With harvest just around the corner, farmers are understandably eager to solve the great growing season mystery. How much grain will their hard work and investment put in their bins?
However, they might also consider another harvest mystery: why they leave so much yield behind in the field.
While it’s virtually impossible to catch every seed produced, some studies have shown that farmers are in such a rush to get the job done that they routinely spit a significant proportion of their profits out the back end of their combines.
In a 2019 survey, the Prairie Agricultural Machinery Institute (PAMI) measured canola losses experienced by 31 farmers using 50 combines made by six combine manufacturers.
That study found that some canola farmers are losing up to 10 percent of their yield due to harvest loss. On average, 1.3 bushels per acre or 2.8 percent of their yield was left on the field.
In 2019, prices were $9.50 per bushel, so that equated with an average loss of $12.35 per acre. Today’s prices and the cost of those losses have doubled.
Besides, seed left behind in the field sprouts and grows, consuming moisture and nutrients and becoming a weed that competes with the following year’s crops. Plus, there’s the cost of the fertilizer and herbicides that were used to support those bushels that will never be harvested.
It’s important to note that these losses pale in comparison to the food wasted by consumers. It’s estimated that between 30 and 50 percent of the food we buy goes to waste.
Reducing waste on all fronts is one of the best inflation-fighters we have.
Saskatchewan farmer Trevor Scherman has made it his business to help farmers find out how much they’re leaving behind and what to do about it. As the saying goes, haste makes waste.
“They’re in such a rush to get it done that they’re not calibrating their machines,” Scherman said after his presentation at the Ag in Motion outdoor farm show earlier this month. “They’re not setting them up properly, they’re just kind of getting in and ‘givin’ er.'”
More concerning to him is that farmers tend to shrug off those harvest losses, in some cases rationalizing them by saying the birds need to eat too, Scherman said.
“It amazes me,” he said. “In no other business are people scared of making more return on their investment.”
Scherman makes the Schergain Solution System, a drop pan farmers can attach to any combine to help them collect and measure how much grain is in the straw and chaff. One of several options on the market, such pans provide a method for farmers to start tracking yield losses.
Once they know how much they are losing, they can take steps to reduce those losses through proper settings and operator behavior.
The PAMI study found simply slowing the harvester’s ground speed and slowing the grain feed rate were both associated with significantly lower losses.
It’s not just about buying the latest in combine technology either. The PAMI study found that a well-set older combination can outperform a poorly set newer model.
Scherman said that while manufacturers are doing their best to make combinations that calibrate themselves, farmers still need to feed some basic information into the algorithm.
“If you have your loss counted, calibrated and quantified, now the algorithm knows what that is,” he said.
Scherman is also establishing a web-based service matching different farmers by brand and combine types so they can provide peer support by exchanging information on settings and troubleshooting.
Whether they subscribe to his products or not, Scherman said farmers need to take the time to calibrate their combines place every year, factoring in the type of crop, its density and other environmental factors. The return on that investment of time could easily make it one of the most lucrative hours the farmer invests in this year’s crop.
“I’ve had people come to our booth and tell us we bought them new half-tons (trucks),” he said. “If you’re losing three bushels and you can get that down to one, that’s a considerable amount of money.”
Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org