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Plowing Time

The first picture found below truly stopped me in my tracks. This is exactly how I remember my dad plowing when I was a kid in the late 1960s. He started farming in 1966 with a brand new IH 806, one generation older than this 1066. But this is exactly how it was done back in the day. No cab. No GPS autosteer. Just two tires in the furrow and black smoke billowing from the smokestack.

A local farmer here in Champaign County now invites area farmers to come in for a day and plow the old-fashioned way. These farmers reflect the fact that there is just something about plowing that is very satisfying to the psyche (at least for farm families).  It signaled the end of the crop season for one thing.  All the hard work was finally in the review mirror for a crop season.  And turning over the soil and seeing all that blackness just felt good for some reason.  I know that the soil also had an enjoyable smell.  Really.  I am not making that up.  Todd Gleason of the University of Illinois put together this really nice video that captures all this really nicely. Old Iron Plowing Fever – YouTube

This history of the moldboard plow is indelibly linked to the history of Corn Belt agriculture. The bulk of the Corn Belt was originally tall prairie grass that had an incredibly thick and tough root system. The grass had to be literally broken open in order to farm the land. In 1837 an Illinois inventor named John Deere developed the first successful plow for cutting the prairie grass and turning it over. A nice summary here: Part of his revolutionary design was that the plow was “self-scouring” meaning that the curved and polished steel surface allowed the plowed soil to slip smoothly across the surface and the curve turned the soil over, burying the grass and exposing the soil. Remember this was when weed control was mechanical or manual labor exclusively. You had to turn the soil over to kill the grass.  Plowing also helped control insects and pests by literally burying them.

So, when you see a John Deere tractor, remember that John Deere was originally a plow company.  Another fascinating historical tidbit is that after seeing the muted reaction to his Gettysburg Address, President Lincoln supposedly and famously said that “…like a bad plow, it won’t scour.” He truly was a farmboy from his era.

A good question is why has moldboard plowing largely disappeared from the Corn Belt?  For one thing, it turns out that all that black exposed soil is subject to wind and water erosion.  Modern no-till or minimum tillage systems are designed to leave as much plant residue on top of the soil to help limit wind and water erosion.  Some version of a “chisel plow” has replaced the moldboard plow on most farms that still do fall tillage.  Chisels can till deeply while still leaving a lot of the plant residue exposed.  That is why you rarely see completely black fields anymore in the Corn Belt.  

Another reason for the disappearance of the moldboard plow is the effectiveness of modern herbicides in controlling weeds.  Not as much need to bury them every year under inches of dirt.  I have heard that moldboard plowing is making a bit of a comeback in areas where weeds have grown resistant to some herbicides. 

My thanks to Jim Baltz for sharing the photos that follow.  You can find him here A great video showing the plowing

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