Here on the northern great plains of Montana, we don’t normally see a great deal of rainfall, especially through the summer. And that arid climate is what makes this area so ideal for growing our KAMUT® grain.
KAMUT® khorasan wheat grows best after a wet spring and a hot summer. Last year we never really got our normal wet spring, which made for a very long, dry summer. And this year, we can’t seem to shake the spring rains which started at the end of winter and continued almost weekly into the beginning of fall. Any seasoned farmer will tell you it’s rare to see ideal weather, whether you’re planting here in northern Montana or elsewhere, but to go from a drought last year to more than twice our regular rainfall throughout the growing season is certainly unusual.
So what does that mean for this year’s KAMUT® grain crop? Well, similarly to last year, we planted nearly 700 acres and, thus far, it’s weighing in at about 12 bushels an acre. In comparison to last year’s drought yield of 8 bushels an acre, we’re grateful, but it’s still below average. Luckily, many farmers did much better and some have two or even three times the average yields. So why didn’t all this extra, unexpected moisture produce a larger yield for us? The easiest answer to that question is that all plants flourish with more moisture. The weed competition was incredible this year and our under-seeded clover was nearly as tall as our wheat stalks when it came time to harvest. We also saw a lot of disease develop later on in the season. Most of these problems were greatly compounded with our late seeding. Seeding was delayed nearly a month with all the rain we had but those who were able to seed early enjoyed all the advantages of extra rain with fewer of the disadvantages.
If you’ve ever walked through a wheat field just before harvest, you’ll know that wheat stalks have little to no residual moisture. This low-moisture content allows us to straight cut the grain with a combine, which cuts the stalk and collects the grain. But when there are a lot of weeds and other undergrowth, which do not naturally dry out as the summer comes to a close, harvest becomes more complicated. Green weeds and plant parts are as heavy as the wheat and therefore will not separate properly from the grain seeds. These green pieces have too much moisture to safely bin with the grain without it spoiling.
In order to avoid that problem, this year we had to swath our KAMUT® wheat fields. Swathing cuts the stalk, as well as all the undergrowth, and piles it in rows called swaths. The swaths of wheat, weeds and clover are left to dry for a few days before we return to complete the harvest with the combine. The weeds and clover, which are now dry and lighter than the grain, will blow out the back of the combine instead of collecting in the combine tank with the grain. So the combine is able to do its thrashing job properly. It’s essential the weeds and clover are dry for a couple of reasons. First, storing any food product, wheat or not, in a container with too much moisture is a recipe for disaster. If the moisture content is too high when storing the grain in the bins, we risk losing the entire bin to mold and mildew. Second, the under-seeded clover can leave an unpleasant, bitter taste on the grain if the juice stains the grain during the thrashing process.
Swathing harvests take longer than straight-cut harvesting because each field needs to be gone over twice. First to cut the grain so it and lay on the ground to dry out and then again to thrash out the grain with a combine. Did you know that the name, combine, comes from the idea that the machine “combines” two previously separate machines? One machine, the cutting head, cuts the grain, while the other, called the thrashers, separate the grain from the chaff and other plant parts. Last year it took us about 5 days to harvest all 700 acres of our KAMUT® wheat fields, whereas this year it will end up taking Seth and Chad nearly 11 days, start to finish because we had to go back to the two-machine operation. If nothing else, we gained a greater appreciation for being able to use the combine for its intended purpose.
For a farmer, every year is a new experience and this one has certainly been one to celebrate, despite the challenges, and we are very thankful for what we have harvested.