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Bringing Kaizen to the Farm this Harvest

A Japanese business philosophy of continuous improvement of working practices. Made popular by Nissan’s Just in Time Manufacturing.


How can prairie farmers bring kaizen to the farm this harvest?

Growing up on a farm, my favourite piece of machinery was the swather.  I think I loved swathing so much because it was the most simplistic piece of machinery on the farm and couldn’t have large breakdowns as a lot of other larger machinery on the farm – plus the joystick for the header was like a playstation controller.  At around 17 years old, my dad bought an autosteering accessory that could hook up to any power steering, and we hooked it up to our swather that year.  As a 17 year old with the attention span of a goldfish, this is now remembered by me as one of my favourite past times on the farm since the only maintenance now needed was to replace the odd sickle (the piece that’s doing the cutting) that broke every hour or so.  The autosteer allowed the swather to drive in straight lines, which meant that I could pay more attention to the height that the wheat or canola was being cut, which allowed for a better process for when the combine came into the field after swathing.  The one thing I dreaded, was when my dad or grandpa wanted to straight cut a field.  Why?  Because straight cutting takes the swather out of the scenario.  My favourite part of harvest, but a barrier in front of kaizen.

Straight cutting is the technique that takes out the swather from the process.  To my astonishment lots of people that don’t come from farms know what a swather is, so let’s start by showing a picture of a swather, a combine with a normal header, and a combine with a straight cut header.

The benefit to the farmer from a business perspective is massive.  Removing the swather is a huge advantage when it comes to reducing shatter (when you lose or damage seeds by handling them too much), reducing manpower, & reducing time (weather is chaotic and there’s always a small window during harvest).

Cost reduction is the number one perspective, but there is also the consideration of a wet year like this year.  Since combines are very heavy, there is a large chance of getting stuck on wet land with a heavier piece of machinery.  A swather on wet years like this year allows a high moisture crop during harvest to be cut earlier, which may allow the field itself to dry faster as you’re giving more exposure to the land to dry.  This happened during the harvest of 2011 when we had to use a very small 20′ swather to harvest a crop, let the crop dry, and then harvest it once the land dried.  We learned the hard way though as we initially tried to straight cut it, and a couple excavator bills later we decided that wasn’t an option as the field was way too wet.  This is an anomaly though.

Besides the fact that a wet year can make a swather a necessity, a normal dry harvest can create the environment for completely cutting out the combine, and make swathers a favourite past time.  Straight cutting wheat isn’t at all new, but it’s only been becoming mainstream with canola in the early part of the past decade.  The main reason for this is because the pods of canola that hold the seeds are like pea pods, that once you touch them when completely dry, they pop open to release the seeds fairly easily.  As the canola seeds within the pods have to turn from green to black before you can combine them, a lot of biotechnology companies are in the process of making canola varieties that have pods that hold the seeds in for longer, which is proving to be a daunting task.  A lot of varieties are starting to prove success though, which means a lot of farms that think of canola as their cash crop can consider putting less money into swathing.  Check out this video about Crispr, a technology on the forefront of fixing this process:

Minus the fact that it requires millions to develop new genetic varieties of canola and that can be left up to the biotech companies, what processes within this year’s wetter than normal harvest can be improved?  What is your farm doing during harvest every year that seems like a cost that could be avoided?  Post your problem to and a group of students will attempt a fix at Emerging Ag 2017!

Learn more about straight cutting canola at