Plan your harvest

When planting a crop on a continuous basis, the tendency is to plant the same quantity regularly. This seems logical, but it’s not the best way to proceed, as yields can vary greatly from week to week.

It is more difficult to schedule cauliflower and broccoli for spring harvesting.
Photo: Bill Kerr

Getting constant yields I learnt this at my first job, when I had to take over the vegetable section which included 60ha of cabbage and a number of other vegetables. The procedure was to plant a similar amount every week. Then, at maturity, you would let the packhouse manager know what was going to be ready for the forthcoming week so he could plan the marketing.

Under this system, quantities ranged from 4 000 to 12 000 bags a week depending on the weather. The company seemed to find this widely varying yield acceptable. I kept records, but one year in preparation for the introduction of a new variety, I did spacing trials with the variety throughout the growing season.

Thousands of cabbages were counted and weighed for each different spacing. Looking at the results, I calculated that by making radical changes to the planting programme, I would be able to harvest a similar amount every week throughout the season.

My records showed the variety I was working with could take between 80 and 130 days to mature, depending on the planting date. Using this data I worked out a planting schedule that raised some eyebrows among my colleagues, but soon they saw the method in my madness.

That season, we managed to harvest 7 000 bags a week. The benefits of a planned harvest quantity should be clear. For one, it will help you avoid the overabundance that leads to a reduced market price.

Because you won’t suddenly find yourself needing more workers this week than you did last week, you will also be able to manage your labour and equipment more efficiently. This in turn has a positive impact on other crops to be harvested.

Charts and records
When I was in charge of the farming for a food-processing company, we used this scheduling method for all crops, which were planted in such a way that a set labour force could cope with the year’s production.

Charts displayed planting and harvest dates, the expected tonnage per week for each crop, and the labour required to accomplish this. Where manual labour was required during the growth phase of the crop, it was also noted for the appropriate weeks. In addition, yield estimates during the growth phase were revised on a monthly basis.

With accurate records we knew we would not run out of labour or transport to convey the produce to the factory. Budgeting was simplified – and more accurate – and weather-related changes did not catch us by surprise.

Obviously, some vegetable crops are easier to schedule than others. It is difficult, for example, to schedule cauliflower and broccoli for a spring harvesting, especially if it’s been very cold during the late winter.

Your planning can also be complicated by different varieties reacting differently to the unusual conditions. On the other hand, some crops, like carrots, you’ll be able to keep for longer after winter, with the correct spacing. In this way, you’ll be able to plant more before a hazardous time and harvest longer from a single planting.

Whatever the case, recordkeeping of each variety’s plant-to-harvest period will be an immense help in the long run. These records enable us to know in advance how many weeks any variety will take to mature and to plan farming operations accordingly.