance harvest technology to the current state of efficiency. Previous to computers and GPS technology, combines had just got larger in size. Who knows where farm technology will be in another 50 years.
Sunset Harvest
Harvest is my favorite season of the farming cycle. This is the time when all the work, worry, weather and risk has finally all come together for a total quantity. The next few months will be spent monitoring, hauling and marketing the harvest as well as finishing the final accounting for the year. Planning for the next year will begin the cycle all over.

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