Welcome to part 2 of this year’s Harvest Sagas- I could use the excuse that Harvest has been quite drawn out this year so it necessitated two posts, but we all know the real reason these have been spilt into two is because I ramble on for England and am incapable of telling a story succinctly!
If you need a recap, you can find Part 1 here.
So, where did we leave off last time? I think we’d just harvested the Winter Barley, the first crop to be harvested this year (and most years, unless some Winter Oilseed Rape is ready first), and we were waiting for the Winter Oats and Wheat to start being ready- which meant a couple of weeks of downtime for the combine. But Summer is also the time grass is cut and baled for winter feed, so nobody was sat idle.
When Are Crops Ready For Harvesting?
Crops are ready to harvest when the grains have fully developed, ripened, and hardened, and the plant has matured and dried out – for example, when the cereal crops like Wheat and Barley change from green and growing, to golden and then to a browner colour, as they die off. As the grains harden, their moisture content reduces to within an acceptable range to harvest.
When selling the grain, cereal grains have to be a maximum of 15% moisture, and oilseeds, like Oilseed Rape and Linseed, can be up to 9% moisture but no less than 6%; otherwise, you incur penalties of varying amounts, depending on how far outside of that range they are.
In an ideal world, they’d always be harvested within those ranges, but this is not-so-sunny West Yorkshire, remember. Therefore, they are sometimes combined at slightly higher moisture levels, then dried through the dryer- a gas powered contraption that circulates heated air through the grain.
Help Is Sometimes Needed…
When the year has been as temperamental as this one, with the crops growing unevenly and a lack of sun during the crucial end stages when they are meant to be drying out, the whole field sometimes doesn’t all mature at the same time. There will be plants that are ready for cutting, with dry, hard grains, mixed with ones that are still a few weeks off, where the grains are still soft and closer to 30% moisture than 15% or 9%.
If left until the whole field is ready, you risk the plants that were ready first becoming too brittle and the ears (the heads containing the grains) of those plants falling off onto the floor during any wind or rain. And if you harvest the field when the first patches are ready, the greener grains with such a drastically higher moisture content lift the overall moisture of the whole sample by quite a hefty amount, meaning a lot of drying. A few patches are ok and to be expected, but when there are substantially more than just a few, it’s a bit of a problem.
With quite a few fields like this this year, some of them were sprayed off with a herbicide (desiccated) so all the plants in the field stopped growing and the grains dried out evenly.
The time you have to leave between spraying and harvesting is specific to the product, to make sure the plant has fully taken it into the roots and it’s no longer in the grains. Once each field was ready and able to be harvested, the combine motored through them. Of course, being a machine, it had to have a couple of breakdowns along the way, but overall, things were going fairly smoothly.
The Combine Harvester is a huge machine that does a lot of different jobs, all at once. I was hoping to get some up-close photos of ours for you, to explain the different bits, but I haven’t actually seen it in-person since it arrived in July. Every time it’s been back in the yard, my health has very helpfully meant I’ve been unable to go outside; so, you’re just going to have to use your imagination here, I’m afraid!
First up is the Header- the wide rectangular thing at the front of the combine that can be taken on and off when moving between fields (it looks a bit like a mouth). The Header attaches to the front and has knives which cut the crop, and a reel with metal tines that slowly rotates above, to help feed the crop towards the knives and into the combine.
The combine separates the grains from the straw (stalks) and the chaff (seed coverings) through a combination of threshing and sieving.
Once they enter the combine, the plants are squashed (threshed) by a rotating cylinder against a concave piece of metal with holes in, so the grains fall off the plant and through the holes. Then, air blows through the grains while they are shaken over sieves, so the light chaff blows away and the clean grains fall through, to be collected into the tank.
Once the tank is full, the grain is unloaded through a long spout into a trailer which pulls up alongside it. The straw and chaff travels through the combine, once separated from the grains, and is deposited out the back of it, either in a neat, central row, to be baled, or chopped into short lengths and spread evenly across the whole area, to be incorporated back into the soil.
For us, harvest is as much about straw baling as it is about combining. With my uncle driving the combine, my dad is usually found following on with the baler to pick up the straw and pack it into bales for winter bedding for livestock. This year, straw yields were pretty poor, thanks to crops not growing very tall or thick. It certainly wasn’t anywhere near a record breaker, but anything is better than nothing.
The End Is In Sight
August saw the harvest of all of the Winter Linseed and Winter Oats, including our own small field of Oats, and some of the Winter Wheat. There was still a lot left once September rolled around though. Luckily, the weather mostly played ball and the rest of the Winter Wheat and most of the Spring crops were able to be harvested throughout the month, ending with some Spring Beans.
The only thing left as the end neared was the Spring Linseed we had grown. Linseed likes to tangle up at the best of times, so a damp October approaching was not a good omen.
It’s one of my favourite crops to see in-flower, with its beautiful blue and purple flowers, but I didn’t get to see it this year as it was grown on land we rent a couple of miles away. You might recognise it more by its other name- Flax. We grow it for a company who processes it into oil, as a supplement for both animals and humans.
On one of the final days of September, it was glorious sunshine, perfect conditions to cut the Linseed. With the sun shining, the combine cracked on. Most was able to be cut, with the straw chopped and spread out behind, as we didn’t need it for bedding so the soil would benefit from it more. Then, disaster struck… An internal piece of the combine also went through the straw chopper!
The air was a tad blue, especially when it then rained on and off the whole of the following day. But, luckily, the mechanics at the dealership managed to work their magic and the combine was repaired in time for the sunshine returning a couple of days later, to get the final 8 acres cut.
We only grew Oats, Wheat and Linseed this year, and none of it has produced as much as it would in a ‘normal’ year. The Oats were able to be sold straight away, and scraped through all the criteria by the skin of their teeth to make it into the Milling category, where they’ll end up in a hearty bowl of porridge or a moreish flapjack somewhere.
Some Wheat has been sold, but most of it needs drying first. All our Wheat is Feed Wheat- for animal feed, instead of Milling, for humans. Our land is quite heavy as it’s rich in clay, and it would really struggle to grow Wheat that meets the specifications for human food, so ours goes for either livestock food or dog food.
The Linseed already has a set destination, like I said earlier, but that definitely needs drying first. It would have been nothing short of a miracle to harvest it in October and not need to dry it!
So, that brings Harvest 2020 to a close, and our sights now set firmly onto creating seedbeds and planting crops for Harvest 2021. It certainly won’t be one to be forgotten in a hurry, but I think 2020 would be etched in all our minds, regardless of its growing conditions!
Of course, it’s not really the end, but it’s the end of our own combine’s work. Maize crops are still being harvested around the country, and potatoes are currently being lifted by others nearby. Not forgetting, at some point over the next few months, our Beet-Harvester will be towed out of the yard to lift the Sugar Beet and Fodder Beet crops that were planted for customers this Spring. Plucking the giant turnip-like roots from the ground and shaking off the remaining soil, for them to go be turned into British Sugar, or fed to livestock, in the case of the Fodder Beet.
So really, Harvest doesn’t end, there’s always food to be picked and crops to be lifted. But the version that first springs to mind, that’s depicted on every jigsaw or painting referencing Summer in the Countryside, is over, until next year.