Some occupations are marked by sameness. They have predictable patterns that leave each day pretty much the same. There’s little if any variety, few if any surprises.
Farming and ranching in the upper Midwest offer plenty of variety and surprises, but they come in an overall framework that generally holds true from year to year. To truly understand area agriculture, you need to understand the various seasons that make up a typical agricultural year.
The most general are crop season and non-crop season. The former consists of the period in the spring when planting preparations begin in earnest through the time when crops are harvested in the fall. Non-crop season is the period from the end of harvest through the start of planting.
Here’s a quick look at the other key seasons in area ag:
- Planting season, which we’re in now, begins in spring and runs through early summer when new crops have been planted. Sadly, we’ve nearly reached early summer, and wet conditions have allowed many area farmers to plant only a portion of their 2023 crop. It strongly appears that a lot of this year’s crop won’t get planted.
The longterm trend is bringing, on average, later-starting planting. Some knowledgable folks say that could lead to the planting of more winter cereals such as winter wheat and winter rye. These crops are planted in the fall, begin to grow, go dormant and then resume growing in the spring. The thinking is, winter crops will be less affected by late springs and shorter growing seasons. We’ll see if the trend continues and intensifies.
- Spraying season, which usually occurs in roughly mid-summer, is more important than people outside area ag may realize. Weeds, insects and crop disease invariably pop up as crops grow and mature. Spraying appropriate chemicals at the appropriate time knocks down the pests and can keep a good crop from deteriorating into an average crop and an average crop from declining into a poor one.
- Haying season, which usually begins in mid-summer and runs through early fall, is crucial for ranchers. Cutting and baling wild hay and alfalfa, for livestock to eat in the winter, requires long days and cooperative weather. Rain at the wrong time can do major damage. Remember, “Make hay when the sun shines” — and sometimes when it’s not.
- Harvest is the most important ag season. It’s the culmination of months of planting and nurturing the year’s crops. It begins in early August and can continue into December. Both crop yields and prices are important; a good combination of the two means stay-in-business profit, a poor combination can force a farmer off his farm. Harvest is simultaneously exhilerating and exhausting. There’s nothing quite like it.
- Meeting season begins in early December and continues into February. It allows farmers and ranchers to learn the latest about prices, inputs, markets, weather, farm equipment and more. Farming and ranching are evolving constantly, and meeting season gives ag producers an opportunity to stay on top of the changes.
- Tax season has become less prominent as a growing number of ag producers hire professionals to prepare their taxes. But a few farmers and ranchers still do this early spring job themselves.
- Calving and lambing season is essential for livestock producers. The physical, mental and emotional commitment is massive. It’s been said, correctly, that people who get into livestock, and stay with it, really need to like animals. That’s especially true during calving and lambing season, which begin in late winter or early spring and continues into early summer.
- The off season, my term for the time between the end of harvest and beginning of planting, usually gives ag producers without cattle a bit of a break. Oh, there’s still farm work to do — trucking binned grain to the elevator in town, for instance — but it’s not full-bore work. A few farmers use the free time to put up their feet, watch NBA games on TV and complain that farming isn’t more profitable. Most farmers, though, use the free time to work part time or operate a side business. The extra income can be invaluable.
So what’s the most important season? As already noted, I go with harvest. Planting is second, calving/lambing third. Whether you have livestock, of course, makes a big difference to your own ratings. Drop me a line if you disagree with my assessment.
Best wishes to area ag producers engaged right now in planting or calving/lambing or both. May the weather cooperate with you.
Jonathan Knutson is a former Agweek reporter. He grew up on a farm and spent his career covering agriculture. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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