Thursday, June 11, 2009
Your Flour Is In My Field
And oh, boy, do I ever want it out. Wheat harvest is just around the corner - G_d willing and the crick don't rise it might be starting in under two weeks. People are touchy from the tension. Every cloud is watched closely. Weather reports take on even more importance. Our economy is riding on Decent Harvest to win and No Bad Weather to show. It's not just the wheat farmers that are anxious. The local grain haulers need the frantic glut of wheat to haul for their bottom line. Grain elevators need the golden waves of grain to fill their bins. Main street needs farmers to pay their bills and break loose with projects that a sudden boost of income provides. The beef industry hangs on grain prices. Motels and cafes look for harvest crews to house and feed. In a country where wheat is the king of grains, everyone's insecurities bubble to the surface, worrying and fretting.
And there is excitement in the air along with the worries. Specialized harvest equipment, stored since last fall, is brought out and readied for war. The high wear items are checked and replaced if necessary. Bearings are inspected and greased. Fluid levels are topped off. Windows are cleaned. Fuel is hauled to the farm in anticipation of long hours and thirsty machinery. Extra parts, belts and tools are loaded in service trailers or trucks, ready for emergency repairs.
Of course, there are fleets of harvest warriors hard at work in Oklahoma and Texas who, after their tasks there are done, will descend on this area like huge mechanical locusts, also helping devour the golden bounty. They will arrive tired and sunburned, new veterans in a familiar battle. The war analogies are apt. Mother nature is both an ally and an enemy.
This is a time of year that rains fall, bringing life sustaining moisture to a semi-arid desert. The sunshine and warm breezes provide the catalyst for the seedlings to spring up, reaching higher and higher. When the heads fill, the proper mix of sunshine and rain make or break the yields. Too hot and dry? The heads don't fill or the immature grains shrivel, lowering both the test weights and the total yields. Wheat is sold sixty pounds to the bushel. If your wheat tests fifty seven pounds to the bushel, it takes five percent of the next bushel's volume to make a full bushel. Plus, lighter wheat is harder to thrash, with more "trash" in the grain. Grain elevators consider this "dockage," so that is deducted from the yield. The lighter grains are more susceptible to being "thrown over" in the harvesting process. This means the combine doesn't capture those grains and spews them out the back. The protein levels for lighter wheat may be lower. Usually, this doesn't result in dockage, but any premiums for protein are missed.
However, if Mother Nature has been good to you and your wheat tests sixty three pounds, you've just gained five percent of a bushel in volume. If certain protein levels are exceeded, the wheat may qualify for a higher price. Heavier wheat is easier to thrash, reducing trash in the grain, thus reducing dockage, plus the air flow over the raddles in the combine won't push the heavier grains out the rear. Heavier wheat with heavier yields slow the harvest process down, increasing horsepower requirements and burning extra fuel. This is not considered a problem. This is considered a bonus.
Another bonus is the grains per mesh. Looking at the picture above, you can see that the wheat head is arrayed with a kind of spread finger pattern of grains on opposing sides. Most wheat heads fill three grains to the mesh, so there are three full grains in the bearded hulls. Some of the outer hulls don't fill. But, when you're lucky, you get four grains to the mesh. Heads with four grains to the mesh appear rectangular with the extra grain. Not all heads will fill that well, but the more, the better. Also, as the wheat "heads out", optimum conditions will make the heads taller, or longer. Under ideal conditions, the plants grow to a uniform height. There are always "sucker heads." They are heads that didn't fill correctly on a lower plant. A smart combiner can see those heads and cut over the top, abandoning them in the field. The cost of "eating" more straw to get the negligible heads far exceeds the possible value. The grains, if actually captured, will be highly shriveled and perhaps even sifted out during the determination of dockage. Thus, they are called sucker heads. You're a sucker if you go after them. Poor growing conditions results in more sucker heads.
Mother Nature isn't always our pal. She is fickle. The necessary rains, should they fall in a timely fashion, are generally accompanied by thunderstorms. High winds and lashing rains break the fragile ripened wheat stalks, dropping the heads to the ground and stripping grain, falling in the dirt, far from the reach of the combine. As the ripened grains sit in the field, waiting for moisture levels in the grain and mud in the fields to dry, the wheat becomes "bleached." Test weights drop, triggering the downward spiral of lower yields. The grains can be knocked from their birthing places, unrecoverable.
And, speaking of thunderstorms and grains easily knocked from their heads - Mother Nature is a real bitch when it comes to hail. The clouds in storms are watched constantly, looking for that special mix of blue, gray and yellow. It doesn't matter if you watch or not, it comes no matter the diligence. But, bitter experience has made residents natural worriers, and watching the clouds is de rigeur. Self preservation kinda calls for looking out for tornadoes as well. They can screw with a wheat crop in a very localized sense, but mostly the desire to live is the trump card.
Lighting is certainly one of Ma Nature's lesser weapons when compared to the tornado, but it can kill you just as dead. It is certainly an effective weapon against the dry, ripened wheat fields. Farmers do not put pickups or cars in reverse in wheat stubble, lest straw be captured by a hot catalytic converter and start a fire. A hot bearing can start a field on fire. A smoldering cigarette butt can destroy the wheat. So, a sizzling bolt of lighting is a pretty much overkill when it comes to wheat, but that bothers Mother Nature not in the least.
Ma Nature has been pretty good to us this year. The wheat looks good. We've made it this far. There were some scary periods this winter when we didn't get any snow or rain, and it looked like the wheat might die. But, just in time, She dropped a couple snow storms on it and saved the crop. Rains have come at necessary intervals, just when we were abandoning faith that there would be a crop. It has not been a perfect year, but it's been good enough to make it a successful year.
We've all been here before. Balanced on the threshold of success or failure, and the control and responsibilities are completely out of our hands. We've seen how cruel She can be - teasing us with the possibility of a bin buster only to jerk it away from us as Lucy pulls the football away from Charlie Brown. But, like Charlie Brown, we pick ourselves up and try again - if we can stand the financial loss.
So, we fret. We pray. We wait. Worry. Prepare as best we can. If we are allowed, we'll be off to battle. The country will come together to bring in the harvest as quickly as possible. We are poised at the gate, waiting for the starter's pistol.
Please, G_d, let it be so.