Miles Per Acre

Reader Contribution by Sam Moore
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I found in an old farm textbook a chart showing how many miles are traveled in plowing an acre of ground.

The chart is reproduced here:

miles traveled in plowing an acre

Width of Furrow
Distance Traveled

Can you imagine the thoughts of a 19th century, Midwestern farmer setting out to plow the “back 40” we’ve all heard so much about? A 40-acre field is one-quarter of a mile on each side, or one full mile around the outside edge.

Russell Lee
Bill Stagg turning up pinto beans, October 1940, Pie Town, N.M.

According to the chart above, in plowing that 40-acre field with a 12-inch walking plow (the standard size for two horses), our sturdy farmer (not to mention his faithful team of horses, mules or oxen) would have to walk 330 miles, and that doesn’t include getting to and returning from the field. Allowing time for periodically resting the animals, a slowly plodding yoke of oxen would have required about 25 10-hour days to plow 40 acres.

It’s small wonder that horses steadily replaced oxen, even though a horse cost more to feed, had less stamina and was more excitable, and besides that, couldn’t be eaten when he became too old to work (well, he could, but it wasn’t real popular). A horse could walk almost a mile an hour faster than an ox, bringing the total time to plow 40 acres down to about 16 10-hour days. A modern tractor with a 5-bottom, 16-inch plow could easily knock off the entire field in a day.

Where I grew up in western Pennsylvania, farms were smaller – 50 to 100 acres, including the farmstead, pastures and a woodlot or two. The fields were usually from two to 10 acres. We always called our largest field, way at the back of the farm, the “20-acre field,” but it was actually about 17 acres. It was raised in the center with the land sloping off in all directions. I remember plowing it with a Ford-Ferguson tractor and a 2-bottom, 12-inch mounted plow. We usually plowed around the field and it seemed as though you would never, ever get to the top of the hill and be able to see the plowed ground on the other side. It would take me two or three days to finish that field, and I didn’t have to walk.

I can only imagine my grandfather, and his father and grandfather before him, starting out to plow the “20-acre field” with his trusty team and a 12-inch walker. Every day he had a 1-mile walk each way to and from the field and then all those miles and miles of walking in the furrow to finish that 17 acres. It’s no wonder there were no diets, exercise machines or fat farms in those days.

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