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Brian: Spinning our wheels

Thomas, Oklahoma—You know that famous TV game show where you spin the big wheel, clapping and shouting “come on big money” with hopes the wheel will stop on a fabulous prize? Well if wheat harvest is a game show, then Oklahoma finds us landing on “Lose A Turn” almost every day we’ve spun the wheel. Since we arrived here two weeks ago we’ve managed only to harvest four partial days due to storms that seem to brew up stronger than a good cup of morning coffee.

It rained the evening we arrived here, and it hasn’t stopped since. Eventually harvest officially kicked off for us, but the action was short-lived. After three short afternoon stints of cutting we found ourselves in a flood watch as another round of rain moved through. Five days later we tried again, but it wasn’t five minutes before a warning alarm on my machine sends me into a panicked machine shut down. I discover oil streaming down the side of the machine from the engine compartment, and after a very messy inspection l locate an oil hose with a hole rubbed through it. Luckily it’s a simple repair and the part is only 25 miles away, but the oily mess left behind is nearly as frustrating as being broke down on the one day the weather is actually fit to harvest. I look like an oil rag after the repair, so I call for a change of clothes to be brought out to the field. Some people pay good money to take an oil bath like this at a spa, so I try and enjoy my makeshift field bath with dish soap and degreaser.

Nothing is worse than an oily mess in the field … all caused by the smallest of holes in a hose. With all the rain delays the crew heads to the park most evenings to take a walk and shoot some hoops.

During the repair, storm clouds had begun to build and we only got in five hours of harvesting before another thunderstorm swept across the area. We gave it a day to dry up before trying again in the afternoon. We found the wheat just dry enough to cut, but finding mud took no effort at all. By nightfall another round of severe storm watches and warnings were issued, and lightning flashed across the sky as the storm enveloped us. We managed to finish the field, but ferocious winds barely let us tarp the final truck. As we moved everything to higher ground, raindrops began to fall. Not everyone made it to the pickup with dry clothes, and we drove home with sheets of driving rain blowing across the road.

It’s always a race to beat the storm, and sometimes you lose. Some of the storms in Oklahoma have been exceptionally severe, but fortunately we’ve escaped the large hail and tornados in our area.

It’s been a discouraging start for both harvesters and farmers alike. With such a long stretch of wet weather, the weeds and green sucker heads have caused many fields to become unharvestable without spraying. It’s easy to find applicators running through the fields, leaving behind a maze of wheel tracks in the standing wheat. The down side to spraying is the 7-day wait period before it can be harvested, meaning we’ll have to sit still some more. The one positive is we’re finding higher yields than expected. With a 40-bushel average so far, farmers are genuinely surprised after such a tough growing season. But the worst fields are yet to come, and we wonder just how much the weeds and storm damage will drag down that average. 

A birds eye view shows just how bad the weeds have become in many fields, and sprayer tracks criss-cross many fields in an effort to salvage the crop. Red mud on black tires is a daily occurrence.

We’re for sure getting our money’s worth out of the the combine’s 4-wheel drive, and it’s nearly a requirement in these conditions. The short wheat forces us to cut close to the ground, making it easy for the header to make contact with the soft, wet soil. This often leads to “bulldozing” dirt into the header and wasting precious harvesting time cleaning out the mess. It’s nearly impossible to avoid in this terraced terrain, and more than once the header has been removed to dig out mud in the feeder house.

No matter your experience level, digging dirt is inevitable in these conditions. Standing water in the terrace channels and deep ruts are all part of the game now, and 4×4 is a game changer in the mud.

No one every said harvesting was all fun and games, but it’s been a decisively sober start for nearly all harvesters. Crews have grown tired of spinning their wheels in the house trailers with little to do and spinning their wheels in muddy fields. Perhaps it’s time to spin the wheel of fortune again, as hot and dry weather is forecasted for all next week. Maybe this time we’ll get to play the bonus round and win the biggest prize of them all … perfect harvesting conditions.

Stormy weather means the cooks have a lot more meals in the trailers and a lot fewer (and easier to prepare) lunchbox field meals. This increases the chance of repeated recipes over the summer, but the crew doesn’t mind homemade pizza every few days. A big “thank you” to Vernelle and Brenda for always working hard to feed us delicious home-cooked meals and not lunchmeat sandwiches every day.

Brian Jones can be reached at brian@allaboardharvest.com.

All Aboard Wheat Harvest is brought to you by Unverferth Manufacturing Co., Inc.High Plains Journal, New HollandITC Holdings CorpU.S. Custom Harvesters, Inc., Kramer Seed Farms and Lumivia Insecticide Treatment by Corteva Agriscience

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