Night Shift on a Crawler Tractor

Dryland farming demanded ’round the clock effort, exposed to the elements on board a crawler tractor.

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There is an old saying that, “A man works from sun to sun. A woman’s work is never done.” There never seems to be controversy as to the truth of that. However, there was a time when, in some places in rural America, where, if the man was a farmer, his field work was never done.

That is because there were not enough hours to accomplish what needed to be done with the resources at hand. But even if one came up short, getting close was considered acceptable. It was understood that a successful crop year required unique efforts by everyone involved.

Every farming operation is different. This discussion pertains to the author’s personal experiences of being “a small cog in a big wheel” in a family farm’s marathon effort in the spring to prepare for the summer farming season. Much of what I did as a teenage farm employee was what others of my age were doing for other farmers.

Six 12s and room and board

You see, we lived in a high altitude valley with a very short growing season. From the time the deep snow melted and the ground dried up enough that field work could begin, almost all high school “kids,” as we were referred to, had employment opportunities. We didn’t know it at the time, but local farmers desperately needed our help. That didn’t translate into high pay, but as a general rule, we were well treated.

The usual arrangement was a daily wage, along with room and board (I got $4 a day room and board. Adult employees got $8 a day with no room and board). Since farming operations were some distance from our little town, the young employees lived with the farmer’s family, slept where they had room for us and ate meals with them. On Saturday nights, our parents would drive out and get us for our day off.

Six days a week we worked from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. with an hour off at noon for dinner. (“Lunch” was something prepared ahead of time – like sandwiches – and carried in a brown paper sack to be eaten when one couldn’t make it back to the farm at noon for dinner. The night meal was supper.)

Dryland farming requires a different approach

Because our winter snow wasn’t completely melted until mid-April, farmers used crawler tractors with wide tracks (we commonly called them “tracklayers”) because of their inherent ability to traverse soft ground that wheel tractors would sink in. And since they all practiced dryland farming, a good portion of the farm’s land lay fallow during the summer. In the summer, we rarely got any rain so the unplanted land was kept cultivated – all weeds were kept off of it – to conserve its natural moisture.

A person who doesn’t understand how dryland farming works would probably think large brown fields with nothing growing on them were “all dried out.” In actual practice, these fallow fields are moist under the surface because the loose dirt on the top keeps the regular capillary action from happening, whereby moisture works its way to the surface. By keeping weeds from growing there, a good share of moisture that originated in the previous winter snow was retained.

The main crop was winter wheat. Planted in the fall on the land that lay fallow during the summer, it sprouted in the saved moisture, lived snow-covered during the winter and was harvested the next year early in the fall. A few crops were planted in the spring, but since the summer lacked rainfall, such production per acre was only a fraction of winter wheat. All of that explanation is necessary to understand that each farmer faced a marathon effort every spring to prepare the fields before the winter moisture dried out.

Working ’round the clock

The formula worked like this: As soon as one could get into the field (with crawlers, that meant as early as late April but sometimes not until mid-May), every field needed to be plowed, as our rich, black soil needed to be broken up with moldboard plows. That rough surface needed to be smoothed, first with a tandem disc and then with harrows, creating a fine top surface that would seal in moisture. As a rule of thumb, all of that needed to be completed by June 1.

Small farmers owned one general work tractor. Caterpillar D2s, D4s and D6s were the most popular but International TD6s, TD9s and TD14s were used by some. Occasionally one would see an Allis-Chalmers crawler, like an HD5 or larger, but they weren’t common. Of course, small wheel tractors were found on almost every farm. Dryland farms, by their nature, have to be quite large to be financially viable. In our area, they were about 1,000 acres, most of which were dedicated to growing grain.

Moldboard plowing is a slow process that takes a lot of power to turn over the soil. We used 16-inch plows due to our soil conditions. Almost everyone knows tractors are rated as 1-plow, 2-plow, 3-plow, etc., based on their size and power. Translating that to ground cultivated means a 3-plow tractor – pulling a 16-inch, 3-bottom plow – turns over 48 inches of soil with each pass. Do you have any idea how many passes that tractor would have to make to plow a 100-acre field? A dryland farmer would have several of those fields needing to be plowed every spring.

The farmer’s response to that dilemma was to keep his crawler tractor working 24 hours a day.

Complicated maneuvers

And that is where the young farm hands came in. By necessity, the farmer needed to be around during the day. He would run the plow tractor for the 11-hour shift during daylight hours. At the 7 p.m. shutdown time, the tractor was refueled and serviced as needed. Then, as quickly as possible, we climbed on and began plowing. The 1955 Cat D4 crawler I drove traveled 3.7mph in third gear. Initially that didn’t seem too slow, but before long it seemed like a person was barely moving.

Crawlers were not rated quite the same as wheel tractors.

Each farmer pulled as many bottoms as his tractor could handle. We pulled six bottoms, two 3-bottom plows hooked together. The science of hydraulics was in its infancy in the 1950s and early ’60s, so our plows were hand-tripped.

When approaching a corner, the driver had to reach back with his right hand and pull a trip rope attached to the first plow’s large wheel mechanism. As it revolved, forward motion raised the plow out of the ground. The left turn steering clutch lever had to be pulled and held with the now-free right hand and careful modulation of the left brake utilized. As the crawler was turning, the driver reached back with his left hand to trip the second plow.

Letting loose of the steering clutch straightened the tractor out and then both trip ropes needed to be pulled again in rapid order to reset the first, and then the second, plow. Although that seems complicated, it was quickly mastered and this author is confident he could repeat that procedure now, decades later, since thousands of corners were turned during his formative years.

When plowing with a wheel tractor, one wheel is run in the furrow. Crawlers, on the other hand, always ran “on the land.” Correction of the tractor via one lever or the other was necessary fairly often to maintain the correct distance from the furrow. Even well-maintained crawlers never travel totally straight, especially on uneven land, so the driver had to be constantly attentive in order to plow correctly.

Bubble of black nothingness

Those familiar with modern tractors might find it strange that, 50 years ago, a person sat on a tractor 11 hours a day with no creature comforts of any kind. The driver was totally exposed. He experienced whatever Mother Nature sent his way: boiling hot sun, bone-chilling cold, wind, suffocating dust, rain squalls (until it was possible to get back to the where his vehicle was parked), insects, low-flying birds, and through it all, the roar of unmuffled diesel engines.

With crawlers there was loud squeaking of the steel tracks, constant vibration and heat that boiled up from the gearbox that the driver basically straddled. Much of the time, it was so hot you would get burned if you touched metal with a bare hand.

It is hard to explain what we 15- and 16-year-old kids experienced while working the “night shift.” By 9 o’clock, it was pitch black and our whole world shrank down to the 20 or so yards in front that the two headlights revealed. One rear light illuminated the implement you were pulling. Since crawlers needed fairly constant steering attention, one was basically operating in a small illuminated bubble in the middle of a black nothingness. No features of the land were visible and even corners sometimes surprised you because they seemed to appear all of a sudden. A person’s previous experience of daylight tractor driving, long hour after hour, helped one adapt to those strange surroundings.

At midnight you took an hour off. A lunch packed by the farmer’s wife was consumed sitting in whatever vehicle you drove to the field. Since plowing as much land as possible was the goal, the night shift employee usually had a vehicle in which to drive back to the farm for help in case of a breakdown. My midnight-illuminated bubble in the black nothingness was the cab of a 1947 Dodge 1-1/2-ton truck that had a small interior light.

That lunchtime was just a different kind of boredom. All we had to look at was the cab’s interior. Our early spring overnight temperatures were usually in the 30s, so part of the time off was spent with the truck’s engine running and its heater keeping things warm. One really wasn’t tempted to sleep because we got enough rest sleeping during the day at the farm while the farmer plowed. Getting back on the tractor at 1 a.m. was not too difficult.

Plowing 60 acres a day

After what seemed forever, there appeared a small sliver of light on the eastern horizon. That was good news, because that meant morning was getting closer. The bad news was that the coldest part of the night – temperatures close to freezing – always came just before dawn. As we roared and clanked along, eventually it would be light and we could see the boss heading our way to relieve us. We went back to the house, had breakfast and went to bed. The 6 p.m. wake-up time to prepare for another night shift would come quickly enough.

The goal of this all was to plow 60 acres every 24 hours – 30 for each shift. Because of the need to change plowshares and occasional breakdowns, that was never quite accomplished. The marathon effort lasted several weeks every year and generally enough was accomplished that the farm operation got off to a successful start.

The rest of the year involved using the Cat to keep the “summer fallow” free of weeds. With all those acres, pulling rod weeders, duck feet and the like, that was pretty much a full-time job. That was so much a part of farming in our area that it became a verb: Between spring plowing and fall harvesting, we were busy “summer fallowing.” Not many of us young “night shift” employees of that era remain today. When two or more get together, we briefly relive that unique period of time that will never be repeated. FC

A retired high school history teacher, Clell G. Ballard has worked on farms since he was in grade school, including 53 summers spent working on his uncle’s dryland hay and grain ranch. He also is a dealer of World War II-era military vehicles and parts. Contact him at (208) 764-2313 (and bear in mind the time difference with Mountain Time) or by email at

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