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Independent.ie

Sunday 4 December 2016

Speed farming in the flatlands of Manitoba reaps its own rewards

Wexford's Robert Deacon offers a final account of his experiences working across North America

Robert Deacon

Published 03/01/2012 | 05:00

Once grass is combined, it is brought to a local elevator where it is cleaned and bagged. A large portion of it is exported to China
Once grass is combined, it is brought to a local elevator where it is cleaned and bagged. A large portion of it is exported to China
Straight after the harvest and with winter lurking around the corner, spring cultivation preparations include deep tilling to a depth of 4-5 inches

Although the seeding of crops on the Hiebert's farm in the flatlands of Manitoba ran to the end of May, the temperature, humidity and daylight hours all work together to produce a rapid growth rate.

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On a daily basis, the change in crops was easily noticed all around the farm, which was located 40 miles south of the state capital, Winnipeg. The dust trailed from the back of farm manager Ron's pick-up as he moved along the gravel roads from field to field, monitoring progress and relaying guidelines back to Maurice, the farm's sprayer operator and the man charged with co-ordinating the spraying of more than 30,000ac every season.

Although a lot of the crops suffered from an early over-indulgence of water and, later, from a lack of it, in general the harvest looked on course as four new John Deere (JD) swathers were kitted out.

The swathers had 35ft headers and came with two-way radio and auto-steer systems. As a general rule on the farm, no machine left for the field without these two basic requirements.

Rye grass was first to kick off the Hiebert's harvest last year. For first-time swather drivers the guidelines were simple -- we were told that it was just like driving a combine without the interference of a grain cart driver, and 100pc grain loss out the rear was not frowned upon but expected.

With these sound words of advice taken on board, we headed off with our headers out, front-spanning beyond both sides of the road, and our fluorescent red triangle on the back, which made driving local roads quite legal.

Once the grass was swathed down it took around seven days to be ready for combining. The grass seed was brought to a local elevator where it was cleaned and bagged. Most of the grass seed grown here is exported to Chinese markets.

TEMPERATURE

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With the temperature staying consistently in the 30°C range, the swathers quickly progressed into canola. For this, a swath roller was fitted to the back of the swathers to push the crop down into the stubble, which prevented the wind from blowing the light swaths around. The swathers were also used in wheat and oats this year. The farm also straight-cut these crops with combines; by swathing them down it helps to get consistent grain moisture for on-farm storage and spreads out the work ahead of the combines.

With the farm's four JD 9770 STS combines in full swing harvesting wheat, the baler outfit started its season. Three JD 8310R tractors with AGCO square balers and a self-propelled 'Stinger' bale stacker were responsible for saving 26,000 bales of wheat straw this year.

The bale stacker was self-loading and unloading but still had to run around the clock to keep up with the three balers.

Seeing as the bulk of the farm's winter work was based around exporting these bales south into the US, it was important that bale quality was watched closely. As a consequence, all balers were fitted with straw moisture sensors, and once bales started reading more than 17-18pc moisture, the balers were stopped until conditions improved.

The final crop to ripen for harvest was dry corn. Its market has expanded rapidly, both in the US and Canada. It is all processed for ethanol and is a key crop to tillage farmers.

As corn started, the farm received the newly-released JD S690 flagship combine with a 16-row head. It ran alongside two other 9770 STS combines with 12-row headers. Working together, these three machines made short work of the 2,200ac of dry corn. All the corn harvested was dried on the farm before being stored using three large propane-fuelled dryers.

Although most would consider the end of harvest as a time to relax, here in Canada -- where winter lurks around the corner -- the farm's cultivators were out in force immediately to prepare the ground for spring.

The prompt switch into field work was essential for getting the ground seeded in time for next year's harvest.

All fields were tilled using a deep tiller first, which ripped the ground at a depth of 4-5in. The fact that there is no stones or rocks in the ground meant that one tiller worked more than 8,000ac on its original tips, and looked set to do about the same acreage again before these wearing parts would need replacing.

Surface water management was the number one goal for improving crop yields on the farm. All farm equipment using GPS was constantly recording altitude. Slower moving equipment, such as swathers and combines, provided accurate readings, which were downloaded to the farm's database each week.

CONTOURS

This information produced maps of each field showing the contours of the ground. In the flat lands of Manitoba, the soil drains down very little water, as most of it goes across the fields to dykes. On one 640ac section, the drop in altitude across one mile was just 34in.

To drain these fields, shallow drains were scraped into the surface of the field. Using these pre-recorded contour maps, drains were designed to quickly remove water from the land.

The scraper was controlled by GPS and was fully automatic once started. Many of these drains were half-a-mile long and had a mere 0.025pc fall in grade. This type of scraping would just not be possible without all the technology used.

After the ground was worked once by a deep tiller and all drain scraping was completed, next season's fertiliser was applied. Anhydrous ammonia was mainly used on the farm. At 82pc nitrogen, it was by far the most concentrated source of nitrogen available. If stored under pressure it remains as a liquid, but once released into the atmosphere it turns into a gas. Before anhydrous can be applied, the ground temperature must be less than 10°C.

Anhydrous was applied using a cultivator which, at the bottom of each shank, was fitted with a hose and applicator. A tank carrying the anhydrous was towed behind the cultivator. It could usually cover around 60ac on a full tank. Although this was a slightly slower form of applying nitrogen, it was the most cost effective.

Corn ground for next year was spread with granular fertiliser. All the ground was worked again with a harrow or disc, which finished the cultivating work for this year.

With the temperature now to remain below freezing, there's usually very little leaching of these products out of the ground before spring.

Luckily, a historically dry autumn allowed all field work to be fully completed before the first of this year's snow falls. This meant that in spring there will be no cultivating necessary as the farm rolls out its direct drill seeders.

Farming this far north is like nothing I have experienced before. It was a short, intense season from start to end and with such a rapid growing season it seemed to slip straight from seeding to harvest.

I really would encourage anyone to see it for themselves.

Indo Farming