Planting Oats…with a little help from our friends.

All work on the farm seems to start with servicing the equipment. We purchased a used fifteen-foot grain drill (a type of planter) this winter and before we could even think about planting our oat crop, it had to be looked over, every part of it examined and tested, all the joints greased. Since we are abiding by National Organic Program regulations, we also had to clean it thoroughly, blowing and vacuuming every bit of non-organic seed and any other dirt or chemical residue from the machinery.

One of the reasons we wanted this particular drill is because it had a grass seed box: basically, it has two hoppers for seed, one for larger seed and one for smaller seed. This is important for us because we want to seed cover crops along with our grains (for soil health and weed/erosion control), and this feature allows us to plant both the main crop and the cover crop at the same time. That means fewer trips over the field, less soil compaction, and lower fossil fuel consumption. Plus, planting requires the weather and soil conditions to be just right: dry enough, not too dry, warm enough, rain coming soon afterward, but not too much rain…what a relief to do it once and have it done.

Johns fixing up the drill

This drill’s grass seed box had never been used, so it required quite a bit of set-up. Above, my dad is turning the long rod that moves the grass seed (usually grass seed hose and clamp driven by the wheels turning) so that my uncle Johnny can attach the brand-new chains that we found in a corner of the box, covered by an inch-thick layer of dirt.

Later, we cut and attached the hose that directs the seed from the box on its way down to the ground (right). We went to four different stores looking for the special pliers we needed to put on those little metal clamps, and we ended up finding one…in our friend Butch’s toolbox.

railroad iron These pieces of rail were attached to the back of the drill to weigh it down so that the wheels would push farther down into the ground.

The former owner of this grain drill used it for soybeans, fairly large seeds, which he planted deep into hard ground after one crop had already come off in that season. We want to plant smaller things that are planted more shallowly – grains like oats and wheat, interseeded with tiny seeds like alfalfa and clover. So we don’t need to cut down into the ground so far; we don’t need these weights.

freeing the iron rails Just have to take them off, right? Well…our research showed that they weigh about 153 pounds per foot. That means that we had something like 3 tons of iron here, each piece weighing almost 500 pounds. And then it turned out that they were welded together. This was going to be a rather larger project than we had anticipated.

sparks a-flyin'

My dad said later that he was afraid that his beard might catch fire! Here you can see our plan: as each piece of rail was freed, we used crowbars to roll it off onto the bucket of the tractor and then moved it to a corner of the shed for storage. I definitely have a renewed respect for the strength of John Henry and his early track-laying railroad coworkers.

Finally, we were ready to start planting! (Well, we had to spread some fertilizer first – pelletized chicken manure that is sold under the name “Chickity-doo-doo.” We both smelled like we’d been chickity-doo-did by the end of that project.)

drilling oats

We hooked the drill up to the (borrowed) tractor and tested it – the tractor could pull it, and the seeds seemed to come out at the right rate. Huzzah! Rain was predicted for the next day, so we started in earnest, working against the clock and into the evening. This photo shows the direction of the wind, but you can’t tell how hard it was blowing. Take my word for it, it was windy. John is wearing at least 5 layers in this photo. He’s also making sure that the planter is no more than 8 inches from the last row, engaging, disengaging, raising, lowering, and turning at the ends of the rows. There’s a lot to concentrate on.

We got about halfway done – 10 acres or so – when we realized that the tractor was low on fuel (it runs on propane). Since it was almost dark anyway, we called it quits for the day. The next morning’s weather was even worse – so windy and cold that we decided it wasn’t possible to finish planting the oats on the open tractor we had been using. Uncle Johnny saved the day once again by offering to use his closed-cab tractor to finish the job.

the big guns

(He’s also really skilled at all that maneuvering, so we lucked out doubly.) You can see how dark the western sky is here – we finished not 45 minutes before the rain began, and it rained for nearly a week straight after that.

(Are you starting to get the idea that we could never do this without help from family and friends? We are.)

Burn and Rebirth

The first week of April, we picked a sunny day with a light breeze from the west to light the burnpile out by the road (mostly brush and empty bean pods). Somehow the flame traveled into the wind and burned a section of the dry grasses in the area along the banks of Buck Creek (left).

creek, immediately post-burn burned banks, 1 week later

Quite a bit of excitement ensued as we tried to make sure that we didn’t burn the little bushes we planted last fall or, heaven forbid, our neighbors’ fields. Water and beating with pitchforks kept it (mostly) under control, and a small back-fire is what stopped it in the end. One week later (right), the grasses had come back so quickly that it was already hard to see the blackened banks.

We haven’t seen any erosion in this area, so we’re calling it good luck. Who knows? Maybe we even eradicated some invasive species.

Frost-Seeding Cover Crops

pre-dawn seeding

We bought an ATV a couple of weeks ago for two main reasons: to get around to the far-off parts of the farm to check on things, and to frost seed. “Frost seeding” is broadcasting a crop (usually a cover crop – medium red clover in this case) during the time in  early spring when there is a lot of freezing and thawing. There are several reasons for doing this:

  • Reduce compaction by driving on frozen ground with a light vehicle instead of a heavier tractor pulling an implement.
  • Limit injury to the main crop (in this case, wheat) – it is much less fragile when it’s frozen.
  • Allow the freezing and thawing to work the seeds into the ground, avoiding the need for rolling (and saving more fuel and compaction).
  • Get a jump on the weeds! (The earlier the cover crop starts growing, the more effective it is at out-competing those unwanted, unloved plants on the farm.)

In order to get the seeding done while the ground was still frozen, we got up at 5 and started work as soon as it was light enough to see on the farm.  I drove the four-wheeler back and forth along the rows at 5 mph while my dad followed me with buckets of clover to refill the seed hopper on the broadcast seeder. Five layers was just the right amount of clothing to wear at that time of day.

2011.3.28 003

It worked like a charm!  By 8:30am, we were almost done.  After one stop for a seed refill, though, I heard a little rattle in the front of the four-wheeler.  “Hm.  Better ask Dad about that when I get back,” I thought.  No such luck – a quarter of the way back from the far edge of the field, the machine just stopped.  Huh.  Bummer.

We managed to shift back into neutral and towed it to my uncle’s toolshed, where our friend Butch, a small-engine doctor extraordinaire and the kind of guy every farmer should know, took a look at it.  The prognosis was not good, so we trailered it down into town to the ATV hospital.  When they got her all opened up on the operating table, it turned out that the situation was even more dire than we’d thought:  the engine had previously been cracked open and patched back together with silicone caulk just well enough for us to test-drive it, buy it “as is,” and use it for about four hours.  Major bummer.  It’ll cost us about half the purchase price to have it repaired.  Stay tuned for the name of one Southern Illinois establishment from which you should NEVER PURCHASE AN ATV.

In the meantime, the sun had come up and started thawing out the ground.  We couldn’t drive over the wheat without risking injury to it.  We only had about 2 acres left to seed, and we really just wanted some completion and satisfaction (and to not get up that early again soon!).  So we dug out the hand-broadcaster, and I walked the rest of the way at a steady pace, cranking out clover seed and shedding layers of clothing as I went.


It took almost as long to do those 2 acres on foot as it had taken us to seed the previous 18 by machine, but it sure was worth it to get the job done!


Green at last!

It’s spring! Today on the farm I found fresh green clover pushing up from underneath last year’s browned and matted vegetation. Soon its flowers will be feeding honey bees.

spring clover
Just in time for St. Patrick’s Day.

The hard red winter wheat seems to have survived. It’s so nice to see a whole fuzzy green field!

winter wheat field

One of the things we have to decide in the very near future is whether we have a good enough stand to keep it, or whether it makes more sense to turn it under and plant something else here for this season. It’s a process of counting plants and estimating the total stand density. I hope we get to keep it, but the agrinomics/economics will rule in the end.

wheat plant
I tasted this wheat shoot – it tastes sweet and satisfying, just like the wheat grass that you buy in the store or see in juice bars. Go figure!

Breslin Farms goes to school.

We’re in LaCrosse, Wisconsin this week for the Midwest Organic Farming Conference, put on every year by the good people at MOSES.

2011.2.26 2011.2.24
An overview of the exhibit hall, and some of our spoils from the famous bookshop.