Fjordworks: Plowing the Market Garden
by Stephen Leslie with technical assistance provided by Kerry Gawalt, both of Cedar Mountain Farm at Cobb Hill co-housing in Hartland, VT.
Meditations on the Art and Science of the Moldboard Plow
PART FOUR: Reports from the Field
“What’s the best method of scouring a plow? Put it in the ground and plow with it. Longer you go the better it will pull.” – Dris Abraham
In this series of articles we are taking a look at how contemporary horse-powered farmers are making use of the moldboard plow, with an emphasis on the use of the moldboard as primary tillage in the market garden. In this installment we will examine some of the brand new plows available from contemporary manufacturers. Before we do that though, let’s tackle some more of the basics of getting started with the horse-drawn moldboard plow by addressing a very common question of the novice plowman.
What size plow?
When someone asks the question; “What size plow do I need?” – the other side of the coin is: “How many horses do you have to plow with?” In considering how many horses we’ll need to pull a plow, we probably should take a moment to define the term “team”. In this text, and in most common parlance among contemporary horse farmers, a team refers to two horses. However, at the turn of the 19th to 20th century most teamsters held a team to be four – two lead horses and two wheel horses – as seen in many vintage photos of delivery carts and wagons. (1) It could be that calling four horses hitched together a “team” is not really old fashioned, but rather that using four together was just more common then, as today it is highly common to use a team of two. In oxen circles the drovers often refer to animals as being in pairs; you hitch two pairs together to get a team of four-up. When you hear someone refer to four-up of horses, this commonly means two as a team and two more ahead of them strung out in a line. Three-abreast is three horses wide on a three-abreast evener and four-abreast is four wide on a fourabreast evener (this set-up of four is rarely used in plowing because it forces one horse to walk on already-plowed ground). Five-abreast is usually the most horses you will see in this configuration and is used for heavy tillage, such as pulling a tandem disc.
As to how big a plow can your horses pull – or what size bottom (a plow bottom is measured by setting a ruler from the landside to the outside tip of the wing on the share) – there are some preliminary considerations, such as – What you are going to plow? How much of it? And perhaps most important – What is the soil type and condition? As a way of illustrating the importance of these questions I offer an example from my own farm. We have a team of Fjords that used to pull a 14” Pioneer Equipment walking plow. That is a big plow for a team of draft ponies, but they pulled this plow through our light sandy loam soil. Now admittedly, we were mostly doing “soft” plowing of seasonal cover crops on a limited amount of acreage. With all that, after two hours of plowing both the team and I would be about ready to do something else. In a one hour and fifteen minute session we could plow a ¼ acre section – at which rate we could theoretically plow an acre within five hours (if we had the stamina). Historically speaking, six hours on the plow was considered a good “day” of work for any draft horse and two acres plowed was the “gold standard”.
We also use a Syracuse two-way sulky plow with 10” bottoms – after working on the Pioneer plow the Fjords think the Syracuse is a cake-walk. More recently we purchased a new 12” bottom to replace the 14” bottom on our Pioneer plow. Although the Fjords did handle the larger plow, the current size seems more appropriately scaled to the draft ponies, and if we were working a clay soil we might need to scale down even more (or else plow with three horses).
In most cases for a team a 12” bottom is a good choice. For easy plowing (small grain or corn stubble, or cover crops) you might be able to go with 14”. For a 16” bottom you might get by with three horses in easy ground but will want four, five, or even six horses if you intend to turn in sod.
No matter how well your team is matched to the size plow, they are going to have to put in some hard work to pull it through the ground. Plowing represents one of the heaviest exertions of draft power your horses will face in the course of working the market garden. Before you hitch your horses to the plow you will want to get them in shape with lighter tasks. Your horses will tell you if the draft of the plow is too much for them. Your experience of plowing will be immeasurably more satisfactory if your horses can pull the plow comfortably, without wanting to go too fast. If the team is walking too fast they are probably feeling the pull is too hard, as most horses will tend to turn up the throttle (before they balk) when they are feeling over-taxed by the load. If you’re in rocky ground slow gear will be your favorite pace, too. When the share of a walking plow hits a stone and jumps you’ll have a much better chance of retaining control if it is traveling at a slower speed.
Naturally, the plow design makes a big difference in draft as well. Width and number of bottoms can determine how many animals are needed, but engineering of the bottoms is a huge factor to consider too. Plow shares made for tractors can be blunt and create more draft and the need for more horses. Back in the “glory days” the engineers and their slide rules always had animal power limitations in mind when they designed a plow. The 12” Oliver Raydex bottom on the modern walking plows probably pulls as hard as the 14” old-school sulky plows made by John Deere, Oliver, or Vulcan. The Oliver-Raydex looks crude by comparison. It is a one-size-fits-all blunt object well-suited to plowing through dirt behind a tractor but lacking subtlety compared to the old horse-drawn designs. It wasn’t a one-size-fits-all world back then. Mass production makes products more profitable for the manufacturers but in regards to plow bottoms it has lessened choice and quality for the farmer. On the other hand, the Oliver-Raydex is hugely convenient because it is so easily replaced and in the market garden it can prove to be quite satisfactory as a general-purpose plow.
Oliver first introduced their new high-speed plow bottoms in 1940, and the name they gave the innovation was Raydex (often shortened these days to Radex). These plow bottoms were designed to go at about 4 MPH. Soon after, all the other manufactures came out with their own versions that were designed for even higher speeds. The original Radex bottom was a complete plow base which included the frog, moldboard, share and landside. Except for how far the moldboard comes down on the frog, it is shaped exactly like any old style moldboard. All modern plow bottoms are descended from the Oliver-Raydex bottom. Now every modern plow manufacturer, including the horse implement manufacturers Pioneer and White Horse, uses throw-away plow shares similar in design to that originally invented by Oliver.
Oliver has long since gone out of business and the Raydex brand name went with them. However, many folks still refer to the throw-away shares as Radex type shares. There are minor differences in these modern shares, but it would be difficult for anyone without specialized knowledge to tell one from the other on the dealer’s shelf.
From 1850 to 1950 walking plows were manufactured in many shapes and sizes. Looking at the old literature we see that walking plows can be 6” to 16” in even, and sometimes odd, widths. Early on, 8” and 10” plows were common. Later, as larger horses came into vogue, 12” and 14” plows became the standards for a team. On today’s horse-powered farm 12” and 14” plows are common.
Trailer plows featuring two or more bottoms to be pulled behind a tractor were introduced in the early twentieth century. With the invention of the forecart, horse farmers have adapted these plows for multiple hitches, with six being common on a two-bottom trailer plow.
The contemporary manufacturers of horse-drawn plows have been keen to listen to customer feedback, including some dissatisfaction with the Radex shares. In this next section we will examine some of the results of their searches for a more versatile plow bottom to satisfy a variety of needs on the farm.
The Kverneland Group was established in 1879 in Norway by Ole Gabriel Kvernland. The first product they introduced to the market was an improved scythe. Soon after they began developing horse drawn plows and harrows, with an aim toward working heavier soils with larger horses and teams. By the 1920s Kvernland had grown to become Norway’s largest supplier of agricultural equipment, and in particular; plows. In the 1980’s the company introduced the first multiple bottom reversible plow for tractors. Kvernland was acquired by the Kubota Tractor Corporation in 2008, which continues to manufacture agricultural implements under the Kvernland product name.
The signature “Light and Robust” steel technology of the Kvernland plow has won it universal praise. These plow bottoms are easily identified by the extremely long moldboard. I have never had the opportunity to try one out, but I have been told by farmers who have that: “If you ever get a chance to use a Kvernland plow in sod you’ll understand what the difference is”. Apparently, the secret lies in the design of the moldboard with its finely calibrated angles. In plowing down small grain or corn stubble or a seasonal cover crop there may not be much noticeable difference, but in heavy ground or for plowing established sod, proponents of this plow claim it makes a world of difference. They say it carefully rolls the soil over and is much easier to disc down. On sod, it cuts and rolls, leaving the overturned sod buried with a smooth surface, compared to other shorter plowshare designs.
The Oliver-Raydex type general purpose moldboard is fine in lighter soils or stubble and in many cases may even do a better job at covering surface trash in these conditions, but in tough conditions it is no match for the long Kvernland-style moldboard. These shares pull easy compared to the modern US “high speed” plow bottoms found on most new horse drawn plows. It has been estimated that the Kvernland bottom can reduce draft by as much as 20% over moldboards of more conventional design. Though as strong as conventional shares, the Kvernland is lighter. A lighter plowshare translates into lower lifting capacity requirements, and less wear and tear on the horses when it is in the ground. When plowing sod or heavy clay soil the Kvernland performs differently from other common plowshares – even when compared to such great old standards as the Oliver, John Deere, or Vulcan lines. This style of moldboard was once found on some vintage plows such as the Massey-Harris or International Harvester models which were specifically designed for clay soil or sod, but the Kvernland plow is the only current manufacturer that replicates this type of bottom.
Without meaning to give offence, members of the general public often talk about horse farmers as folks who; “Do things the old fashioned way”. Whenever I or my horse farming colleagues hear this we may bristle a little and want to tell folks that we don’t do things the old fashioned way. Just as farming technology in general continues to advance – so has farming with horses. There are old fashioned methods and practices that still work as well or better than tractor-powered alternatives, and there are other practices that most of us would never want to bring back. Advances in horse drawn agriculture may not be apparent to the public eye, but this method of farming is alive and well. At this juncture in time in the US, we are very fortunate to have two premiere manufacturers of excellent plows: White Horse Machine and Pioneer Equipment. Their congenial competition and the increase in consumer demand are constantly stimulating new ideas and innovations. Among the most exciting of these innovations has been the introduction of Kvernland bottoms to their respective lines of sulky plows.
The Pioneer Foot-lift Sulky Plow
Many of the horse-farmers of my generation and older (I was born in 1961) who were part of the Back-to-the-Land movement, began our horse farming careers by resuscitating antique plows we dragged out of the hedge rows. Plowing with horses is now a whole lot easier with this new, improved version of the old foot-lift sulky plow. Pioneer Equipment has brought back the 1950’s era single bottom plow, but with some important changes. The company built its first prototype in 2005 and has continued since then to improve and refine the design based on customer feedback from the field. This sulky plow combines modern materials with field-proven features carried over from the great plows of yesteryear. “We’ve been making our standard sulky plow for over 30 years, but customers began asking for a foot-lift version,” says Daniel Wengerd of Pioneer Equipment Co. “This one is more user friendly than the original. It has a tongue that turns the front and rear wheel, giving you more control.”
Because the front and rear wheel are connected by a rod, when the horses turn, the front wheel moves one way and the rear wheel moves the other. This results in a tighter turn radius. In addition, both the landside and furrow wheels are connected to the steering framework and coupled to the tongue so that when the horses turn the plow turns with them. The tongue also ensures that when the plow is out of the ground, it will not roll forward onto the horses’ heels on a downhill slope.
The new sulky has an easy to operate foot-lift mechanism which features a hands-free spring assist foot pedal for lifting and lowering the plow. The plow beam floats within the frame on two eccentric yokes. The operator easily lifts and lowers the plow beam with off-set foot pedals. The lifting pedal mechanism holds the raised plow in place until released by tipping the foot forward. “The foot control leaves both arms free for handling the reins while turning on headlands or entering and leaving the field,” says Mr. Wengerd. “Another simple improvement was making the seat adjustable for leg length.”
These are just two of many features that make this design both safer, and easier to operate, making it possible to do a good job of plowing in most any soil conditions. This sulky also has a safety bolt that will shear if the plow bottom hits an obstruction, greatly lessening the potential for damage to the plow, or broken eveners, torn harness, or injury to the horses. As with their older line of sulky plows, the Pioneer foot-lift plow comes with the option of either Oliver-Raydex shares or Kvernland bottoms. “Kverneland shares are heat-treated to last longer than conventional plow bottoms,” explains Mr. Wengerd. “They also have a slower twist to the moldboard, which flips the sod over instead of breaking it up and throwing the dirt. When you are plowing in sod or grass, you get complete cover and the benefit of the green manure. Plus it pulls about 10 to 15 percent easier than conventional bottoms.” Plowshare sizes range from 12”, 14” to 16”. These plows can be set up for two, four, or six horse hitches and have vertical adjustments to account for horses of different heights.
The White Horse Sulky Plow
The White Horse Machine Company is another giant in the field of new horse farming equipment. White Horse Machine had its beginnings in 1972 when a father and son of the King family of Gap, Pennsylvania got started repairing equipment for their local farming community. Their repair shop soon bloomed into a full-time business. Very quickly they moved from simply repairing machinery to coming up with their own innovative designs for new implements to help the horse-drawn and organic farming community work more effectively in the field. Today their line of implements include low-lift frameless plows that feature a shock absorber to cushion the horses against impact when the plowshare strikes an obstruction, a two-way plow with hydraulic lift, a single-shank sub-soiler, trailer plows, hydraulic accumulators and ground-drive hydraulic systems, a versatile line of forecarts, a three-point dolly cart, and more.
The Keystone bottom is their latest offering of a more affordable and improved version of the European Kvernland plowshare. The original Kvernland share that has been imported in recent years for use on horse-drawn plows is actually designed for tractor use. In adapting the Kvernland model to horse-drawn plows, this manufacturer has been mindful that the modern shares are designed to travel through the soil at faster speeds than those drawn by animal power. Some customers have given feedback that the original Kvernland share with separate reversible wear tip was overbuilt (given the tractor-use origins) and requires more draft than the old school flat shares. In response, the newest iteration in Kvernland- style plow bottoms from White Horse is the Keystone series and the latest result of all this effort is the White Horse Plow 715.
This past July (2014) I had the great privilege of attending Horse Progress Days in Mount Hope, Ohio. While I was there I made a point of seeking out White Horse Machinery proprietor, Melvin King. He was able to take a few minutes out of his busy day at the event to sit down and chat with me about plows, organic farming, and the future of the horse farming community. Mr. King told me the company used their years of experience to begin a quest to develop better plowing equipment for horse-drawn operations. He said that the intention of White Horse is to try and combine the best of traditional horse-drawn technology with new innovations. The folks at White Horse spent many hours talking to customers, researching plowing techniques, and studying historic horse-drawn plows. Next, they built and field-tested multiple designs. The resulting plow reintroduces features from plow designs from the 1800s. Many of these features were lost over one-hundred years ago as attention turned toward developing plows for tractors. These bottoms are designed not only for sod but for greater ease of draft and improved performance for turning in cover crops and cash crop residue. The intention of the Keystone design is to ensure that nitrogen and organic matter are made available for future crops, which makes the Keystone Series bottoms ideal for organic farming. The manner and depth at which one turns in cover crops and sods is greatly determined by the design of the plow. To effectively manage cover crops to gain the maximum benefit of nitrogen and organic matter it is important to have a plow that performs effectively. This plow is exceptional at dealing with high volumes of surface trash, it has a large coulter and a jointer/scraper. Even in thick cover crop residues, such as a sudex-sudan grass and crimson clover mix, the Keystone bottom can slice right through.
The 715 is equipped with a skimmer that lifts the top layer of soil and turns it into the bottom of the furrow. This buries weed seeds too deeply to germinate. Because they turn the soil so effectively they provide superior weed control, and because they invert cover crops so well they encourage farmers to utilize conservation practices that protect soil and build up organic matter.
The ease with which this plow works can save the farmer time and result in evenly turned furrows. The well-balanced easy lifting and simple adjustments make this an ideal plow for beginners and a delight for experienced teamsters. The hands-free steering system allows for an optimal turning radius, allowing the teamster to keep hands on the lines. The front wheels follow the horses precisely, while the rear wheel locks rigidly into the furrow. The 715 features a spring-assisted single-lift lever to provide easy lifting of the plow bottom. It is equipped with shock absorption both at the hitch-point and in the ground. When the bottom trips, leaf spring tension is reduced allowing the bottom to glide over rocks. This mechanism reduces shock to the horses and operator and places less stress on the plow. The draft hitch is also spring-cushioned. It can be adjusted horizontally with a hand lever to allow for plowing hillsides and contours evenly.
White Horse offers several different moldboard styles to address different soils and preferences for soil inversion. In addition to the new Keystone shares, they continue to offer the original Kvernland style with the separate reversible share points – with the ability to custom order a modified share point if you desire. The Number-Four features a moldboard shape that addresses the desire to not completely cover and trap residue which promotes aerobic decomposition. In light soils it rolls sod or cover crop inside an arched pulverized finish. In heavy soils it gently turns sod or cover crop to 130 degrees, leaving channels for air and water to percolate. The Number-Five, a copy of the original Kvernland, is a plowshare designed for full inversion of residue that works well in clay soils. With its long moldboard it is designed to gradually turn sod or cover crop in a controlled 180 degree fully submerged finish and is effective for “skim plowing” a wide and shallow furrow.
White Horse Machine also makes their own frog and non-wear parts which can help to bring costs down. The wear parts are sourced from various European aftermarket sources including Kvernland. The frog bolt pattern can be had in several styles so that customers can retrofit the new bottoms onto their old plow beams.
This year (2014) White Horse is also reintroducing a new version of the Two- Way plow. They have a proto-type in development that is designed for a three-abreast hitch.
New plows from I&J mfg.
I&J Manufacturing has its own line of walking plow. This is a straight beam plow that comes with the option of either an 8”, 10” or 12” Radex-style bottom. This plow can be adjusted to be pulled either by a single horse or a team. At 165 lbs., it is a light-weight and easy to handle plow. In addition, I&J makes a three-point- hitch plow that goes with their three-point-hitch adapter and is suitable for their own carts or the standard draft carts from Pioneer.
The moldboard plow is such an iconic symbol of modern farming that it can be easy to forget that it is in reality simply a tool. In considering the moldboard plow as a tool, what comes to my mind is an even more basic tool – the knife. As a human artifact a knife is a neutral object. In the hands of a sensible person it can be used to fashion all sorts of useful items. In the hands of a nefarious soul it can be used to commit all manner of murder and mayhem. Depending on the context of your upbringing, a knife will either stir up an image of a fearful weapon or else that of a preeminently practical tool. Most farmers I know either have a pocket knife or some kind of multi-tool on their belt, and they will likely utilize it countless times every day as they go about their chores. Yet, for many an urban dweller, a knife may conjure up nightmares of muggings and back alley stabbings.
A knife in the hands of a skilled human alone in the wilderness can make all the difference. With a knife and a little knowledge a person can secure the basics of food, clothing and shelter and sustain a relatively comfortable existence. Without a knife one may struggle to simply stay alive. With a knife a bow and arrows can be fashioned, a fire-starting kit can be built, game can be skinned and dressed out, spruce roots, birch bark and saplings can be harvested to form a shelter, in short, the knife as tool opens up a world of possibility for survival off the land.
Much the same can be said of the moldboard plow. As a tool it is a fairly neutral wedge of steel. Whether it serves as a tool that will be used in creative land stewardship or become a means of wreaking ecological destruction is all in the hands of the farmer – and in our complex times – the deciding power is also in the hands of the authors of the Farm Bill.
Most everyone knows the story, beginning in the period after the Civil War and progressing right up until the year of the great economic “crash” of 1929, North American plowmen turned over tens of thousands of acres of prairie sod and planted it to wheat, corn, soy, cotton, alfalfa and other crops. Much of this work was done with draft animals – which goes to show that draft animal power in and of itself is not an ecologically sustainable form of traction unless it is coupled with thoughtful land use planning with an eye toward long term yields and maintaining species and landscape diversity (much of the work of levelling the great northern forests was also accomplished with horses, mules, and oxen).
One would have supposed that the ensuing dust bowl years of the 1930’s, which were characterized by prolonged drought, the effects of which were severely exacerbated by the reckless wielding of the plow, would have given enough pause to this nation as to cause a complete rethinking of how we go about food production. In fact, it is fair to say that the dust bowl was a human-made catastrophe – grasslands have tremendous resilience in withstanding drought – plowed ground has almost none. At the peak of the disaster the skies above Washington, DC were darkened with the wind-blown dust from the soil erosion taking place thousands of miles to the west, even as members of congress debated about how to respond. The Roosevelt Administration did eventually respond with strong measures aimed at soil and water conservation; hundreds of trees were planted in shelterbelts and contour plowing was widely encouraged. But within just a couple of generations our collective memory seems to have lapsed.
Between 2007 and 2012 corn and soy prices have doubled. Government policies have directly incentivized this price increase in the form of ethanol subsidies and crop insurance. Suddenly the plowman is turning over prairie sod at a rate not seen since the 1920’s. Windbreaks and shelterbelts are coming down, wetlands, and other marginal soils are being planted. The conversion of grassland to cropland occurring in our heartland right now is equivalent to the rate of destruction of rainforests in Brasil and Indonesia. A rancher in the Dakotas who formerly made a good but hard living off 500 cows, now has the choice to either sell the land to corporate farming interests at record profit, or till that land down for corn and soy, make the same money as was made off the cows and spend the winter in Arizona or Florida. Farmers who want to farm at a smaller, more diversified and ecologically friendly scale are being pushed out by escalating land prices. As a result, vast swathes of grassland in the Upper Midwest and Northern Prairie states are being converted to “fence row-to-fence row” commodity cropping. One of the most important ecosystems on the planet is in peril.
In this series of articles we have seen how the horse-drawn moldboard plow can be used by the conscientious farmer to effectively manage cover crops as part of a soil-building regime in the market garden or for the production of forage crops within a sequenced rotation. As we go forward as a people, it is our choice as to whether we wish to see our food produced by these kinds of artisanal craftsman of the land, or whether we will be complacent and let government sponsored corporate agriculture continue to usurp the privileges of the yeoman farmer and “in the name of progress” rush us headlong toward an ecological disaster that will make the dust bowl years look like a Sunday picnic in July.