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Technology Through Time

Different Dry Land Farming Techniques

Gasoline Tractors, n.d., Suffield, AB.Angus McKay was one advocate of a method of breaking land that would increase soil moisture conservation. The furrow would still be turned as shallowly as possible, with the plow adjusted to roll the sods into a flattened position. MacKay recommended that these sods be "backset," i.e.; turned back into their furrow after partial decomposition after six to eight weeks. Two or three inches of soil were left on the surface. Backsetting aerated the soil while allowing the plant roots to penetrate down to the subsoil moisture. Although backsetting improved productivity, it required great plowing skill and did not appear to have been widely practiced.

MacKay attached equal significance to the need to deep plow the summer fallow to a depth of between seven and eight inches before the end of June. During the remaining growing season, weed growth would be controlled through light surface cultivation. He warned that too much plowing would lead to soil blowing: within a decade his warning proved to be prophetic.

Hardy Webster Campbell also developed dry land farming techniques. He emphasized using a sub-surface packer to compress the particles of soil beneath the top soil, a process he believed would promote the freer flow of water from the subsoil to the plant roots. Campbell felt that fallow land should be disced in the late autumn, and again during the spring. He advocated plowing the field to a depth of six or seven inches in June or July, then packing with a sub-surface packer, and, finally, harrowing. All of these procedures were to be carried out in a single day. The proponents of dry farming believed that packing pulled moisture toward the surface to make it available to the plants' roots, while harrowing the top soil helped retain that moisture now closer to the surface, by breaking up the moisture's capillary flow and providing a protective covering to retard evaporation. Campbell, who established the Medicine Hat Experimental Farm in 1908, popularized his ideas through lectures and pamphlets.

These techniques, however, soon began to mine the western agricultural lands of their nutrients and stability. A series of droughts beginning in 1910 only made the situation worse. By the end of the First World War, the wheatlands of Alberta had become severely degraded in many districts.

The dryland farming system used frequent deep plowing, subsoil packing and harrowing to produce a fine dust mulch on the ground surface. It was this mulch that the system's proponents believed stopped moisture loss through evaporation. In fact, the cumulative effect of these tillage practices was to leave a loose top layer of soil that simply dried up and blew away.

Kenneth Tingley. Steel and Steam: Aspects of Breaking Land in Alberta. n.p.: Friends of Reynolds-Alberta Museum Society and Alberta Culture and Multiculturalism, Historic Sites and Archives Service, 1992. With permission from
Friends of Reynolds-Alberta Museum



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