Tractor Plowing 101

Good tractor plowing remains the key to good farming.

| March 2017

  • Herbert Dicksee’s painting “The Last Furrow,” graphically shows the arduous nature of hand plowing with horses.
    Farm Collector archives
  • When finishing a land and the tractor wheels span the unfinished ground, drive the tractor with the left wheels against the furrow wall, drop the plow, re-level it and proceed to the end of the field. This leaves a narrow unfinished strip to be plowed on the return trip.
    Farm Collector archives
  • A walking plow and a pair of mules, not plowing very deep, but turning over the sod. The expert plowman has nice, straight furrows. In the middle ages, an acre was first defined as the amount of land that a man and a yoke of oxen could plow in a day.
    Farm Collector archives
  • When finishing the last narrow strip with a 2-bottom plow, tilt the plow over to the left, drive in the furrow with the right wheels and plow this strip with the front plow, thus completing the land.
    Farm Collector archives
  • The sulky plow made things much easier for the plowman, but the cost of the machine still relegated most small farmers to the hand plow. The plow shown here was produced by Grand Detour Plow Co., Dixon, Ill. This chromolithograph dates to the 1880s.
    Farm Collector archives
  • A 1929 Rumely Type Z, rated at 40 drawbar hp, pulling an 8-bottom plow. Rumely OilPull tractors used oil for cooling rather than water, because of its higher boiling temperature, which in turn, allowed for better burning of kerosene fuel. The tractor and plow were restored by owner Don Wolf, Ft. Wayne, Ind.
    Photo by Don Wolf
  • Early tractor plowing began at the turn of the 20th century with steam engines. Shown here is a 110 hp Case pulling what looks like a 12-bottom plow.
    Image courtesy Robert N. Pripps
  • The main parts of the typical plow are defined on this Ferguson 2-bottom plow for use with a 3-point hitch. Other types of moldboard plows generally have these, or similar, parts.
    Farm Collector archives
  • An International Harvester Little Genius 2-bottom trailer plow. “Wings” have been added to the moldboards to ensure complete rolling of the plowed ground. International Harvester manufactured the Little Genius plows for many years. The configuration is typical of that by other manufacturers.
    Photo by Robert N. Pripps
  • A Ford Dearborn Motors 2-bottom (14-inch) plow. On later versions such as this, check chains were not required on the coulters as a block in the swivel accomplished the same function. The piece above the sliding landside is known as the “frog.” The tubes at the ends of the moldboards are for optional spring-loaded rakes.
    Photo by Robert N. Pripps
  • A 1943 John Deere Model A plows with an International Harvester Little Genius plow at Midway Village Museum and Historic Site, Rockford, Ill. Hal Beitlich is at the controls of the tractor, which is owned by the author’s son, Doug Pripps. Both Hal and Doug are involved with the old-time farming group of museum volunteers.
    Photo by Robert N. Pripps
  • Author Robert N. Pripps plows with his 1946 Ford-Ferguson 2N and Dearborn 2-bottom 14-inch plow.
    Photo courtesy Robert N. Pripps
  • Suggested plowing pattern for a trailer plow.
    Farm Collector archives
  • Suggested plowing pattern for a mounted plow.
    Farm Collector archives

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.”