Technology paying off as conditions get tougher

Larry Woolliams remains optimistic about his remaining crop in the field. The 2019 harvest season was not ideal, but his choices in new equipment paid off well, says the Alberta farmer.  |  Michael Raine photo

Adopting the latest in agricultural tools might have benefits, but proving them takes a special kind of year

AIRDRIE, Alta. — Changing up a whole suite of main machinery was a bit daunting as the year started. With 9,000 acres to seed in a few weeks, Larry Woolliams began the year by cutting his drills in half. And then it rained 20 inches or so.

Woolliams moved out of two precision drills to one, from two sprayers to one and kept four combines, but moved to flexing headers.

“This was the year to try all of that. If it hadn’t been this rough I might not have known how well the technology would work for us,” he said about a year that started out cold and dry, then got wet, dried out a bit and then got very wet and stayed that way. Of course a farming season in Western Canada like that wouldn’t be complete without an early winter, and Woolliams got his in September.

“We have a shorter season up here in the foothills,” said Woolliams about his farm’s 4,200 foot elevation, northwest of Calgary. Compared to the Regina Plains at 1,900 feet or southern Manitoba’s 800, the high prairie where he farms puts the Woolliams place in line for later springs and earlier falls.

He seeds mainly barley as the farm’s cereal crop, this year about 3,000 acres of it, canola as the oilseed and peas for the pulse portion of the rotation. This year, Woolliams was able to put the last two in the bins. Nearly all the barley remains under a blanket of snow in the first week of December.

The move to a single precision drill worked out well. Despite a bit of late start, he and his crew managed to seed the whole crop using one unit.

The Western Producer followed the Woolliams farm all season, as it worked with some of the latest field technology, and integrated it into an operation that had been driving to sustainability for several years. The farm went paperless last year as one step in an efficiency workflow to save on inputs and labour, and lower its overall environmental footprint.

“That is just common sense to me. When I optimize our operation, growing the biggest crops we can with the least products, time and energy to get there, that is how we measure success,” Woolliams said on a blustery day in the middle of May that brought seeding to stop once again.

Last week, Woolliams was in his farm office at the back of the shop, plotting seeding rates for next season’s wheat crop, as he considered adding it back into the farm’s cereal rotations, if he could shorten up its typical growing period.

“We learned a lot about the new combines. I would never go back now after what we know from a really rough harvest season,” he said about the new 35-foot flex-drapers and the latest version of the Deere S780 combines.

“Our peas were up to my eye level and I’m about six feet. Huge crop. Canola was big too. All that rain that came and just kept on coming fed those fields. But after the first snow, lots of it was three inches high,” he said.

Between snows this fall, enough harvest weather appeared and allowed Woolliams and his team to get back into the fields and harvest 6,000 acres.

“Without those 635FD flex-headers, we never would have gotten those crops. That ability to put it right down there and shave the crop off the field is amazing. Most folks around here don’t have them. They paid for themselves this fall,” he said.

Woolliams typically spends little time in a combine seat. He usually directs traffic from a grain cart or from in the yard, shuffling variable crops into appropriate bins, keeping the samples as even as possible for conditioning and marketing.

“The new combines’ abilities to produce an even sample is remarkable. Under really hard conditions these things were managing that sample. Everything about the way they run in the field is about the sample quality. I spent less time on that file for sure,” said Woolliams.

“Normally, I can tell who is operating which combine by what is coming out of the auger. Not this year. Even, even, even,” he said.

“Machines were speeding up and slowing down. Headers moving way up and down to the ground depending on what they were facing and the machines just kept going,” he said.

“If it hadn’t been such a tough year, I might not have been sold on the flex-headers, or even the new combines, my old ones were great. Not this great. It takes a year like this to make you recognize the value of the new technology,” said Woolliams.

The combines were able to manage threshing settings throughout the day as crop conditions shifted, and maintained targeted samples, even on the highly variable terrain of the foothills, Woolliams said.

Readers can look for a seasonal wrap evaluating how Woolliams made out with the new technology once more of his crop is harvested, likely by February.

“We do get some pretty interesting winter weather out here. I am often doing some field work in February or March, just not combining.”

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