Conservation Tillage and Adventures with a Cantankerous Tractor

24 tons of compost being unloaded from a semi truckI’ve been trying for awhile to get compost and oyster shell lime for my fertilization program, as indicated by soil tests, and at the last moment the local fertilizer supplier for non-organic products agreed to rent me their spreader and the organic compost supplier was able to get me 48 tons of compost mixed with gypsum which was also needed in the fertilizer program.

As I was waiting for that to get delivered I got a window of dry weather in the middle of November so the ground was just barely dry enough to work.  I started on the acreage that would get the cover crop but it was evident that it would take four passes with a disc to get it smooth enough to plant.  (Editor: A disc is an implement with rows of steel discs that slice and turn over the soil from 3 to 6 inches deep that you pull behind the tractor.) At lunch on the third pass I shut off the tractor and when I went to start it diesel fuel squirted from the fuel system priming pump.  The rubber diaphragm had apparently gotten old and cracked…and it was a one-piece component that couldn’t be rebuilt.  I called the dealer—three days and $266 to get a replacement. I ordered it but watched the clouds build up for the next rain while the tractor sat in the field.

I got the tractor part and then had to wait 3 more days for the ground to dry again.  At that point the ten day forecast showed more rain on the way in a few days.  It seemed like I might have to choose between planting the cover crop and planting the grain but I gambled and decided to plant the cover crop.  It took me 15 minutes to put the new pump on the tractor and I was on my way.  The field was still kind of lumpy because it had been in pasture the previous year, so for the last pass I improvised a drag behind the disk.  I took two eight-foot forklift fork extensions and chained them to the back of the disc at angles so they wouldn’t plow up too much dirt [Editor: this is known as “ghetto farming”].  blue tractor and compostAfter some experimenting with angles they worked pretty well to break up clots and level the field.  Every farmer would like to have all the implements necessary but sometimes you have to make do with what you have.  I was on my last pass and the tractor died while I was driving.  It started again, went a hundred yards and did it again.  I reprimed the system with the priming pump, bled the injector lines to get any air out, and tried again.  Same thing.  In the end I concluded that the fuel pump in the tank had failed.  It was Saturday afternoon at 3 p.m. and the dealer was closed, so I was out of business for the weekend.

I commute to my fields so I eventually called a mechanic who lives nearby and had him find a new pump and install it for $500.  I was back in business by Tuesday morning, but the forecast was for more rain by Friday. I was just about done preparing for the cover crop so I went ahead and planted it and then started disking the field for the grain.  I had a hard time getting the stalks from the bell beans mixed into the soil and so went over the field twice, fearing that the grain drill (planter) wouldn’t cut through the trash.  At that point I could see that I really needed to start spreading compost.  Thursday morning I got the lime spreader and started trying to put on the three tons per acre that was the minimum.  Well, the compost was so wet it wouldn’t go out of the spreader consistently.  I had to stop about six times per load and climb up on the spreader with a fence post and knock it down.  By the time I got twenty tons on it was already noon.  I knew I wouldn’t get any lime spread if I didn’t let go of my goal of thirty tons of compost.  The lime I had was old and proved to be very difficult to load.  After spending thirty minutes loading, which should have taken ten, I found that the lime was even worse to spread than the compost.  It took me an hour to get that out of the spreader.  By that time it was 3:00 p.m.

I gave up on the lime and got my seed and started planting.  The soil condition wasn’t great—kind of ridged and too soft—but there wasn’t much choice.  I didn’t bother to save any leftover seed after I finished each variety of grain.  I just ran it out onto the ground.  I finally finished planting at 8:00 p.m by the light of the moon.  I’d never had any headlights and never needed them before, so I was lucky it was bright out.  I tarped the drill and tractor, put away the seed, and went home.  As it turned out it didn’t rain until late morning Friday so I could have spread more compost but there was no way of knowing.  The rain set in and never stopped for any length of time through December.  At this point there’s no way to know how the crop will turn out.  A few areas flooded and won’t grow anything but most of the crop is coming up pretty well, though the weeds are doing better.  There will be a lot of grain cleaning to do after harvest.

Moon photo courtesy of Zmtomako

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