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Plowing Ahead

Multiple hitches plowed farmfields until tractors took over. (Photo from Horse Power, by Frank Lessiter)Debate continues on the most efficient, environmentally-safe way to plow fields in this age of economies of scale and conservationism.  Dane County land conservation director Kevin Connors says farmers like Schroeder plowed wit]h horses because “it was all that they could do.”  No-till and conservation tillage practices are much more common as large grain farmers plant as much as they can while rotating crops, another traditional soil-saving practice.  Connors has personal experience with plowing but says grinding the dirt depletes the soil structure, affecting nutrients and, potentially, crop yield.

Multiple Hitches 

My grandfather, Henry Schroeder, started plowing his Dane County, Wisconsin farm fields in 1927 with two Cly]desdales. Some neighbor farmers used Percheron horses, considered some of the most reliable in their field, to coin a phrase.  Tom Stolen, Henry’s neighbor across what is now Kinney Rd. in the township of Pleasant Springs, had a five-Percheron team that aided his conversion to contour farming and water diversion practices in the late 1940s.  According to Frank Lessiter’s book Horse Power (Reiman Publications, Milwaukee), multiple hitches of four to six horses were common through the 1930s and 1940s, until tractor power eventually replaced them. While some nostalgic types long for the days of horse plowing and working the land, Stolen today praises chisel plowing for its ability to “twist up” the soil and leave a four inch groove or planting crops that avoids structural soil damage.

Interestingly, young farmers in the 1920s sought increased efficiency and output well.  “They wanted to expand, yet couldn’t without finding new ways to turn more field work in a day’s time,” wrote Lessiter, adding that horses held their own for many years “until farm labor got scarce during World War II and the race to more mechanization on the American farm began in earnest.” 

To Plow or Not to Plow

Plowing has evolved and created controversy since Cyrus McCormick built the first one in 1831.  The cast-iron plow was deemed a threat.  “Many people fought the cast iron plow, believing that it poisoned the land, causd weeds, and drained strength from the soil,” according to Horse Power. In 1837, John Deere came out with its steel plow that teamed with horses to work America’s farmland.  Ninety-nine years later, Oscar Anderson, Otis’s father, bought a tractor — from John Deere.

It’s unclear if today’s no-till practices increase yields or not.  Research continues to support its soil benefits.  Farmers, however, face a challenge that cuts deeper than a chisel plow — producing enough safe and healthy food using modern practices while conserving soil and paying for tractors and combines at prices Cyrus McCormick never fathomed. They chisel their land and their budgets.

Fortunately for us, farming have a history of adapting to change to feed people and remain sustainable.  There’s no debate about that.

One comment
  1. Steve Savage

    Steven,
    Interesting article. On the question of no-till yields, it is definitely possible to achieve equal yields and superior yields in dry areas. If someone will use no-till and cover crops they eventually build up the organic matter enough to achieve higher and more stable yields.

    As for horse power – it is fascinating to look at the history of oat acreage and number of cars. They are mirror images of each other.

    Steve

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