Farming 1915-1937-1977

MFC Paper 16 by WCA Rose 1977

This article is simply intended to be personal recollections and memories of farming as I experienced them and not a treatise on agriculture.

The soil type in our part of Alves is of a medium light loam, not subject to water-logging or hardening, but sometimes inclined to 'blow' in the strong winds of late spring. All over our district are found glacial "erratics", which were better known to us as "heathens", and to the ploughmen as “yurders". Most farms in the area worked a 6—shift system, viz. 2 years grass, 2 years oats, l year turnips and potatoes, l year barley, undersown with grass seeds.

Part of the first year's grass was cut for hay and the rest was grazed, mainly by cattle.

In these days horses were the only source of traction, and as a general rule farmers reckoned on a pair of horses per 50 acres.

Various makes of plough were used in the district. Grants "Standfast", Sellars "Don" being but two of the more popular makes. Harrows, cultivators, grubbers were commonly made in the local smiddies. All horse shoeing was of course done there too.

Grain seed was sown in either of two methods, one method was by a broadcasting machine, which dropped the seed on to the ground after ploughing, and then it was covered by harrowing; the other, and more modern way was by a drilling machine, which placed the seed into the ground, after ploughing and harrowing. This method is still the most common today, and many farms still use the broadcast machine to sow grass seeds.

Seeding rates varied a great deal between the two methods, broadcasting required about 5 bushels per acre, and drilling 2.5 - 3 bushels per acre.

The reason for the extra amount used in broadcasting was because quite a proportion of seed was never covered by harrowing and was picked up by birds.

Chemical fertiliser was not used to anything like the present day standards. The second (Yaval) grain crop would be given about 2 or 3 cwts per acre, hay about 2 to 4 cwts. Potatoes 6 or 7 and turnips 4 or 5.

After the crops were sown and the potatoes planted, the turnips were sown, and most of the summer work, other than the hay harvest, was singling, hoeing, drill harrowing and drill grubbing the turnip crop.

Hay was cut with a horse drawn mowing machine. A few days, or many days, after cutting, depending on weather, the swathes were turned, and a few days later, gathered into small coles, all done by hand of course! These coles were pulled by horse to a corner of the field and built into stacks for winter consumption by the horses and cattle.

In due course the crops ripened and harvest work started. Firstly scythes had to be used to open up roads round each field before the binder could start. In those days we had a 'Bisset' Blairgowrie machine, but there were Albions, Deerings, McCormicks  Massey Harris and probably others that I’d never heard of!

The binder was a hard job on the horses and over and above the harder work, they had to put in longer hours as well. During harvest a day consisted of 10 hours as against 9 during the rest of the year.

Stooking was then the order of the day, and if the weather was unkind, as it often was, then it was "stook parade" until the sheaves were ready to be carted to the stackyard and built there, to await threshing later in winter and spring.

During the early winter turnips had to be lifted (by hand of course) and pitted and covered to protect them from frost as winter and spring feed for cattle.

Threshing of the grain was done partly by our own barn mill and partly by a threshing contractor using a larger mill pulled and driven by a steam traction engine.

Oat crop yields then were somewhere about 10-14 quarters per acre (1 ton 10 cwts. — 2 tons 2 cwts.) barley 5 quarters about 1 ton per acre, but were increasing gradually in the late 1920's and through the 1930's.

Potatoes yielded from 5 to 7 tons per acre but by 1930 had improved to between 7 to 10 tons as new and improved varieties were being bred in the research farms. The same reason applies to the grain.

Cattle were housed in winter mostly in courts or folds as we called them then, but quite a lot were tied up in stalls in byres. These were mostly heifers.

Feeding was by hand, turnips, straw and hay with linseed or cotton seed cake and bruised oats fed as a supplement. Large quantities of straw were used as bedding and that formed the base of the organic manure or dung as we called it, which was ploughed into the ground for the turnip and potato crop.

The handling of this heavy and tough material was one of the hardest jobs on the farm. All of it had to be forked by hand on to the carts, then emptied on to a midden in a field, then once again forked on to carts, left in small heaps and finally spread more or less evenly over the ground before being ploughed under.

The more cattle a farm could feed, the more humus could be put back on to the land, thereby improving the fertility, and therefore the crop yield. Cattle in our area were mostly Aberdeen—Angus crossed Shorthorn, but some Irish cattle were bought and also at times Highland and even Canadian.

Ours was a wintering ground for hill sheep (Hoggs) usually Blackfaced, but sometimes North Country Cheviots. These animals came down from the hills at the beginning of October and left again for home at the first of April.

All farms had a few milk cows for home supplies of milk, butter and cheese. Also farm workers had a daily supply of fresh milk, 1 Scotch pint, equal to between 3 and 4 Imperial pints.

All farms had poultry, hens, ducks, turkeys etc, The produce from them was the farmer's wife's pin money.

A lot of oats were consumed on the farm by horses and cattle ~ and hens! as well as the regular amount sent to the local meal mill to be turned into meal, l boll or 154 lbs of which was supplied to each workman every second month.

At this point I had better try to explain the wages set-up as it was then. In addition to his wage, which was small, each worker received per half year, 1 ton of coal, 1 ton potatoes, 3 bolls oatmeal, a free house, firewood ad lib and the milk as mentioned above.

Surplus oats were sold and sent by rail, and barley was mostly sold to local distilleries, all of which had to be handled in 1.5 or 2 cwt. sacks.

Fat cattle were sent to the Elgin Markets by rail, and store cattle bought there walked home. Roads were quiet, motor cars being rare then!

This was the general picture between say 1919 and 1935—ish. Changes were slight up to then, but were coming along. Numbers of cars had increased greatly after 1923 or so and tractors were beginning to be seen on more and more farms.

Two things which made tractors more attractive to farmers, certainly in our area, were, the scourge of horse sickness, which carried off very many of the horses during spring and early summer, and the invention by the late Harry Ferguson of the hydraulic power lift on his tractor. That small control valve changed the whole pattern of cultivation by tractor. No longer must tractors be very heavy to enable them to pull ploughs etc.; they now were an integrated unit.

From that time on more and more machines were designed to be pulled and power driven by the tractor engine. Later more use was made of hydraulic power to tip up carts etc. and control machines such as potato lifters etc.

Soon the combine harvester took over from the binder which meant that a new type of grain storage had to evolve. This has taken the form of large buildings containing a drying unit and grain bins. This is partly changing to buildings having no bins, only a large hot air duct which is heated and powered by a diesel engine and fan situated outside.

A little use is being made of refrigeration but so far is not very popular.

Since the last war more silage is being made from grass, and the turnip crop acreage is not so big but is increasing a little again since some of the new turnip harvesters are proving successful.

The increased use of silage as a cattle feed in courts, has led to the change in size of courts. Cattle feeding has been mechanized as well and units are getting ever larger, the latest I have heard of hereabouts can hold something like 600 cattle.

All buildings now must be large enough to allow the operator to use the hydraulic fork to load the dung into the spreading machines. Dairying was never practised on a large scale in this area but has increased a little since the last war. Dairies are no more plentiful, but milk many more cows. Gone long ago are the dairymaids milking by hand the cows ~ which stood in their separate stalls ~ gone are the stalls as well. Now we see herring~bone parlours, or rotary ones, with the cows queueing up for attention. In many dairy farms now all the wash and sludge flows into a huge tank and is pumped out and sprayed on to the land. The same is done from pig farms as we all can smell at some time or other.

The changes seen over the last half century can be summed up something like this:- From the ploughman walking steadily along behind his pair of horses to his successor sitting in his heated, sound—proofed tractor cab, doing the work of 6 or 8 pairs of horses, from the squad of men hand-pulling, and snedding swedes on a cold and wet morning, to the effortless working of 2 men with a modern mechanical lifter and cart doing the same job at many times the speed; from the scythe and binder with its long hours of picking up and stooking, to the roar and dust of the combine and baler clearing the fields in two operations from the early rising milkmaid with her pail and stool, to the rhythm of the mechanical milking machine, which leaves its end product at the end of every farm road and town doorstep every morning- from the 10 hour day,6 day week, with an odd day off per year, to the 8.5 hour day, 5 day week, with 3 weeks holiday per year.

Even with these vastly improved conditions it is becoming increasingly difficult to recruit "Farmers' Boys".

Posted in .