Fertile Ground

Mar. 1 2013
How it's Made

On February 17th and the 20th, I plowed down five acres of alfalfa in two separate parts of the same field.

On our farm, we raise three crops: oats, alfalfa, and prairie hay.

Of the three, alfalfa is the most useful for our sheep. We feed it to them from small square bales weighing some sixty pounds, sheaf by sheaf, and in the Fall, Winter, and Spring we like them to get two pounds of it each day as a minimum, ewes, rams, and lambs. We make it available to lambs from an early age too. In the Summer, when we have stored enough alfalfa for the coming year, we put up the rest of the crop in large round bales of some 800 pounds, too big a quantity to offer to sheep at one time, lest they overeat, but good for cattle. So we sell the surplus to our neighbors.

Oats we feed for energy, perhaps a quarter pound a day for all in the Summer, rising to half a pound as the ewes approach lambing. Prairie hay, another way to describe the native grasses, is always available in quantity to our sheep, but it has perhaps 7 or 8 percent protein compared to alfalfa’s 14 or 15 percent so it is not as tasty. On the other hand, it is a permanent crop: no tilling or planting required. It was planted and it flourished without the help of Mankind. It nourishes our sheep from May through October and beyond.

Alfalfa is another matter. It will last, on the prairie, maybe five years or so, but because it fixes nitrogen in its roots, it is hospitable to weeds, and so, over time, it will become a weed patch, nutritious weeds to be sure, but not as productive as pure alfalfa. In order to use up the nitrogen, one plants oats after alfalfa for a year or two, and then alfalfa again.

Back to the plow. I fear that my readers may not have a high opinion of plowing. There can be Politics involved – I won’t go into our views except to assure all that we don’t use chemicals on our farm – but I think one source of concern about the plow may have been Thomas Gray. Recall, please, the third line of the first stanza of the Elegy: “The plowman homeward plods his weary way”.

Plodding has nothing to do with it, these days. I used our John Deere 5065 E – that’s 65 horsepower – and a three-bottomed John Deere plow. It takes about a gallon and a half of diesel and possibly an hour or so for each acre. The tractor is at full bore in the low range of its gears, and what I see when I look back is what a motorboat rider sees except the wake is lush, dark brown, and fixed. It sits three or four inches above the unplowed ground, and as the plowshares pass through the soil I can look down and see the sheared-off stems of the alfalfa we planted five years ago because the soil is shifted to the right.

In February there are no worms to be seen, but I am never surprised to see a flock of birds following my progress, looking for lunch. That was the 17th. On the 20th, it was beginning to snow, and to do so horizontally, so the dun and beige and tan colors of the world were set over to a grayer shade, and I could see my progress in each successive pass by noting the flakes that were beginning to cover the last pass. No birds to be seen on the 20th, only a neighbor half a mile away, picking up large bales of alfalfa he had put up last summer. How many bushels of golden oats will these acres produce next July, I thought, and how much warm, golden straw for cold sheep next winter. And at the end, there the ground sits, ready to be disked in a few weeks and planted.

And I’m off for home. Not plodding.

Jerry Wigglesworth, March, 2013