Saturday, 31 March 2018

From my field to the bottle #KowalchukFarmsBarley

The journey doesn't start the day you pour your beer into a glass.

  Almost 2 years prior to harvesting barley the planning begins. Selecting the proper field and making sure all the nutrients are in the soil that are required for the barley seed to develop. Also making sure there aren't an over abundance of some which can cause problems also. Variety selection is important because Maltsters and brewers are very selective as to what works for them. Field selection comes down to soil type, topography and previous crops and weed control. A clean field free of weeds not only helps with yield but also even maturity and the best use of available limiting factors.

  These limiting factors are available "food" for the barley like fertilizer both naturally occurring and applied. Moisture is a big one and usually translates directly into yield. Too much moisture causes losses through drowning out in the low spots as well as a greater occurrence of disease. Too little moisture and it's obvious what will happen with hill tops dying off and lower quality seed where there are some.

  Once everything is decided, seed is cleaned and in the bin and all other inputs are in storage you patiently wait till spring. I like to seed my barley as soon as the ground warms up. The earlier seeded barley does quite well missing most of the August heat we normally get here in Central Alberta. Having the heads and seed close to fully developed going into the middle of August helps with plumpness of the seed as well as yield. I seed about 1.5 inches maximum depth with barley and even shallower if the moisture is right there. This allows the seed to pop out of the ground quicker.

  So the seeds in the ground and then you watch it grow. Scouting the field during the growing season is important. I check all fields quite regularly looking for good weed control and checking for the presence of disease and pests. Plant health translates to seed health so I do this in all my crops as do most farmers. If all goes well I let the barley plant do its thing and I just sit back and watch till harvest.

  Harvest timing is crucial. Plant maturity can come on quickly and recognizing when to harvest can be tricky some years. Green plants can delay an otherwise dry crop from being harvested so this is where field selection can make a difference. Low areas can cause headaches but some years can be your best yield so you need to consider this in harvest timing. Also green seeds can cause your barley to be rejected for malt and then it will need to be sold as feed at a lower price. Barley has to be around 13.5% seed moisture to be accepted so you test the field a little at a time till you get to that point. Some farmers use driers to bring it down to that % but this can be an added expense so I haven't purchased one yet. I straight cut or swath my barley and it depends on the year. If there is even maturity and good straw maturity I will straight cut which is using a cutter on the front of the combine. In other years I use a swather to cut and allow it to sit till its dry and then use a pick up on the front of combine. Either way works great most years.

  The settings on the combine are important. Heavy losses can occur in yield and quality and do happen if you don't take the time to check and double check. I leave a bit of the beard on the seed so as not to damage the germ end. I also check losses behind the combine because it's a huge amount of straw and chaff going through and it's easy to overload the cleaning capacity of the machine. The harvested seed is placed in a truck and hauled to an aeration bin at the farm. I run air through it immediately to help to remove any moisture in the sweat period and also to cool the seed for long term storage. Usually below 15 Celsius is a good storage temperature. Good samples are taken continuously while the seed was unloaded into the bin. These are what is sent in to the malt company and they make their decisions based on these representative samples so I make sure to do a good accurate job of taking these.

  The samples are sent in right away to give them time to look at them and once they run them through they get back to me with the news either good or bad. They look at dryness (13.5% or lower) protein, germ, chit(partial germinating and dying off in the head or storage) plumpness of the seed, bushel weight, and overall quality of the seed. Then if all things are good you get the ok and then you wait till they are ready to malt your barley. When they are ready for it you truck it in and if all specifications are still met your golden!

  From there breweries from across the world can then access my barley and make the tasty beer we all enjoy. Craft breweries use a large amount of malt barley and are a growing business here in Alberta and I'm thankful for their success and try to support them regularly :)

  Barley has been an important part of our farm for about 60 years so this year I plan on sharing the journey barley takes from cleaning the seed at my farm to the bottle, can or glass in bars across the world. Stay tuned on twitter at my profile @kowalchukfarms and the hashtag #KowalchukFarmsBarley to see what I do on the farm to help out in the creation of the best beers in the world with in my opinion the best barley in the world grown with care on our farms right here in Central Alberta.😉


Saturday, 23 December 2017

Merry Ag twitter Christmas from Kowalchuk Farms

Twas the night before Christmas and all through my timeline

Not a message was happening............Not even one of mine

The farmers were recording, their podcasts with care

In the hopes that everyone, would be grateful, like, and share

When suddenly on my phone, there arose such a clatter

I shut off my ringer till I knew what was the matter

Away to my notifications I tapped like a flash

Opening up my conversations, I thought my screen would crash

I checked those I followed none of them had Tweeted

Not Sharkey not Faber, I  almost had to be seated

Then what to my wandering eyes should appear

But a bunch of bright hearts, I maybe had nothing to fear

"By High heels! by, Oldman Gord! now Daily cowman and Wheat Geer!

Now SenatrStanford, now Wheatlander, now Dirt Sweat n tears!

They all liked my post but I hadn't even tweeted?

It wasn't something I said? I felt like I cheated!

I became quite worried, As it was almost Christmas day!

So I sprang to my Computer, But had nothing new to say

We had covered many topics, from Bitcoin to Trump

If I mentioned them again, I would be quite a chump

Then I realized it wasn't me who had caused all the stir

It was someone else's tweet, and now I knew for sure

It was a jolly old elf, who had re-tweeted my Pic

It was Santa himself, who found my Massey...... quite Sick!


It's not all about followers, or the re-tweets and Likes

It's about telling our stories, and guys like Rob Saiks

We don't do it for money or some type of Fame

We do it to fight lies, and "food fear accounts" that are Lame!

Our Crops and our Livestock, is why we're all here

They make people happy with thick steaks and great Beer

It's not just the farmers, we come as a set

From the scientist, the trucker and Cody the vet

So throughout these months, You all brought me such Cheer

So Merry Christmas to all ......and a Joyous New Year!

Monday, 11 December 2017

Does size really matter?

 I know by the title you may be questioning what this is all about. Sorry to disappoint some of you but this is about farming and not the other ongoing debate  :)

  I started thinking about my farm the other day and some of the challenges I'm facing right now and then realized that many of these could be specific to the fact that I'm a smaller farmer. I figured I'd write some of these issues down.
 The definition of a small farm can be very subjective and area specific and everyone will have their own idea as to what constitutes a small farm. 40 years ago a small farm could have been anything under 320 acres in Central Alberta. Then as equipment became larger in the last couple of decades anything under 1000 ac and currently I would dare say if you are under 3000 acres you would be considered one. Many challenges in farming occur across the board whether you are a small or large family farm. Things like rising input costs and fluctuating commodity pricing are common issues that we all face. In this write up I am not bashing large farms these are just some of the differences that I've noticed. Whether you feel you are a small or large operation is totally up to you and you may or may not relate to some of these issues. What I want to focus on are things that relate mainly to challenges in operations like mine


   A small farm is usually over equipped. You may ask how is this a problem? Often when I go to a dealership I'm looking at 5-10 yr old equipment and these may be 2nd or 3rd owners already. These come off of larger farms that are demanding bigger machinery all the time. This equipment also carries an increasing price tag so thus being over equipped increases my cost per acre. I can go older to lower the cost but this raises its own set of problems. Second or third hand equipment carries another risk not experienced by the previous owners, as this equipment ages repair costs escalate. So even though I may not have had to pay the large initial cost I own this piece of machinery during it's money pit stage!
  Another thing to consider is when I go to purchase a piece of machinery It's not a simple mathematical problem of HP/Ac or Ft/Ac. I'm a one man show quite often so I have to look at time requirements as part of the equation. Time spent on the air drill takes away from time on the sprayer and vice versa. So when I look at a piece of equipment I see how it buys me time and from the outside looking in this doesn't always seem the most efficient use of equipment.

Grain marketing:

  Grain companies in the past did seem to favor larger operations. 

-Getting to deliver at harvest
-Delivering tough grain off the combine
-Gaining better pricing opportunities

  But honestly I don't see the disparity as much anymore. Through good marketing and a little heads up contract timing you can deliver at harvest and even get the odd tougher load in. Large quantity sales still get a premium to the small sales that I make that don't hold the same clout. Let's face it if you have a farmer selling 100,000 bushels of wheat compared to 20,000 the larger amount demands more attention and this will never change and honestly is totally understandable.


 During harvest I get help from some friends and family and I am very lucky. Some farms require help only during busy times and finding people to help out can be a huge issue. Being able to keep full time help on a large farm affords them the chance to get good skilled help and not have to be constantly training someone new. Many times the cash flow isn't there in a smaller operation to hire anyone even though help is needed, so the farmer has to work longer periods or some things may get neglected or re-prioritized as I like to say.

Technology uptake:

  Tech has always been a big part of farming but is becoming increasingly important. 90 yrs ago we were farming with horses and now they are coming out with seeders that drive themselves. The evolution in farming is staggering compared to many industries and with these advancement can come a large price tag. Many small farms have a hard time justifying trying to "keep up". Now I know you can farm without it but if you're a techy guy like me you also see the upside on your farm. These added costs can be a hindrance to your bottom line and take longer to recoup on a small farm but things like GPS, auto steer and mapping are all things that I've seen a nice return on investment. Besides it keeps farm life new and exciting and can keep you more engaged. 

Buying inputs:

  Now I know these are common expenses to all farms. We all need to buy seed, fertilizer and chemical but let's face it just like anything if you purchase larger amounts you normally get a better price. Our bargaining power is limited and we don't normally get the best deals. Small farm operators can't walk into their farm input store and say we only want to pay $400 a tonne for my fertilizer blend and not expect a giggle in return. Our base input costs are normally higher and I rarely push for lower prices and try to remain as loyal as I can to people who treat me well. Rising input costs are a huge reason for a poor bottom line on lots of farms and I guess we'll just have to blame it on  Dicamba! :)

Succession planning:

 Anytime you add someone into a business the profit per person goes down. Pretty straight forward statement but can be tough to absorb on a small farm with limited profit and when it comes to adding one of your children to the farm. Succession usually includes the child working off the farm and helping out where they can until it's time for the parent to retire. This was how it worked for me. I helped my dad on the farm and had a full time job until dad decided to slow down and I was able to purchase some land and make a go of it. I would have loved to work full time on the farm as soon as I got out of college and on a larger farm I would have been able to do this. Also when more than one child wants to farm tough choices have to made on a smaller farm but on a large acre farm usually all children are more than welcome to join in.

Trying to keep up with the neighbors:

  This has been the downfall of many a farm. Keeping up with the Jones's in the city can cost you a bit of money here and there but on a farm it can amount to thousands of dollars of unneeded expenses. New tractors cost over $500K and combines and air drills even more. It gets tough to farm within your means and not go out and get a loan for a new piece of equipment that you know would make your life easier but in the end could potentially break your farm. Just because your friend down the road buys a brand new tractor doesn't mean it will fit into your operation or your budget. Smaller farmers very seldom buy new and learn to repair and not replace quite early on.


 My dad came to Canada when he was 5 yrs old back in 1929. By the time he was 16 he knew that he wanted to be a farmer and he started out by working on a farm and eventually bought some land. He grew the farm to 1000 acres in his lifetime which was a huge feet.Without his hard work and sacrifices I wouldn't be farming today. He always knew he was a small farmer and embraced that and never felt the reason to push to get any bigger. This is one of the greatest lessons I think he taught me was that you need to allow time for life in between all the work and that bigger doesn't work for everyone.
  Even though there are challenges to being a small farm in today's day and age there are also some huge advantages. I have the opportunity to be my own agronomist, and yes this isn't always an advantage but it affords me the chance to learn about plants and crop development. It's challenged me to dig deeper into why I grow certain crops and allowed me to understand their limitations.
   I also know on my farm if I don't do it, it isn't getting done. I see every stage in all operations which gives me a whole farm picture. Many large farms have a manager who does this but at the end of the day they are at the mercy of others to agree on any major decisions. If I have a hunch on something happening in a field I can follow through on that without having to explain myself to others. Don't get me wrong having a sounding board is great but it can also be limiting if you sometimes like living on the edge and trying something that isn't proven. I get to try new crops in small plots and know that I will be completing all operations on them and get a real feel for how all aspects of them will work on my farm. From watching them develop to how each spray pass fits into time requirements on my farm.
  I rely greatly on close relationships with the people I deal with through the farm. My advantage isn't that I'm a bulk buyer or can afford a large equipment payment, it's in cultivating trust between myself and those I do business with. I have to be able to count on them to be fair and they need me to reciprocate that when I can. Whether it's the grain buyer who needs wheat when no one else will haul or the local crop input guy who knows I'll be up front with them and will always follow through on commitments and they respect that. These are the people I discuss my ideas with and confide in and many I would consider friends. Respect is hard to earn and is easily lost in any business. These good relationships become not only important to doing business but can often affect my bottom line.
  I don't want to come across that large acre farms are bad, they have too many advantages to list. This is only about the pros and cons that I see on my farm.
  I feel I have a long ways to go to manage every acre on my farm to it's full potential. I see opportunities every day to do better and am constantly learning from other farmers I meet. I have great friendships with 100 acre farmers all the way up to 25,000 acre farmers and many in between. They all care about what they do and are amazingly like minded when it comes to sustainability and helping each other out. This has really widened my perspective of farming in general. The great thing that I see right now in Agriculture is that yes size matters when it comes to some of the issues we face but when we all get together we are all just farmers working hard to do our best and we can always respect that in one another!

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

#RumseySoybeans 2017

  I usually do a write up on how my Rumsey Soybeans did for the year and use my twitter posts as references. This year I thought I'd include a few more things as they are all kind of tied together.
   The fact is in this day and age I always have my phone with me. I use it to capture moments in time through photos and also with posts on social media. It's fun to share my day and what's going on in my life but I also use it as a type of diary, a way of keeping track of my year in farming.

  This year I've become more aware of how social media can also have a down side. Many times I've seen people having to defend themselves from others just wanting conflict. I am not on social media to argue with people over politics or how we grow our crops and have realized that it is nearly impossible to change someones outlook unless you are talking to them face to face. I try to be as positive as possible on twitter and have fun, there is enough negativity in the world without having to see it in your timeline.

   Over the last few years I've been able to connect with many farmers over Twitter and had the opportunity to meet many in person. Sometimes IRL (in real life) they far exceed what you would hope they would be. Sometimes you are way more excited to meet them then they seem to be to meet you. But thankfully most fit into the first category. It's broadened my circle of people who I can bounce ideas off and learn from. It's great when you have a question and people honestly want to help you. I think in the past farmers were protective of ideas and were more competitive with each other. But now with the world at your finger tips more and more of us have come to realize that we don't need to compete with each other but rather rising water raises all ships and through sharing knowledge we make our whole industry better. 

   Now onto Rumsey Soybeans. Rain was a huge factor or more like the lack there of as you can see from my Monday posts. I realize many areas were far worse off but the fact is in my area that it did lower yields. This is my third year of growing this new crop and every year I learn something new. I'm getting a better handle on weed control. I'm slowly finding out what varieties work the best for me. I'm also starting to figure out what I'm going to need for yields to make this financially sustainable. Long term I can see Soybeans becoming a regular part of our rotation in Central Alberta but for now it's still in it's infancy and varieties need to adapt to our cooler and sometimes dryer climate.

   So every Monday or so I'd post precipitation as well as Heat Units since the Seeding date. It's a great reference to compare year to year numbers and different highlights over the growing season.

   I use these as a reference to the previous years to compare the development as well as a way to remember timing of spray applications.










   Overall I was happy with the results this year. My yield was in the low 20's but the crop came off quite early and dry. I'm growing them for at least 2 more years so I'll have 5 years of experience and will be able to make an educated decision whether to continue or not. I have no doubt that eventually Soybeans will be grown in many non traditional areas all across Canada as new varieties come out. I wished yields could have been in the 30's but as with anything new there can be growing pains. My other crops were all about average yields this year which surprised me considering around 6" total rainfall. Residual moisture in the sub soil from last year payed dividends and hopefully we get some late fall and early spring moisture to replenish what we pulled out.

   From spring to fall I come across times when I just need to take a photo so I can enjoy it for more then just a second. These moments normally would be enjoyed by just me. I spend most of my days by myself on the farm so twitter has become a way to share the amazing things in my days with others.

   My farm equipment can sometimes become my photo subjects:




   This year I was able to attend different farm events that I normally wouldn't have the opportunity to. It was fun to see many familiar faces as well as to make many new friends.

CropSphere in Saskatoon

FarmTech in Edmonton

CanolaPalooza in Lacombe

Meet in the Middle in Olds

Getting to meet a fun group of Italian farmers and tour them around my farm this fall

  So even though it obviously can have its ups and downs, Twitter has become a valued resource on my farm. Having access to the combined knowledge of my peers has helped me many times. I've learned new ways to do things from many others that I use daily. I also found it to be a good tool to capture and store data on my farm for future reference. 

   It has become a vehicle of sharing and helped me to make many new friends that never would have been possible if it weren't for those crazy hashtags and 140 characters.