Tractor Plowing 101

Good tractor plowing remains the key to good farming.

| March 2017

Few farm jobs give greater satisfaction than tractor plowing a field. Of course, plowing can also be the source of great frustration. Most old-timers know the pitfalls and hazards to be avoided, but for the novice a short primer would be helpful.

The crude wooden plows that scratched the ground in prehistoric days led to animal-propelled walking plows. The Bible has much to say about plowing, including the scorning of the “sluggard who won’t plow in the fall because of the cold” (Proverbs 20:4). Plowing with these hand devices was arduous and anything but joyful. Raised on a farm, Henry Ford said, “I have walked many a weary mile behind a plow and I know the drudgery of it.”

James Oliver, inventor of the Oliver Chilled Plow, said, “The man who has never been jerked up astride his plow handles, or been flung into the furrow by a balky plow, has never had his vocabulary tested.” Wheeled riding (sulky) plows were invented in 1870, but hand plowing was still the norm until it was supplanted by the inexpensive lightweight tractor and its corresponding plow.

Key to good farming

Why plow at all? It is true that modern no-till farming techniques have lessened the need for routine spring and fall plowing, and the field cultivator has replaced the moldboard plow in many cases. Further, the use of chemical weed killers leaves fields relatively clean of last season’s residue. But when a thickly sodded piece of ground is to be made into a seedbed, the plow is the tool with which to start.

The plow’s purpose is to pulverize (or break up) the soil, admitting air and light, two essentials to normal plant growth. The plow inverts the sod and covers trash (such as corn stalks) and manure, mixing it with the soil to decay and furnish plant food.

The plowed soil must have good contact with the subsoil to facilitate the rise of moisture. Voids and clods of trash or sod impede root growth and break contact with the subsoil. As a 1930s John Deere Power Farming brochure states, “No matter how carefully you carry on subsequent tillage operations, you can’t correct the mistakes of poor plowing. Good plowing and good farming go hand in hand.”