While it looks like a typical El Nino year in parts of North America, weather events are topsy-turvy in much of the continent in 2014. My rain gauge in western Iowa recorded 13.7 inches of precipitation during August.
I’m not complaining. Crop yields will be substantial here and in most of the eastern two-thirds of the U.S. and Canada, except where damaged by various weather events, and subsoil moisture will sustain these agricultural areas for considerable months if a dry period ensues. Pastures are lush, although the grass is soggy and has reduced nutritional value for grazing animals.
Meteorological forecasts for the fall indicate wetter-than-normal conditions for the same rain-soaked regions and that could bode for a long and difficult harvest season. Stressful harvest conditions will prevail.
A wet harvest has many ramifications for farmers. I remember a year in the 1960s when I had to pull Dad’s corn picker out of muddy fields several times; fields didn’t firm up until cold weather froze the saturated soil deep enough for machines to stay atop.
My thoughts about upcoming stress are drawn from forty years’ experience in agriculture and behavioral health. My weather-related prognostications are derived from available meteorological information, my father’s advice, my own observations, and not from formal training in climatology or agronomy. Several experts in those fields and in agricultural safety and health helped me.
Planning ahead is key. Know what to expect. If wet weather continues, crops will mature slower than normal.
A hard frost may stop crop foliage and weed growth but moisture wicking from the ground will make the stalks tough. There will be more material to run through the harvest equipment, causing more than usual machine wear and breakdowns.
Molds may develop or already be present, so it will be important to dry down harvested crops quickly and store them safely. Plan for extraction of more than usual foreign material (e.g., stalks, dirt and other dust, weeds, insect material) in the harvest process.
Soil compaction could be an unwanted side effect from the use of heavy equipment. Plan to unload filled combine hoppers in designated areas or roads for hauling crops to storage sites.
Be observant for road traffic, because a bountiful harvest also indicates more vehicles will be needed to carry the produce to its destinations. Vehicle collisions of all sorts usually increase during protracted and difficult harvests when farmers and other roadway users may become frustrated by perceived time constraints and congestion. I used the word perceived purposefully. Farmers and the rest of us road users may feel pressed for time, but how we allow time to affect us is entirely within our control.
Perceiving means we need to be careful despite what we might feel are constraints on our time. Our well-being depends on not cutting corners.
Farmers should inspect equipment to make sure all implements have proper safety decals, reflectors and flags, working lights and signals, brakes, hitches and tires to handle heavy weights. Farmers should adhere to width and weight limitations.
Be sure to travel at reasonable speeds on highways and roads. The speed limit of 45 mph on Iowa’s gravel roads is too fast for big trucks and car drivers unfamiliar with the area, so travel cautiously.
The harvest will mean longer than usual working hours for farmers. Sleep debt can be a problem during harvest. If one usually sleeps eight hours nightly but cuts back to six hours for five nights in a row, this person has accumulated ten hours of sleep debt.
Ten hours of sleep deprivation and a blood alcohol level of .08 percent affect us similarly. Reaction time, accuracy of motor movements, memory, judgment and mood control all are reduced.
Curtail urges to rely on stimulants like caffeine and nicotine to stay awake. They work temporarily but their benefits diminish as sleep debt mounts. Brief naps help but a long night’s rest works best to restore optimal functioning.
It is important for farmers and harvest helpers to manage daily schedules so everyone gets enough rest, recreation, time for reflection, and a bunch of things farmers often forget about when stressed, like keeping upbeat attitudes, maintaining healthy relationships with family and friends, following medication regimens, and exercising properly, because riding in a machine doesn’t count much as exercise.
Above all, stay connected with higher purposes than getting the crop in, like reminding ourselves there is more to life than the harvest.
Wait, if necessary, until the ground is frozen to harvest muddy areas and don’t fret, because waiting could be the best solution. I remember we didn’t finish harvest during some wet years until after Thanksgiving.