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Published September 12, 2011, 05:12 AM

Getting to know the lay of the land

TOWNER, N.D. — There’s something to be said for generational knowledge of a piece of ground — when you can steer around a boggy spot because your dad warned you about it when you were a kid driving through the field, or go right to a little-known patch of Juneberries because your mom let you in on the secret of where to find them.

By: Ryan Taylor, Special to Agweek

TOWNER, N.D. — There’s something to be said for generational knowledge of a piece of ground — when you can steer around a boggy spot because your dad warned you about it when you were a kid driving through the field, or go right to a little-known patch of Juneberries because your mom let you in on the secret of where to find them.

Ever since my great-granddad and his brother each homesteaded in the Towner, N.D., area in 1905 and 1903, we’ve been students of the intricacies of this small swath of the earth that makes up our ranch.

I was cutting hay on an 80-acre piece of Uncle Al’s homestead land a few weeks back, appreciating that high, sandy end where we were able to plant a little alfalfa, and not appreciating that boggy end that deceives you by looking dry but dropping from beneath your tractor if you dare cross it at the wrong time. This year, it’s always been the wrong time on that part.

Using a little agronomic guesswork and generational knowledge, I carved out a curvaceous piece of hay land in that treacherous part. By following a line — and it wasn’t a straight one — where the big bluestem grass was growing, I was able to get some good hay and keep from getting stuck.

I suppose my old range science teacher in college could tell me why that was, maybe big blue’s affinity for better-drained soils or something to do with soil pH or alkalinity. Who knows? But it worked. I didn’t get stuck.

A mental catalog

Stacking hay on the meadow, Dad kept a year-to-year mental catalog of the good places to build a stack. He knew where the high spots were; maybe he looked for the big blue stem. He knew well the smooth spots because the hog wallows had swallowed plenty of his oak bull-rake teeth as he tried to buck the hay from those rough areas.

We never had satellite photos in those days, but if we did, I bet you could lay one year’s image on top of another and another and find that Dad’s big square stacks of loose hay almost always ended up in the same places year after year.

Now I just drive along with the baler and drop a bale whenever the little box beeps and tells me to. But I’ll drive by those high, smooth spots and think to myself, “that’d be a good place to make a stack.”

In the 100-plus years that we’ve had parts of the ranch, I imagine there’s been a boot print, a hoof print or a tire track of something worn, ridden or driven by a member of our family on most every square inch of the place.

In the dry years, we’ve even laid tracks on some of the slough bottoms. Dad would tell me about the dry year — I think it was ’61 — when they cut right through the sloughs for the hollow stem hay and pushed them out with his D4 Caterpillar. There still are some railroad ties in that one slough that were used to walk the Cat out when it got stuck in the mud.

Now it’s wet, not dry, and we’re making hay in our pastures to get some forage. With all the rain, there’s more grass than the cows can graze, and that pasture land is drier than the hay meadows. I’m adding to my knowledge of the terrain as I mow, rake and bale around each bull hole and sand dune in the pasture.

It’s paying off with hay and treasure. I’ve found a few hundred bales of hay and two ear tagging tools that bounced off my horse years ago. They’re a little weathered, but workable.

Maybe if I keep studying, I’ll find those fencing pliers I lost back in ’95.

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