Using Your Tractor: Creating a Seed Bed

Contributed Article

Using Your Tractor:
Creating a Seed Bed

When I bought my first old tractor, I had only one idea in mind. It wasn't the preservation of old iron since at that time, I was unaware that people even did this. It wasn't to show off my restoration skills (though I had tried my hand at a couple of old motorcycles in my teens and if I recall correctly, those old motorcycles were sold in boxes about one quarter finished). It wasn't to relive memories of Grampa, Dad or myself out on the back 40 nursing the Farmall pulling too many bottoms on that overly tough soil (unfortunately, Grampa, Dad and I all grew up in the city). No, I was just tired of being bounced up and down and jerked back and forth by that rototiller and knew there must be a better way. Though this old tractor did, out of necessity, eventually drive me to enjoy preservation and restoration, I still can't claim the tractor memories that so many enjoy (my Dad thinks I'm insane to fall in love with old tractors). That aside, the primary use of tractors at this farm comes from keeping the garden in good enough shape to make sure we have food to eat. Even though we constantly work at restoration and attend every tractor show in a 200 mile radius, the most satisfaction and pride comes when the plowing and disking is done and beautiful seed bed is prepared.

Most new tractors marketed to the hobby or small farms aren't designed with the weight or pulling power necessary to pull a plow effectively but rather to move very slowly through the garden turning a tiller. On the converse, older tractors move too briskly even in their lowest gear to operate a tiller but can easily manage 1 or 2 moldboard plow bottoms. For many people, myself included, the modern tiller is too slow and will not go deep enough to do the job. A pass with the disk, a pass with the plow, and another pass with the disk will tie up about an hour and a half and the finished product is nice deep tillage that will even allow potatoes to flourish. To those who intuitively see that this is a boldfaced justification for using old tractors rather than modern garden tractors, I congratulate you on your insight but must also add that for this use, the older tractor, plow and disc saves thousands in initial purchase and the cost of parts (Exhibit A: An OEM Alternator for an un-named modern garden tractor costs approximately the same as a complete rebuild on my Allis-Chalmers D-14).

Anyone having gone the way of using an old tractor, plow and harrow has already acquired the wisdom to know that the whole process is not as rosy or cut and dry as I am presenting. A tiller requires virtually no skill or knowledge other than being smart enough to avoid the PTO and spinning tines. Not so with the plow. The first time I hooked up the plow and dropped it in the soil, I discovered that the plow spent some of its time surfing on the grass and the remainder building up humongous piles of turf until the tractor would stop and refuse to move forward. To continue I would have to back up and cut the turf off. This left me with a very unusual surface of deep and wide grooves that terminated in 3 foot tall hills made of turf. Not exactly the ideal seedbed. I kept this up for a half hour or so until unbeknownst to me, one of the plowshares decided to fall off and embed itself in one of my turf hills. In reality this was a good thing since it forced me to manually disassemble the hills and return the divots to where they belonged. When I was done, the garden was back in the condition I found it and I was obviously ready to learn how to repair a plow. This experience was sufficient proof that I lacked expertise in the use, setup, and maintenance of moldboard plows. Proficient use and setup of plows was once considered the domain of experts known as plowmen and keeping the plow surfaces in good shape was the domain of experts known as blacksmiths. Since you will not easily find people in these professions anymore (if you don't believe this, just look in the phone book), your success in plowing will be based on your learning what you need to know to fill these roles. As you can imagine, you can learn to setup and use a plow to fulfill the role of the plowmen but it is unlikely you will have the equipment or time to become a blacksmith.

While more intelligent individuals might have given up at this point, my first plowing experience presented me with the opportunity to restore a plow and take the time to learn about how it was supposed to work in the process. I started by locating a parts manual that covered my old 2 bottom AC plow among others. While it was fun to know the model number and see all the configurations and components that could be purchased in 1957, I found that ordering parts could be boiled down this simple formula. I give the part number of the needed component to my Agco parts person, they would look it up and tell me it was no longer serviced. After a couple of iterations of applying this formula, I found it cheaper to skip the whole process saving the phone charges and the time (I think the parts dealer appreciated this also). I finally loaded up all the broken pieces and hauled them to the closest welding shop. This turned out to be a valuable trip since one of the shop's employees was a member of a club dedicated to preserving the methods and traditions of plowing with horse teams. This stroke of luck not only netted me repairs of the plow components, but a quick course in what to do to set up my plow. Mechanized plowing is not near as exact a science as plowing with a team. When you plow with a team it becomes even more important that the plow be sharp and that the surfaces be set at the correct angles. Needless to say, applying a small portion of what the horse plowmen told me (which was about all I could retain from the conversation) was sufficient to make my plow work great behind the tractor.

After the welding was complete, my first lesson involved finding the correct bolts for reassembly. The plow was originally damaged because it was completely assembled with hardened bolts of grades 8 and 5. Though I did not assemble it this way, I probably would have thinking that stronger is better. I was told to instead that certain bolts needed to be shear bolts and to use a grade 2 to ensure that they would break when I encountered obstacles rather than tearing and twisting so many of the plow components. As it turned out, my garden had many buried stump parts and logs that had been just out of reach of the tiller I had always used. When my plow encountered these, something had to give.

My second lesson was that shares, shins and moldboards needed to be as smooth as possible. First of all, to put this in perspective, I nodded my head as he explained this but in reality, I had no clue what a share, shin or moldboard was. After returning to study my parts manual I figured out that these parts were what made the business end of the plow; from the plate that dug into the ground up to curved section that would flip the plowed soil over. Once I could identify them, I realized that making them smooth was no small task in that years of rust had left pits across the entire surface. Since replacement of these items would be extremely expensive (if I could even find replacements), I resorted to a modern tool to clean them up. My trusty angle grinder and sanding pad. Though this removed material, it did the trick. If one spends enough time, you can achieve extremely smooth surfaces.

The next and probably most important item was to be sure that the coulter wheels (now I had a name for those disks) and plowshare edges were sharp. The coulters were easy, my sanding wheels combined with a bit of care made short work of the sharpening. The plowshares were not so easy since the only method of sharpening was to take them to a blacksmith who would heat and hammer the edge. The requirements for doing this job were a thorough understanding of not only the metals used in the specific plowshare but also the precise heat required for the sharpening and the re-tempering. This was clearly not an option since the only smiths available were hobbyists who did not have the time required to take in such business and would have been challenged by the job to boot. I had to resort to using a grinder. This method is not normally discussed in literature on plow sharpening plows but I managed to find one reference that refers to it as a last resort if you are unable to correctly judge the temperatures needed to sharpen and temper your shares. A major drawback of this method is that it is very slow and difficult. I was fortunate in that I did not need to create the contours at the bottom and inside of the plow since oddly were already exaggerated due to the misuse and I simply need to take off material. This would reduce the necessary concave shapes to the factory specs (normally there would not be concave surfaces since normal wear should have flattened them). The edges were also easy to sharpen in this manner. The more serious drawback to sharpening this way is that the useful life of the components is drastically reduced since so much material must be removed. Still, I figure that this plow was made to maintain 100-200 acres a year and I am using it for 1-2 acres a year. Thus it should last me quite awhile even taking into account the material I removed.

After reassembling my plow, I mounted it on the tractor and headed for the field. The first thing I could see with my meager newfound knowledge was that I had cranked the front end down way too far in an earlier attempt to stop it's "turf surfing". When I managed to get the angle back to the point that the plow would be perpendicular to the ground at entry, it worked great. I ran down a row, looked back and was impressed to see two rows turned over in a way that almost looked like I knew what I was doing. While this looked great, I had a sneaking suspicion that I must still be doing something wrong since there were these long rows of turf buried under this freshly exposed pulverized soil. This didn't strike me as the way the new subsoil should be left. I had read that the entire seed bed should be pulverized and though I could no longer see that turf, I knew it was there and it certainly wasn't pulverized. Before finishing the job, I decided I needed a bit more reading.

What I found was that the operation did not consist of simply plowing and disking but rather disking, then plowing, then disking again. I discovered that if I used my disk prior to plowing, the resulting seed bed should grow better vegetables. The general concept is that any turf or clumped organic material (and my soil needs lots of organic material) that is simply turned under will leave spaces that will not be pulverized by the final disking nor are pulverized adequately by the plow. This newly formed sub-surface will not hold moisture (not a problem in our climate) and more importantly provides little for the roots to cling to (this would be a problem in any climate). By first pulverizing the top with the disk, plowing this under, then disking again, an evenly pulverized seed bed is created that allows moisture retention and let the roots extend down as far as they need to.

Armed with this newfound wisdom, I immediately set out to learn how the disk should be set up for optimum use. Though the available information was sparse, the rules for the disk seemed quite simple and even intuitive. The disks must be sharp, the bearings must turn smoothly and the rear gang of disks must be adjusted so that they don't directly fall into the grooves of the front gang. If more thorough disking is required, each pass should overlap the previous pass by half a width (called double-disking).

After going through this initial learning and set up phase, garden preparation is fun and something I look forward to. There are more things to think about depending on your soil conditions and of course you have to wait for the soil to be dry enough but with a bit of luck and even less knowledge I now have very little difficulty in creating a seed bed that keeps us in quality vegetables for the year and does it in very little time. Oh and I get to use my old tractor in its natural setting!

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