I remembered the advice I got about fall plowing from an elderly farm neighbour in 1970. That year I quit my construction job and started farming full time with my father in a partnership. We had purchased a much larger dairy operation and moved in after Thanksgiving Day to our present day farm near Renfrew. I had about 50 acres of land to plow that fall.
The neighbour advised me that after Nov. 5, you can’t depend on plowing. The ground could freeze hard and not thaw again until spring. It was good advice. I worked long days that October, plowing with a three-furrow plow. Winter set in early and a record amount of snow fell and it didn’t melt until March. Now with all the hullabaloo about climate change and the earth and oceans getting warmer, that November date could be extended a week. Not much of an extension. I’m usually plowing during the entire hunting season.
Some years, the fall weather is mild and plowing can be done to the end of November, and occasionally farmers can plow into December. Most years, the ground freezes around the middle of November and we get snow.
October and November are the months that farmers plow some of their fields — such as hayfields and cornfields. Many farmers who believed strongly in no-till are now doing a light tillage in the fall with a cultivator. It covers the trash and the soil will dry quicker in the spring.
Before tractors came on the scene, farmers had to walk behind a team of horses holding the reins and the handles of a one-furrow walking plow. Farmers in those days were proud when they could plow an acre a day. And it wasn’t great plowing sitting on a tractor without a cab on nippy November days when the ground wasn’t frozen but the air and the wind were bitterly cold.
Why do I plow? This fall I plowed hayfields and plowed under corn stalks. Mouldboard plowing aerates the soil by loosening it. It incorporates crop residues, solid manures, limestone and fertilizers along with oxygen. By doing so, it reduces nitrogen losses by denitrification, accelerates mineralization and increases short-term nitrogen availability for transformation of organic matter into humus. It removes wheel tracks and ruts caused by harvesting equipment. It controls many perennial weeds. It accelerates soil warming and water evaporation in spring because of the lesser quantity of residues on the soil surface. Plowing is making a comeback, even in dry countries like Australia. I read somewhere if you want to look at the future of farming, you have to look at the past. Well, I never thought I’d see farmers plow with a team of horses again. The Old Order Mennonite farmers, who moved into the Douglas area (near Renfrew) in recent years, are all plowing their large gardens and fields and doing all the farm work with horses.
When you’re plowing or doing fall tillage, you have a feeling that this caps the year’s fieldwork. It’s a time to reflect back on the growing season.
It’s also a wonderful sight when you see the ground turned over in neat, straight furrows with no variation or grass showing in the furrows. The smooth, even furrows make the whole field look as if it has been turned over with one pass of a gigantic plow. I do chuckle when I see a terrible-looking plowed field where you see gaps between each pass of the plow. The plowman obviously didn’t take the time to adjust the plow onto the tractor. That is very important. As a 1930s John Deere power farming brochure states, “No matter how carefully you carry on subsequent tillage operations, you can’t correct the mistakes of poor plowing. Good plowing and good farming go hand in hand.”
When plowing is all finished for the season, and before putting the plow away in the machine shed, clean off the dirt and brush grease onto the shiny mouldboards. Or, do as I do and get a few cans of spray paint and spray it on to the 10 mouldboards on my roll-over tractor so the clay doesn’t stick the next time I plow. Clay will stick on rusty surfaces and will have to be removed with a sturdy scraper next time you plow. Covering the shiny mouldboards with a coat of grease of rust paint saves a lot of scraping of stuck-on clay.
Maynard van der Galien was the first farmer in Renfrew County and beyond to buy a five-furrow reversible (roll-over) European plow. He is still plowing with the same 1996 bought plow. One of the benefits of these plows: No dead furrows in fields.