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Agriculture keeps plowing ahead into new practices

Mychal Wilmes discusses plowing, new methods of farming and his own struggles with turning soil.

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Plowing isn't as common as it once was, but some farmers still use moldboard plows to break up soil. Photo taken Nov. 1, 2017, at Lennox, South Dakota.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek file photo
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Soybeans were nothing more than a minor forage crop in the 1940s. It didn’t take long for soybean growing and processing to become a multi-billion-dollar industry.

Meanwhile, alfalfa’s importance has declined as fewer farmers raise livestock in these parts of the Corn Belt. More grass waterways and roadside ditches are being harvested. Years ago, a farmer visitor from Sweden remarked to me that farmers in his country must use and not waste every bit of grassland.

We spoke at a world plowing contest held on Amana Colony grounds in Iowa. British, Dutch, American, Canadian and plow crews from around the world took part in the contest. The event, like others held around the world, was held by the World Ploughing Organization. Its motto, “Pax Arva Calat,’’ which means let peace cultivate the land, speaks about its mission.

To qualify for world competition, plowing teams must win national contests.

North Dakota was fortunate enough — with the help of the North Dakota Soil Conservation Service — to hold the national plowing contest at Elmer Fraase’s farm near Buffalo on Sept. 17-18, 1964. The family worked three years to get ready for it. More than 100,000 people attended the event, which included 35 acres of tents and the best food that housewives volunteered to prepare. National newspaper and television reporters covered the event, which drew presidential candidates from both political parties. It is difficult to imagine that today’s national candidates would attend such an event given the scant attention agriculture receives during presidential campaigns.

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Lake of the Woods County in northern Minnesota hosted the World Ploughing Contest in 2019 on the Arnesen family farm near Baudette.

Contest plowing is all about teamwork and precision but on our farm, the goal was to quickly blacken the soil. I was at a competitive disadvantage in that regard. An older brother used the Allis Chalmers 190XT and another an Oliver 880. I sat and often froze on a WC, which on heavy soil pulled a two-bottom plow.

After intense lobbying, a ragtag heat houser was installed to capture a little of the engine’s warmth. It helped a little, but not at all when the wind blew against you. Five-finger gloves worked well when dry but didn’t help much when the plow plugged as it often did. Warming the gloves on the hot muffler offered some relief.

It was hoped that my brother was kidding when, as darkness approached, he told me to start plowing on rented land a few miles from home. He would pick me up at 10 p.m. and left two full military surplus gasoline cans on the edge of headlands.

The WC’s front wheels often kicked up and the wire Dad attached to the plow to prevent plugging didn’t do much good. I was, in Dad’s estimation, never able to plow a good dead furrow, which was an obvious failing.

Despite the cold, and the natural awkwardness that the WC possessed, night plowing wasn’t without perks. A clear sky did not hide the stars, a family of raccoons watched, and the mind wandered to finer things.

I would never be a good plow man. The dead furrows would never be straight, and fields were left sloppy in appearance.

Much less land is plowed today, although some say the moldboard is necessary on heavier soils to improve yields the following year. Disking, no tillage and ridge tillage saves on horsepower wear and tear and on topsoil.

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A futurist who offers opinions about farming’s future wrote in an article that soon farmers will plant perennial corn and soybean seed. The crops will grow up to four years without replanting. That seems farfetched — though it is reported that companies are developing seed that will produce small corn stalks that will be less affected by strong winds.

Shorter stalks might mean that the two-bottom plow would certainly plug up less.

Mychal Wilmes is the retired managing editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minnesota, with his wife, Kathy.

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