By David Caldwell in Canada

It’s hard to get your mind around to seeding when it is minus 39°C, but as I write this it is early February and I suppose with you folks spring is getting nearer – but here in Manitoba it's been a swinging temperature gauge.

On January 29, it was minus 34°C, the next day it was plus 4°C and the day after, it was back to minus 30°C.

That's quite a swing which means you don’t know how much underwear you need from day-to-day. Still, it's not as bad as the end of December when with the wind chill factor, it was minus 51°C.

Our beef cows are still foraging in the paddocks on the standing corn/maize and will be for a few weeks yet before they start calving. They can stand the low temperatures because they are dry.

Any machinery, including cars and pick-up trucks that are in use during winter, all have heater elements in the engine block and sometimes the oil pan, and all public buildings restaurants, bars, hotels and most private houses too have electric power points all along the walls where you can plug in. However, in severe weather, that is sometimes not enough and so my son, Douglas, is building a new heated workshop which will hold the loader tractor plus the feed mixer and tractor with a service bay. That will be handy for doing maintenance, because you can’t work with spanners outside here in winter as any metal can freeze to your hands.

Speaking of tractors, are you having the same 'emission' problems that we are having? By government order, all new tractors, combines etc, now need to have DEF fluid added to the fuel, this is supposed to reduce emissions, but as far as we can tell it doesn’t increase fuel efficiency. Our new combine can’t do as many acres on a tank of fuel as the last one did, also the DEF fluid is about 60% water and the rest urea so it is a big problem in cold temperatures, freezing up and bursting tanks.

There are also rumblings about putting a carbon tax on farming, even although there is documented proof that sensible farming practices can trap carbon. In the US, there are rumours that livestock farms should be considered 'hazardous' areas (we all knew that!) just more examples of political over reaction to environmental issues.

I told you in October that we had already bought all this year’s fertiliser and we also bought most of our 2018 seed and some of our chemical before the year end (December 31) to try and confuse the tax man.

Grain prices are in the doldrums at the moment and not moving much, despite reports of dry conditions in Argentina and extreme cold in the US' wheat and corn belt, plus diminishing carry-overs, all of which should drive a bull market. But this isn’t having as much effect on prices as currency variations, concerns over the ongoing North American Free Trade negotiations and, of course, Trump tweets.

A big percentage of our grain is sold through our local Cargill elevator which is handily only about eight miles away, but this summer it is going through a $15m upgrade and probably won’t be open until harvest is nearly over. This won’t be handy for us as our three grain trucks are all tandem axles, each hauling only around 18 tonnes, so we don’t like long hauls.

The next nearest elevators are more than 40 miles away, which is too far away to be able keep the combine going and because we can only store about 75% of our crop, we will need to bring in custom haulers to take some pressure off at harvest time. This is an added cost of around $10 (or more than £6) per tonne.

In my last article, I mentioned various grain marketing strategies (or tragedies) the following story illustrates the changes that IT has made to marketing in a short space of time, considering that in my lifetime we still had grain exchanges in most market towns.

We were back in Scotland at the end of December, sadly for the funeral of my wife, Jean’s brother, Jim Wilson, of JP Wilson, Millmannoch Contractors. While staying at Mauchline with Jean’s sister, I was on Jean’s I-pad checking my e-mails back in Manitoba when I noticed that a 'target' price for 120 tonnes of soyabeans with Viterra had triggered (a target price is a way of capturing short market highs). It seemed that Donald hadn’t confirmed the contract by signing it – we can sign electronically but I wanted to know what the bushel price was so I asked our niece, Seonidh, who was over from New Zealand, to work out $385.80 per tonne divided by 36.744 bushels, she did this on her New Zealand I-phone.

So, there I was in Mauchline signing a contract to sell 160 tonnes of soyabeans in Manitoba, and working out the price on a New Zealand I-phone. By the time we got back to Canada three weeks later the beans had been delivered and the cheque was in the bank, plus I had signed a contract on a further 160 tonnes of wheat for February delivery.

I get quite a lot of phone calls and e-mails from people doing surveys – you probably do as well – it’s a bit of a nuisance, so I only do them if they pay me, it’s handy pocket money at $25 up to $50 a time for 20 or so minutes. They usually want to know what our acres of crop are, what chemicals or seed treatments we use etc, some times for over a three year period. Needless to say, if I can’t remember (which is most of the time) then I just make it up.

Anyway, while down at Stranraer I got a survey to do online about our seeding plans for this year in Manitoba, so I filled it in, the cheque came in the week we got back.

This new technology has changed farming dramatically, with drones now checking crops and cattle and sheep, you can have satellite yield mapping of fields, auto-steering, driverless tractors and even combines.

Even more alarming, AGCO/Fendt are in the process of launching a machine primarily intended for seeding maize but with the potential to eventually seed anything. The MARS, or Mobile Agricultural Robot Swarm, has no need of any operator – all the farmer needs to do is park the logistics trailer at the field and say 'Okay Xaver, seed the field' and head back home or to town.

Meanwhile, the back door of the trailer opens and down the ramp comes a swarm of 10 or 15 battery powered robots which will go to work, operating autonomously under the control of algorithm and the 'Cloud', planting and even recording every seed’s GPS position on data base. They even return by themselves to the mother ship to refill themselves with seed and to recharge their batteries.

From the comfort of your office, or even the curling rink, you can check on your app to find out how seeding is going. They reckon that a pod of 15 robots each weighing 60 kg carrying 25,000 seeds can do the work of an eight-row planter. This machine will be running in 2019 – scary stuff!

That's a big leap forward from 1954 when this old farmer, as a 13/14 year old, was carrying pails of seed or fertiliser to fill a sowing sheet for the ploughman at Inchgotrick.

This same old farmer is not too happy with the new voice activated appliances including Bluetooth voice controlled car phones and satnav maps, as they don’t seem to understand an Ayrshire/Wigtownshire accent, especially when the said farmer gets exasperated and gets louder and uses 'blue' language.

Good luck with seeding and stay safe.