03 Aug Brian: Christmas in July
Onida, South Dakota—No matter where I go or what state I am in, I’ve been noticing a trend while traveling the harvest trail. Maybe everyone’s schedule is so busy there’s simply no time to take decorations down. Perhaps people are just so enthusiastic they can’t help but celebrate all year long. Or maybe it’s just pure laziness. Whatever the reason, everywhere I go this summer I still find Christmas trees wrapped in garland, glinting in the summer sun. Storefronts display fake frosted windowpanes despite the excessive heat advisory just issued, and icicle lights hung from the rooftops are apparently impossible to melt. Even main street still has its lamp posts wound with strands of twinkling bulbs.
Celebrating Christmas in July may seem a little unusual to you, but the way harvest has started in South Dakota seems a little unusual to us. Many fields here need just a little more sun, heat and time to ripen, but so far we’ve hopscotched around the county just enough to find ripe fields to keep us busy. The unusual part is the definition of “ripe.” The crop looked so good this year that many farmers went ahead and applied fungicide to maximize the yield potential of the wheat. While perhaps not 100% scientifically proven, it’s a widely accepted theory that fungicides sometimes slow down the ripening process. That’s the unusual part of this year’s harvest.
Unlike most seasons where seemingly every field is ripe at the same time, this year’s progress is being slowed down by green straw. I’ve never spent more time “Christmas shopping” than I have this year, walking around in waist-high wheat and looking to pick out the perfect field that’s actually ready. (I spend the rest of the day picking wheat beards out of my socks, an unpleasant task if there ever was one.) Scan the horizon and all you see are plump, golden wheat heads. But looks can be deceiving. Pull back the straw and you reveal green stems and joints, so much green in fact it seems impossible this field is ripe enough. Biting into a few hand-shelled kernels nearly breaks my teeth. Blame it on the weather, the fungicide or whatever you want … it’s a weird combination of the top half of the plant ready and the bottom half a week behind.
It’s almost as if a Christmas miracle has occurred. Every load we harvest is dry. But one look at the ragged, green straw behind the machines makes that hard to believe. The straw choppers are consuming a tremendous amount of horsepower, often limiting our speed instead of grain loss. At 70 to 80 bushels per acre there is a lot of kernels to separate out, and the green, sticky straw is not slick like it should be and slows our progress. These tough conditions are also very demanding for the header’s cutter bar. Drive too fast into a green area and you risk pushing the sickle beyond its capabilities, potentially ripping it into two pieces. No one wants to make that repair, so having sharp knives and the guards that protect them in tip-top shape are not optional here. We’ve spent some time replacing anything that is showing too much wear to get as clean of a cut as possible.
The amount of power it takes to cut, process, and chop all that green straw makes it easy to understand this means extremely high fuel consumption. I don’t need to remind you how expensive diesel is. We’ve commented a number times about how these conditions would have been virtually impossible to harvest in 10 or 15 years ago, highlighting just how much technology has changed farming. If I could make one Christmas wish it would be for 100 more horsepower. Of course, they make combines with 100 more horsepower, and the owners of those machines are also wishing for 100 more horsepower. The “low engine speed” warning alarm will not be confused with the sound of jingle bells, but it’s a sound I’ve become very familiar with.
This South Dakota harvest has been like opening a really big Christmas present in July. It’s been a struggle to get the wrapping paper off, but the gift inside is a bountiful crop. I’ve chased a few deer out of the fields while here but none with a red nose pulling a sleigh. I also may have combined some mistletoe the other day (or it could have just been a patch of weeds). As long as it doesn’t start snowing any time soon (also known as hail around here) this harvest is going to be a Christmas to remember (in July).
The tough, green wheat straw demands sharp sickles. After the first day of cutting it became apparent we needed to replace some worn guards and sections, so we do that work in the cool of the evening.
South Dakota sunsets always impress. The gradient of color always seems to create the most beautiful photos.
The local grain elevator generously provides a customer appreciation meal. We appreciate the great meal, and Vernelle appreciates getting to skip preparing lunch pails for the day.
David unloads on the go as Brenda drives the grain cart. Some fields can put the combines more than a mile away from the trucks, so the 1,400 bushel cart has a massive impact on our efficiency here.
Take a close look and you can see the green straw the machines are dealing with. The grain is bone dry, but it takes a lot of power and fuel to chew threw so much tough material in 80 bushel wheat.
Headed down the road while changing fields requires some careful consideration when you are 40 feet wide. With the sun behind me the landscape looks brilliant, but the colors are filter-free and all natural.
Another day of harvest comes to an end. The fields extend seemingly forever till they meet the sun on the horizon.
Night falls and the light show begins. The grain cart loads the truck one last time before the crew goes home.
Silver grain bins dot the horizon, and amber waves can be seen on the land and in the sky. One should count themselves lucky to live in a place where the evening ends in a view worthy to be painted on a canvas.
The crew comes to a standstill due to green wheat. Walking through the field can be deceviing, and a view from above clearly reveals the multitude of green areas that will require a few more days to ripen.
Brian Jones can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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