My view out of the window as I write this is of a lot of snow covered by a nice glaze of ice, but my thoughts have turned to what we used to do on the farm about this time of year.
As the temperatures were regularly above freezing, it was a waiting game for the snow to melt and the ground to thaw so we could get into the fields. Dad remarked that, in the many years he actively farmed, he was only twice able to work the ground in the fields in March.
How to make the waiting time pass a little faster? Area agricultural businesses provided open houses, showcasing the latest and greatest equipment, seed, fertilizer, and other innovations designed to make work easier and increase production and crop yields. Of course, these open houses offered a variety of special incentives to motivate actual purchases.
Dad and I recently reminisced about John Deere Days—an event held by the area John Deere dealer that featured a catered lunch, displays of new equipment, and movies showcasing the new-and-improved features of that latest equipment. Silent-film actor Buster Keaton was the star of some of those films, and, years later, Deere released those features on videotape. A 2-cylinder club has produced a series of DVDs collecting a number of the old films, and all of that helps bring back some of those memories. Mind you, I only recall going to one John Deere Days event in the 1980s, and, while it was fun, it didn’t have quite the same atmosphere as the events Dad has told me about. Those sounded as if a three-ring circus had come to town.
I do remember spending a couple of Saturdays each spring traveling around Grant County, Wisconsin, to order and (later) pick up our fertilizer, chemical, and seed orders for the upcoming planting season. We’d haul home the seed oats and fertilizer order in our cattle trailer and then transfer the bags to an empty hay rack. We ordered according to how many acres of oats, barley, and corn we wanted to plant—and the planting rate we desired.
“We planted an average of 12 to 15 pounds of alfalfa seed and 96 pounds of oats or barley per acre,” Dad said.
The alfalfa seed (mixed with timothy seed) was held in smaller containers on the front of our grain drill, while the oats or barley were in larger bins at the rear. A long board at the rear helped give the operator a step up to load the drill as needed. I never ran the grain drill, but I did ride on the tractor with Dad several times when I was too young to drive the tractor and move the supply wagon from field to field. Dad said he remembered the time he was finishing a field and I’d been watching how he carefully laid out his rows to the width of the drill. On the last pass, I could see that there wasn’t a wide enough swath left for a full pass so I tugged on Dad’s sleeve and said, “You’ve got a problem.” He laughed and showed me how he was going to overlap the previously drilled rows on the last pass.
It took time to calculate the amount of corn seed we needed. Each year, we planted several different varieties from several companies. One reason was the urge to buy seed from each of the neighbors and friends who were seed dealers. Another was that, with different soil types in various locations on our farm and on any ground we rented, we had to look at which varieties of corn seed were best suited to each kind of ground. Dad said that a bag of seed corn contained 80,000 individual seed kernels. He determined how many bags of seed corn to buy depending on how much seed he wanted or needed to plant in a given acre. On our farm, we averaged about 28,000 kernels to the acre. Dad kept careful records of which varieties of seed corn he planted in each area of the farm and then, in the fall, looked at what sorts of harvest those varieties yielded. That would inform his buying decisions for the next year and determine what types of chemical fertilizers and insecticides we would need. (Of course, as I wrote in an earlier installment, we had plenty of natural fertilizer to spread around.)
With the seed corn that was used for animal feed, we would be given several boxes of sweet-corn seed to plant for our own use. (We didn’t want to plant the sweet corn in the outside rows of the field; if we’d done that, the raccoons would have come at night to eat all the young ears before we got to pick any.)
Even with all the preparation as the spring thaw began, it seemed as if we would never actually get into the field—but that’s where we’ll go next month.
How did—or do—you prepare for spring planting?