What a difference 100 years can make

Hart Attacks: The crop yields achieved by today’s famers would be a shock for our forefathers

As a new growing season begins, I am always impressed with the progress farmers have made in pushing the limits on crop production — striving to be more efficient, using improved agronomic practices and technology to increase yields and hopefully outsmart Mother Nature.

I worked on a story earlier this year that described some global record crop yields: 245 bushel wheat yields in the U.K.; 503 bushel corn in the U.S. Growing conditions in those areas make a difference, but it can be done. As the main contact for that story, agronomist Dan Owen, pointed out the yield potential is there in the seed, the question is how do you unlock it? As farmers head to the fields this spring many will be looking for that “key”.

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This takes me back to a less frantic pace when I was a kid growing up on an Eastern Ontario dairy farm. My dad probably did things bigger and faster than his father’s generation at the turn of the 20th century. After all, my dad had a tractor, hay baler and combine in his modest fleet of farm machinery. Grandpa had horses and knew the business end of a scythe and sickle all too well. Yet there still seemed to be blurring or blending of their farming experience. Today’s pace would make them shake their heads.

I don’t believe my dad ever knew how many bushels of grain he harvested from a field. His measure of a good crop versus a poorer crop was determined by whether he needed to use the granary in one barn at our home farm or put the overflow in a second granary in grandpa’s barn across the field — that was a good year.

Farming mostly from the early 1930s through to the late 70s roughly, he often planted one or two fields of oats. That might have been about 30 acres total and the rest of the farm was in pasture, hay or rough pasture or bush. In my early years he also often grew corn for silage for the dairy cows, but when the old stave silo began to fail that ended the corn business. It’s sad… people build things then 100 years later they fall apart — did no one care about quality workmanship?

He seeded crops with a 10- or 12-foot wide disc seeder, with steel clad wooden-spoke wheels and two wooden seed boxes. The smaller box to carry grass seed sat in front of the much larger grain box that held the oat seed. A light chain harrow was attached to the back of the seeder. The field would be finished off with a steel drum roller, to pack the soil and push any rocks into the ground.

That farm always seemed to produce a new crop of rocks. The cropped fields would be plowed, disced and cultivated each year. That also meant spending a few days in the field with a tractor and a stoneboat collecting bigger rocks by hand, throwing them on the stoneboat, dragging the stoneboat next to a rail fence line and adding a new batch of rocks to the fence row.

The pace of the farm didn’t change much in the 20 or so years I was around the homestead, and dad wasn’t doing things a whole lot different when he finally retired in the early ’80s. I often compare my boyhood memories with today’s agriculture like going from a stagecoach to a space shuttle.

When I was a kid, I don’t think farmers, on our road anyway, targeted a particular yield. They applied practices they had learned from their fathers, and made it work with what natured supplied. Today, I sometimes think agriculture is trying hard to tell nature what to do. And the fact is that Mother Nature doesn’t take orders very well.

About the author

Field Editor

Lee Hart

Lee Hart is editor of Cattleman’s Corner based in Calgary.

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