It was a hot late August evening. There was a half-hour to go before sunset and Roy Klym’s four combines were already starting to groan with the strain of threshing a 70-bushel yellow pea crop in the rising humidity. The wind had nearly quit in his fields on the northern outskirts of Regina, Saskatchewan; there wasn’t enough air movement to dissipate the dust clouds. Only the very tops of the hoppers were visible. Sometimes, the dust was so thick the operators could hardly see the edges of the headers.

A lot of romanticism has built up over the years around combining far into the night to get crops into the bin ahead of the weather. Harvesting into the early hours produces classic man-against-nature stories to tell in the coffee shop. But while all cereals, small grains, and cash crop producers occasionally will thresh until the wee hours of the morning to beat a threatening storm, few do so very often. They know that if they aren’t rained out, they’ll be right back at 7:30 a.m. to start servicing before another day of combining. Neither combines nor their operators are designed for indefinite 18-hour workdays.

Harvest is a marathon, not a sprint, at Klym’s farm, RoLo Farms near Regina. It typically takes from mid-August until mid-October to get the spring wheat, durum, canary seed, canola, lentils, field peas, and soybeans they grow into storage. As certified seed growers, the Klyms make sure to thoroughly clean their machines every time they switch varieties or switch crops to prevent any cross contamination.

While it’s possible to light the area around a machine as bright as day, the shadow effect stresses some operators.

“We have a general rule on our farm that we don’t go past 11 p.m. at night simply because the employees are going to be getting tired and going to be making mistakes,” Klym says. “These may cause more downtime the following day due to having to make repairs or clean up something that was spilled. The only time that we will break that rule is if we have a half an hour or an hour left to finish a field and a rain is on the way. ”

Limited time. “Western Canada doesn’t have the luxury of having a long open harvest season like Australia or the American Midwest,” says Jim Bessel, the retired senior agronomist with the Canada Canola Council and harvest consultant based in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. “We have a limited time window to harvest a lot of acres. This causes a tremendous amount of stress, but before you start putting in long hours day after day, you have to consider the impact this has on operators. Respect their limits; tired people make mistakes, and with the size of equipment these days, a small error in judgment can dump a lot of grain on the ground or cause a lot of damage to equipment.”

Every year tired equipment operators are injured (and occasionally killed) in falls from equipment or bins. They cause cart and header collisions, run over grain handling equipment, and cause breakdowns by being too rough with equipment. It’s stressful enough trying to finish harvest without having a machine down for repairs on a beautiful day.

Good yard lighting around the bins to make unloading easier matters too, Klym adds. They’ve also equipped every bin on their farm with a level alert. These float-like devices allow the trucker to know from the ground when there is only a foot or so of space left in the bin. It avoids forcing people to go up and down ladders to check with a flashlight to see how full the grain bin is.

Visibility matters. It’s hard to believe that only a decade ago, drivers would be stumbling from the combine cab at the end of a 12-hour day, exhausted from the mental drain of running the machine. But the widespread adoption of GPS-based autosteer and automatic height control systems in the early 2000s has led to a huge reduction in operator stress since it’s no longer necessary to devote so much attention to where the edge of your header is. However, you still have to know what’s happening around you.

All of Klym’s bins are equipped with bin floats so it’s not necessary for someone to climb a ladder to see how full it is getting.

“All of our machines have autosteer,” Klym says. “Peas and lentils are combined very close to the ground. It’s common for conditions to be so dusty that the operators often can’t see the ends of their table. So we have gone out and put GPS tags on poles, signs, rock piles and any of these types of obstacles that we know of so they show up in every machine. That way the GPS not only keeps the operator going straight and oriented in the proper location for harvesting, but they also know where all the hazards are.”

Most people today are dealing with larger acreages and want to maximize their huge capital investments in machinery, but it’s still important to take a strategic approach to harvesting decisions, Bessel says. Keep in mind your capacity to combine after sunset is physically limited by how rapidly humidity builds to the point it’s impossible to thresh. This varies by local climate conditions, the time of year, and the type of crop being harvested.

Farmers located close to a mountain range or a large body of water for example have to call it a day much earlier than ones who farm out in the middle of the windy Saskatchewan flatlands, Bessel says. Likewise, Prairie farmers can harvest much later in the day in August or early September, when the air is warmer, than they can later in the season.

“The type of crop you’re working on plays a role, too,” Bessel says. “Cereal grains are going to get a lot tougher in the evening than an oilseed will. Oil and water don’t mix. So if your canola seed is dry, you can still keep combining as long as you can keep threshing and separating the seed without worrying about the seed gaining moisture. Cereals are starchy though, and the seed and the straw will get tougher the later you go. So it’s better to focus on canola after dark.”

“Having a lot of our storage now fully aerated takes a lot of the worry out of harvesting after the sun sets,” Klym says. “We have temperature monitoring in some of the grain bins. Our newest ones have temperature and moisture probes that are monitored by a computer at a central location. It will help us pick up hot spots or if the grain needs to be further conditioned later in the fall or after harvest is complete. We maintain our grain in a specific condition because we sell it as seed.”

Rick Shiplack uses a flashlight to check grain levels in the truck.

Humidity variations during the day affect the crop’s biomass, and that, in turn, affects how easy it is for the harvester to separate the seed. So the optimal combine settings for a crop will vary as the day progresses, too; a setting that produces minimal losses at 2 p.m. might cause huge losses at 8 p.m.

One-bushel factor. “Checking for losses is a critical part of economic management,” Bessel says. “Losing one extra bushel of canola per acre at $10 per bushel costs you $1,600 per quarter. If you multiply that $10 loss by your acres of canola, and the numbers can be staggering. It’s even worse if you stop and consider that two- to five-bushel losses are pretty common. But just saving one bushel per acre potentially gives you more quality family time because it will pay for a family vacation in Hawaii this winter.”

Getting down on your hands and knees to blow chaff out of the way while counting the number of seeds you find was the old school method that farmers used to determine what their losses were. Others though just drove behind the combine and tried to determine how many seeds were bouncing off the windshield. Bessel says none of these are likely to produce very accurate results, especially with a small seeded crop like canola.

“The only way that I personally feel you can understand what your seed losses are is to physically check with drop pans,” Bessel says. “The number of seeds in the pan allows you to accurately measure the amount of seed loss per square foot. Then you start adjusting each of the combine main settings—groundspeed, both sieve openings, fan, and rotor speeds one at a time—until you arrive at a tolerable loss. This should be done several times during the day to verify your losses are still acceptable, especially as you get closer to sunset and move later into fall.”

Roy Klym doesn‘t have a hard and fast time to call it a night on his farm, but if harvest speed drops below two miles per
hour, he says it’s pointless to keep pushing operators.

When to stop. “We don’t have a hard fast rule when we call it a night,” Klym says. “Generally if the combines are down to below two miles per hour we’ll call it a day. It just gets to the point where it’s fruitless to be out there.”

“Harvest is a busy stressful time and I understand that farmers want to get the most value out of their expensive machines,” Bessel says. “It’s hard to resist the natural urge to push too hard. I like to tease them at workshops that harvest time for farmers is like buck fever is for hunters. Our male testosterone levels psyches us up to go-go-go, that’s why often women are the best operators.”

Productivity versus efficiency. It’s tempting to try to maximize your productivity at the expense of your efficiency, Bessel explains. It comes down to finding the sweet spot where you harvest the maximum number of acres per hour that you can before you start sustaining too high of losses. This isn’t a hard-fast number because the definition of an acceptable loss versus what is going into the tank changes is tied to grades.

“Are you really going to try and save every half-bushel if you have 300 acres left to go and a weather system is coming in across the Rockies?” Bessel asks. “No! You are likely going to risk losing a little more and push hard to get it done and save the grade.”

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