Harvesting Crops in the Mud and Snow


One of my favorite people has farmed, with her husband, in both Ohio and North Dakota and lived to tell about it. Growing corn commercially in Ohio is hard enough but in North Dakota, it takes an infinite capacity for pure and undefiled optimism to make a go of it. She summed it up perfectly with only the slightest hint of a sarcastic smile on her face: “Well, actually, there is an advantage to growing corn in North Dakota. The snowdrifts hold the cornstalks up until a thaw and another freeze-up allows you in the field. In Ohio, the mud keeps you out of the field until the stalks fall flat on the ground and you can’t harvest them at all.”

This situation has been extremely pertinent this year. The weather has kept the ground wet through much of the Corn Belt but that mud doesn’t stop today’s machines of mass destruction when farmers get desperate enough to harvest anyway. They grind their way through the wet soil, leaving in their wake roiling, rolling gullies of ooze deep enough in the wettest areas to sink a Greyhound bus. In our county, we were visited this fall with the strangest scene yet: bulldozers scraping off the country roads thick layers of mud that massive farm implements had dragged out of adjacent fields. The fields were left looking, in the wettest spots, like battlefields crisscrossed with trenches and bomb craters.

I know many of you will think I am exaggerating because no one has previously had any idea of what happens when huge, powerful machines meet sopping wet soil. I am not criticizing the farmers for the enormous soil compaction that follows such meetings. They have to get the crops off any way they can and waiting for a freeze-up is too risky. They are caught in a situation few could have predicted. We always have had years of contrary weather during harvest but now the scale of the operation makes the scale of devastation so much worse. In former years, many more farmers with fewer acres each could limit the problem just because of that. With only a comparatively few acres per farmer, they could wait for the ground to freeze so they can get the crops harvested without massive soil compaction. When every farmer had only twenty acres or so of corn to harvest, and did it mostly with hand harvesting and horse power, mud or snow was not a soil destruction problem. Harvest just went on casually all winter long whenever conditions allowed.

The situation keeps getting more ridiculous. Much of North Dakota was never meant to grow corn in the first place. The season is too short for one thing. For another, parts of it don’t get enough summer rain for industrial corn production, and so mammoth irrigation canals have been built there to carry water to crops that sometimes don’t get planted or don’t get harvested. I once was interviewing a North Dakota farmer who told me, casually, that the field we were walking in had been five feet under water that spring. The land there was as flat as a table top, and when the snowdrifts melted fast, there was no place for the water to get away in a hurry. But now, in summer, the corn we were inspecting was suffering from drought.

Corn is still grown in this northern plains cattle country mostly because the demand for it from the subsidized ethanol market and from China keeps the price high enough (barely) to provide a chance of a profit. Or a farmer can buy as much insurance as the government allows and pray for contrary weather to destroy it But contrarily, the experts are now saying that under that land that is so difficult to raise profitable corn on, there’s enough gas and oil shale to render ethanol from corn obsolete if it isn’t already.

Meanwhile in Ohio, we are using snowplows to clean mud off our country roads, dragged there by farm machinery.

Surely there must be a better way.


You are quite right thistledog. The macho country image is well out of date. So much so that in the vast mines on outback Australia where they need drivers on ridiculously high pay to drive their equally enormous dump trucks they are hiring women drivers now in preference to men (experience notwithstanding) as the women have proven themselves to be better and more careful drivers who don’t thrash their machines and who stick to the task even though it may be boring and tedious. The same applies in rural NZ farmers where the women have always been a highly valued and integral part of the farming scene. Most farmers always have their wives/partners rear the calves and orphan lambs for instance and they take a fully equal part in the farming activities.

Probably stir up a hornets nest here but, hey, what the Hell. It is true! By the way, we had a Ford 4000 as well and it served us very well for a couple of decades. Very reliable and rugged. Prefer a 4WD though as I am on a bit of steepish country.

In terms of soil compaction, some horses and heavy draft animals might be just as much a problem as tractors. With animals, all their weight is distributed to four hooves, giving them high pounds per square inch, kind of like a woman in high heels. Probably the best remedy to soil compaction is to stay out of soggy fields.

A small farmer knows where the water flows, and can get in and out of the fields in the blink of an eye. A 4 hour window is an opportunity to a small farmer, whereas it takes 4 hours for a commercial farmer to warm up. I know as well as anybody what to expect, and have prepared myself because I am small enough to keep track of everything, like that little engine that could, that burns the remnants of the megalomaniacalmarts of the world.

Roof captioned that picture exactly right. Try as I might, I can’t imagine a woman tractor operator getting that rig buried so far deep. Maybe, just maybe Gene, the “better way” we all yearn for involves more of us women folk hanging out a little Farmer shingle and dealing with Nature’s vagaries with our brains, not brute force, as we’ve always had to do without the blessing of brawn. I personally think so.

I run a little Ford 4000 in my pastures and get heartsick when I hit a squishy spot and leave a couple-inch-deep tire track. Looking forward to bovine grass mowers on my place, and a team of Suffolks to help hay what the cows can’t eat. It’s all about proper scale, isn’t it?

Erik, here’s another “old guy” confirming the running of 40 h.p. tractors all day and all night story. No cabs; you could plant potatos in your nose, and ears. Our sunblock was called “dust”. I miss the romance.

Everyone has given you good advice; the front loader is a real help in so many applications, as is 4 WD, and you are wise to consider the smaller tractor, as it has access to more places due to smaller height and width. Do not underestimate the importance of good brakes, too.

If you intend to mostly bushhog brush and plant stalks, you might consider one of the many (now) field and brush mowers which are walk behind jobbies. Inventive people (read lazy) have made sulkies to stand or ride on while mowing. Some mowers come with attachments like rototillers and snowblowers, and now they have transmissions and gears. I have the neanderthal belt driven model: one speed, hard rubber wheels with 1/4″ thick spokes. I love it; found an identical at a garage sale for $150. Barely been used. This will also replace a lot of the stupid aerobic gym equipment some people feel the need for. There will be sweat. With a spread of 20 acres, you might consider a Gator, which I consider one of mankind’s greatest inventions. We built a plank trail through a wetland marsh and used my Gator to haul the 2X6s through standing marsh water: didn’t make ruts, just floated on top. You’ll want one of the older models with a ridgid real axle (s) and centrifugal clutch, and you can find used ones cheap since the modern shakers and movers now need suspensions and transmissions. Off-road, it will out perform a truck for wood, stone or tool hauling, but it’s not street legal, and top speed is only 15 mph. Don’t worry about doing something stupid, either. People like me and Logsdon have set the bar pretty high on that. Keep talking to people, you’ll be OK.

Jan Steinman, the photo is a study of the male ego. He thought he was too big to fail. We used to farm what was called “muck” ground. It was jet black river bottom, enough organic material that it sometimes caught fire and smoldered for weeks. It also yielded 200 bushel/bushel corn thirty years ago, and there were springs that moved in the ground from year to year. The surface ground wicked moisture, so it looked dry, you worked ground with one hand on the steering wheel and the other hand on the hydraulic lever, and your eyes didn’t move from the front wheel of the tractor. If that wheel went down into the muck, you turned the steering wheel and hit the hydraulic lever, bringing the implement out of the ground. If you were slow, and the muck monster grabbed you, once forward motion stopped, you stopped and waited for another tractor and a cable. Struggle was futile: you only went down. That wasn’t like this guy, though. He had no business being where he was.

Beth and Erik,

Another advantage to draft animals is that you can potentially sell any young that are produced. You don’t even have to pay the draft animals to reproduce…they are more than happy to do that on their own.

Erik, doesn’t sound to me like you are about to do anything stupid. Gene

Don’t know what conditions you have over there Erik but for that size farm and the kind of things I would envisage you using it for I would look at something in the range of 40-45 horsepower and would definitely go for a 4 wheel drive if you can.

Good luck

Erik, there are some things for which a tractor makes good sense, and you’ve just listed them. The other option is draft horses or even a less conventional team like Morgans, Quarter Horses or oxen. I can’t speak to the oxen, never having had any, but a good stout QH or one of the old-fashioned Morgans (the short stocky kind) can do much of what you want. A smaller tractor like a Ford 8N (those things are eternal!) is another good choice. Get one with a front end loader if you go that route. Advantages to a tractor: you go out and start it up, it takes less daily maintenance than a team, there’s more likely to be someone around with mechanical knowledge if you have a problem. Disadvantages: mainly fuel/parts costs and pollution, also finding parts for an older tractor can sometimes be a problem. Advantages to a team: you can grow their feed; they can reproduce, they can go places a tractor can’t and are generally less likely to get stuck, and frankly, I think they’re more enjoyable. Disadvantages: daily maintenance of horses and harness, you have to take time to harness and hook up, managing horses takes some specialized knowledge that many people no longer have and you have to find horse-drawn equipment, which can be difficult in some parts of the country. Another issue is time. if you’re working off the place and trying to farm in your spare time, you want to be able to get maximum benefit in the time available. When my husband and I both worked in town, we needed the the tractor to get as much done in the little time we had. We still use it, because we’re dealing with 180 acres that has been neglected for over fifty years, but I really want to incorporate horses into the routine as well.

I solve the “problem” by turning in dairy steer feeders behind polywire. This year a little Brown Swiss steer with a hernia who was lagging behind caught up by eating the stalks. After they finished, It was still too wet to plow. I waited for a sunny frosty morning, brush hogged off the last of the stalks with a compact tractor, disked really light, and sewed wheatgrass for spring grazing for the sheep. The wheat seems do be doing OK.

It is so much simpler when the livestock and the corn are on the same farm. However, I don’t grow a whole lot more corn than Mr Pence.

At least I am not paying taxes to subsidize your garden.

Eating is a living. Don’t sell yourself short 🙂

The photo with this article is amazing! What was he thinking?

My papa always told me that if you find yourself in a deep hole, the first thing to do is to stop digging. He also told me that when the axle starts dragging, it’s all over — time to get some help.

This tractor is obviously in past its axles — what was he thinking?

I guess that’s one way to “go deep” working the soil.

A bit off topic, but an old guy I knew for Arkansas said thier family couldn’t afford but a very small tractor but it gave them an advantage in that they could get into the fields weeks before everybody else.

Another old guy (my grandfather) said they used to take shifts and run their little tractor through the day and night. This required a family of several young men.

Anyway, I may have to buy a tractor in the near future. I’m thinking about erring on the side of smallness–unless something bigger is cheaper. I wonder if i can get away with not even having a tractor. Any thoughts? My set up is as follows: very small, probably won’t expand beyond 20 acres. I hope to do as much mowing using animals as possible. Probably the main thing that makes me want to get a tractor is worrying about bushhogging/mowing if things start growing faster than I can keep up. Other uses I might put it to would be pulling up small stumps (“tallow” trees are a real problem here), plowing (yes, i would do some of that), and spreading manure/compost (none of the soil here is real great but there is a lot of organic material going to waste. In various locations within 5 miles of me there are manure heaps that the property owners are more than happy to part with. After a hurricane there are somtimes mounds of shredded fallen trees several yards high covering 15-20 acres. The truth is, there are people who would pay me to take on some of these “wastes.”

If any of you can keep me from doing something stupid, please do.

What destruction we are causing good farmland. Soil erosion and compaction, and possibly all the mess that comes with oil and gas drilling. (We sure have seen that here in WV!) Although, as you said, it’s hard to criticize those farmers that are truly making a living off their crops, while we just putter in our little gardens.

Nothing beats walking along with a 5 gallon bucket to carry your harvested corn. Of course I would say “nothing beats it”, its all I can afford.
At least compaction is the least of my worries.
(Note: I only have 1/2 acre of corn)

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