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article number 320
article date 02-27-2014
copyright 2014 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Early Farmers Learn Care and Rejuvenation of Soil
by Clarence Roberts

From the 1924 book, The Business of Farming – A Manual of Farm Methods for Oklahoma.


It is not too much to say that a rich soil is the farmer’s greatest asset, and that a poor soil is his greatest handicap. Rich soil, alone, will not insure farm prosperity. A farmer may have rich soil to farm and still not make a success. But it is far easier to be a successful farmer on a farm of rich soil than on a farm of poor soil.

It takes as much horse labor, machinery, man labor and seed, to plant and cultivate an acre of poor soil as it does an acre of rich soil.

Each farmer has just so much machinery, so much labor, so much seed and so many horses with which to operate a farm. With these he can farm as many acres of fertile soil as poor soil. There will be more expense to harvesting and marketing the larger crop from the more productive soil, but the net income will he greater than from the farm of poor soil.

EXTRA PROFIT FROM BETTER YIELDS. If the cost of growing and harvesting an acre of corn, say, is 20 bushels and the yield is only 20, the farmer merely breaks even. If the yield, however, is 25 bushels the farmer has a net profit of 5 bushels per acre. But if the farmer grows 40 bushels his profit is 20 bushels, or four times as much as if he grew only 25 bushels.

It is possible by being a good farmer in other respects to overcome, in part, the handicap of farming a poor soil. But that same labor and same good management, if applied to a farm of fertile soil, would return the farmer a much larger income.

RAINFALL AND FERTILITY. In western Oklahoma the rainfall affects crop yields to a greater degree than the fertility of the soil. That is, the yields of crops grown depend more on the rainfall than on the fertility of the soil. Thus, we say that rainfall is the greatest limiting factor of production.

If western Oklahoma gets plenty of rain, crops will be good. If the rains do not come at the right time and in the right amount, crops will be poor or may be a total failure. Yet, even in western Oklahoma, the best crops are raised on the richest soils, unless ruined by drouth, hail or insects.

In eastern Oklahoma, the amount of rainfall becomes of less importance and soil fertility of more importance. Here soil fertility, and not rainfall, is the greatest limiting factor. In most years the eastern part of Oklahoma gets enough rain to grow good crops on the richer soils that are given good cultivation.

This rural school teacher believes in teaching practical things. The tool boxes were made by the pupils in the seventh and eighth grades. This work was done at a one-room school.

FERTILITY HAS BEEN WASTED. Oklahoma farmers are suffering severely from poor soil. When the country was opened for settlement, not so many years ago, the soil was new and fertile. No one thought much of keeping up that fertility.

Farmers went right ahead taking fertility out of the soil and putting very little, or none, back. On thousands of sloping fields the richer top soil was allowed to wash away.

Weeds and grass have since been burned that should have been turned under. Wheat stacks were burned or allowed to rot as the land became poorer each year. Manure has been wasted which the soil was crying for. In these, and other ways, we have wasted our soil fertility until now many, many of our farms, will not produce profitable crops any longer.

MUST BUILD BACK LOST FERTILITY. It will take some time, some expense and some work to put back into our soils enough fertility to make them productive once more. Yet, the job must be done. There is no other way to solve our problem of low yields.

Good tillage and good seed will help even a poor soil to make a better yield. But they alone are not enough. The fertility must be there or the crops will not be produced.

On the level prairie soils and the bottom soils of Oklahoma the land is still fertile enough to grow good crops. But there is not enough of this kind to go around. A large part of the farmers of Oklahoma must own or rent the farms of poorer soils. The only way they can get rich soil to farm is to build up the land they now farm.


So much of the land in Oklahoma is sloping and washes with each and every rain, that our first problem in getting richer soil is to prevent the remaining soil from washing away. In fact, on such land far more fertility is lost from soil washing than is used by the crops.

A farm is only a layer of so much soil on which to grow crops. When the top soil is washed away, little of value remains. On much of the rolling and hilly lands of Oklahoma only a thin layer of the top soil is left. It will take much time and work to make those fields once more productive. How important and urgent it is that we do not allow any more of the top soil to wash away!

This picture shows how soil washing decreases crop yields. No corn was made along this wash. It will grow wider and deeper each year while crop yields will grow smaller. Before anything is done to make the field more productive, the soil erosion should be stopped.

The best and most ready means of holding a hillside soil in place is by means of the terrace. A terrace built right and maintained will allow but little of the soil to wash away. A terraced field can be made richer, but a field of soil that is washing away can hardly be made richer since the fertility stored in the soil by the farmer will wash away, too.

BUILD ONLY STRONG TERRACES. We repeat that terraces must be built right and then kept up. A poor job of terracing may do more harm than good. The terrace lines should be laid out by some one with experience, using a level made for that purpose.

Each terrace should be not less than 20 feet wide and should be high enough to carry off all the water from a heavy rain. Terraces should be rebuilt every year when the field is plowed for planting the crops.

Especial care should be used in building the terraces across the gullies. The terraces should be started well toward the top of the field, the upper terrace built first and each one below completed in turn. Water which falls on an adjoining field must be ditched around the terraced field.

Terracing a field is a particular job and no one should undertake to do it until he has first attended a terracing demonstration or visited with several farmers who have terraces in successful operation. Then it would be best to have the help of an experienced person in terracing the farm.

A PROFITABLE INVESTMENT. Many hundreds of fields in Oklahoma have been terraced. On these the soil washing has largely been stopped. The cost of terracing is not great. After the lines are laid out the work can be done with an ordinary turning plow and a “crowder” made at a cost of $2 or $3.

The cost, after allowing full pay for all labor is usually no more than $1 to $1.50 an acre. Farmers in different parts of Oklahoma who have terraced their lands place the value of the work at $5 to $15 an acre.

A dam built of rock, stumps, stakes and straw (or stalks), or better yet of brush, will hold a large amount of the soil that otherwise would be washed off the farm. These dams may be built at different points along a gully too deep to be crossed by a terrace. If built at a point where the gully leaves the field, much of the soil will be held at that point.

But the better plan is to hold the soil on the field where it is needed to grow crops, rather than to let it pile up on the edge of the field. Nothing has been discovered that will hold the soil on an entire field as well as the terrace.

Just back of the man in the picture a terrace crosses the ditch. The terraces on this field prevented further washing, the ditches filled up and the field once more was made to grow good crops.

HOW PLOWING PREVENTS WASHING. Much of the erosion of a field can also be prevented by deep fall plowing. This does not mean that the farmer should simply plow deeply in order to prevent the erosion. But if he will plow the depth that experience has taught will produce the largest yields of crops, and do it in the fall, he will at the same time stop much of the soil erosion.

For most soils, plowing from five to seven inches deep will be found best. This depth of plowing when done in the fall will help greatly to prevent the soil from washing badly.

It might seem that plowed land would wash more easily than unplowed land. But not so. The plowed land, being more loose, absorbs water like a sponge. The water is held for a time in the plowed top soil. Hence, it has more time to soak into the subsoil than would be the case if the land were not plowed.

In addition, the weeds and grass turned under will obstruct the flow of water through the loose, plowed soil and cause the excess water to run off gently.

A terracing demonstration given by a county agent. Such a demonstration offers a chance for farmers in a neighborhood to see how terraces are made. Terracing is important work and should not be done except by a person who has seen terraces built or in successful operation.

USE ALL THESE MEANS. The careful farmer who is thinking hard and working hard to make his soil more productive will use all three methods to hold his hillside soils. He will build dams and terraces and plow his land as early in the fall or winter as he can plow to the right depth to make the best crops.

During the heavy rains he will be out in the fields watching for the weak places in his terraces and building them up with his shovel. He will rebuild his terraces each fall or winter as he plows his land. By these means he will keep the fertile top soil right on his farm where it belongs.

What will it profit a farmer to spread manure, grow legumes and buy fertilizer for his sloping fields if a large part of the added fertility is washed off before the crops can use it? Certainly, no good farmer will try to make his washing soil more fertile without first stopping the erosion.

Terraces should be built from 18 to 20 feet wide and high enough to carry all the water from a hard rain. They should be rebuilt each fall or winter when the field is plowed for the next crop.


After a piece of land has been terraced (if it needs it) the next step to richer soil and bigger crops is to plow under all weeds, grass, stubble, stalks and other vegetable matter left on the field after the crop is harvested. Such vegetation will return to the soil most of the fertility that was used to produce it, and thus will prevent, to that extent, the soil from becoming poorer.

But of more importance than the fertility contained in vegetation is the humus which is formed from the decaying vegetation.

Now, just what is humus and what does it do? You have noticed the dark particles of decayed vegetation in a soil when breaking it. That is humus. This material helps to make a soil open and porous and thus admits air and water to the soil.

A soil full of humus will hold more of the rain water that falls on it than one with but little humus in it. A soil full of humus plows easier. Plants grow better in a soil full of humus. It will prevent sandy soils from blowing, makes hard soils more loose and helps all soils to grow bigger crops.

After a field is terraced it can he planted and cultivated in the usual manner. However, the terraces on this field are much too narrow. If they had been built wider it would be much easier to cross them with the farm implements and there would be less danger of their breaking.

WHY LAND RUNS TOGETHER. Soils which are hard, which bake after every rain and which “run together,” contain little or no humus. If they did they would not bake and run together. How can we make them loose and easy to work? First, by adding vegetation to the soil.

Since such soils run together they are often not plowed until in late spring just before planting time. The farmer does not want to turn under the weeds, grass and stalks at that time so he burns them off. He thus robs the soil of more of its fertility and makes it still harder.

Finally, these hard soils become tight and sour and sick. Crops fail to grow on them. Such soils need to be richer, but first they need humus which can be supplied easiest by plowing under all vegetation left after the crops are harvested.

TURN UNDER VEGETATION EARLY. The best time to turn under all vegetation is in the fall or early winter. This allows time for the vegetation partly to decay and be out of the way of the spring-planted crops. The farmer has more time to plow then than in the spring, just before planting time.

By doing the plowing in the fall and winter the farmer will be certain to have his breaking well out of the way when planting time arrives. Moreover, it is much easier to plow ground in the fall and winter than it is in the spring after the rains have caused the soil to pack and run together.

Many of our fields can be made more productive by deeper plowing. Deep plowing does not make a soil richer. But it does make a deeper root bed and enables the crop to make use of more of the soil on which ft grows.

This crop of weeds which is being turned under in the fall before frost will add a large amount of humus to the soil. No kind of vegetable matter should be burned, but should be plowed under the soil as early in the fall or winter as possible.

HOW DEEP TO PLOW. The right depth to plow depends upon the nature of the soil and subsoil. Unless the top soil is shallow and the subsoil is quite tough and raw, most land should be broken from five to seven inches deep. Plowing to this depth will give larger yields than plowing three inches deep, which is practiced by many farmers.

Tests made at most of the experiment stations prove that plowing deeper than seven inches gives no increase in yields. In many cases five and six-inch plowing gives the same yields as seven-inch plowing.

If the plowing is done in the fall and winter the seedbed will have time to become settled by planting time. All crops do best when planted on firm seedbeds. Moreover, if the breaking is done in the spring, there is often a serious loss of moisture from the loose soil before rains come and firm it down.

Fall plowing must be done with care in western Oklahoma. Farm experience teaches us that “blow” soils cannot be plowed with safety in either the fall or the spring. However, erosion is not so serious a problem on such soils.

The “tight lands” may usually be plowed with safety if not too dry. If plowed when dry, they too, are likely to blow. The careful, observing farmer in western Oklahoma knows best when it is safe to plow in the fall. We should be guided by his experience.

Sweet clover growing on blow sand in Dewey county. The soil no longer blows where the clover grows. Not only does the sweet clover add humus and fertility to the soil but provides rich pasture for the farm stock.

RESULT OF SPRING BREAKING. “If I break my land in the fall it runs together and I have to break it again in the spring,” some farmers in eastern Oklahoma will say. That is because the land in the past has been broken only in the spring, after first burning off the vegetation, with the result that it contains no humus.

So long as the vegetation is burned off and the land broken in the spring it will run together and become tighter and tighter each year, and will grow smaller and smaller crops.

To get richer soil we cannot stop at terracing and early, deep plowing and turning under all weeds, grass, stubble and stalks. These steps, important as they are, only stop the further loss of fertility. To make our run-down and worn-out soils grow good crops once more we must add fertility to them.


Every new soil contains a given amount of fertility. The crops which we grow on our fields year after year take that fertility out of the soil bit by bit. Each crop leaves just that much less for other crops to use. Thus, a piece of land grows smaller crops each year (unless we add fertility to it) until finally the yields are so low that it will not pay any longer to farm such land.

THE ELEMENTS CROPS NEED. Plants feed on different chemical elements. Ten of these elements are necessary for plant growth. They must all be present in the soil or air in order for a plant to grow.

We always find an abundance of seven of these present, even after the soils have been farmed for years. But in many of our soils there is a scarcity of the other three elements. We should learn the names of these elements as they will affect in a large measure the future prosperity of the farmers of Oklahoma, especially in the eastern half of the state.

These elements are nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. It is believed that Oklahoma soils contain plenty of potassium, at least for many years yet. But nitrogen and phosphorous are badly needed by most of the soils in eastern Oklahoma, while many fields in western Oklahoma would be greatly benefited by nitrogen.

WHEN CROPS NEED NITROGEN. Nearly every field that has been farmed for years needs nitrogen. A need for nitrogen is shown by slow, scanty plant growth. When plants are starving for nitrogen they are yellow in color. Plants supplied with plenty of nitrogen are deep green in color.

The sloping soils of eastern and central Oklahoma, which have washed badly, especially need nitrogen, and will never again raise good crops until nitrogen is added to them.

Legumes add nitrogen to the soil by means of bacteria which take nitrogen out of the air. The bacteria live in the enlargements found on the roots of the legumes.

Nitrogen can be bought in commercial fertilizers, but is high priced. Very fortunately for us we have a class of crops which have the ability of taking nitrogen directly from the air (which is four-fifths nitrogen) and adding that nitrogen to the soil.

These crops are called legumes. It is much cheaper to grow the nitrogen with legumes than to buy it.

Legumes which we can grow in all parts of Oklahoma are alfalfa, sweet clover, cowpeas, soy beans and peanuts. In addition to these, red clover may be grown in northeastern Oklahoma and lespedeza, crimson clover and burr clover in parts of southeastern Oklahoma.

Alfalfa, as we know, will grow only on the bottom soils and the better prairie soils. Therefore, it can hardly be considered as a legume with which to build up our poorer soils. Since peanuts, are grown for the nuts, and the nuts and vines both are usually removed in harvesting, this crop can hardly be classed as a soil builder.

If most of a crop of peanuts were plowed under, the soil on which it grew would be greatly helped. But if a crop of peanuts is once grown the temptation is too great to harvest the entire crop. Thus, a peanut crop, even though a legume, takes fertility out of a soil rather than adds fertility to it.

We have left, then, three legumes which we may grow on our poor soils in all parts of Oklahoma in order to make them richer. They are sweet clover, soy beans and cowpeas.

A straw spreader in action on a wheat farm. Spreading the straw is one means by which the small-grain farmer may add fertility to his land. Straw has real value as a top dressing on wheat. It should never be burned or allowed to rot in the stack.

SWEET CLOVER AS A SOIL BUILDER. Sweet clover when once started will grow on quite poor soil. For this reason it is well adapted to fields that have washed so badly that they are not worth cultivating. If such fields are terraced, the larger gullies dammed up and then the field sown to sweet clover, it will grow more productive each year, and at the same time furnish much rich pasture for the stock.

The variety of sweet clover which has proved best for Oklahoma is the white biennial. Other varieties are grown only to a very limited extent. The white biennial lives two years, making seed and dying the second season. For that reason it is not suited as a one-year crop to improve a soil. Since the first year’s growth of sweet clover is usually small, a crop must be left on a field two years to be of very much benefit to the soil.

For this reason sweet clover is of most value to the farmer who has rough, washed land and who can leave a field of such land to sweet clover for two years or longer, during which time the land grows more productive each year and furnishes, at the same time, an abundance of pasture.

SWEET CLOVER MAINTAINS FERTILITY. Yet, the value of sweet clover is not limited to the poor, badly washed fields. It has found wide use and many friends among farmers in all parts of Oklahoma who are using it to keep up the fertility of their soils which are still fairly productive.

Many wheat farmers in central and western Oklahoma are putting small fields to sweet clover as a means of putting back a part of the fertility removed by growing wheat year after year. The clover roots, stubble and stalks quickly decay and add a very large amount of humus to the soil. Thus, this crop supplies what many of our grain farms need—humus and nitrogen.


SOY BEANS. Soy beans are not grown very widely in Oklahoma as yet. But more farmers are growing them every year. The success made with soy beans in adjoining states indicates that they will grow well in Oklahoma.

However, the seed must be inoculated (treated with a culture of the bacteria which grow in the nodules on the roots and which enable the soy beans to take nitrogen from the air) when planted on a field the first time.

Since soy beans grow upright they are easy to harvest. The grain is a valuable feed for hogs and the hay is prized for milk cows. However, the rabbits are a serious menace and when soy beans are planted in small patches they will be quickly eaten up where the rabbits are plentiful.

A MOST VALUABLE LEGUME. The cowpea is our most common legume and probably our most valuable. It is an easy crop to grow. The seed crop is valuable. The hay is worth nearly as much as alfalfa hay, if saved with the leaves on it. The crop is adapted to every section of the state and to all kinds of soils, and it should be used on every farm of poor soil in the eastern two-thirds of Oklahoma to help build back the lost fertility by adding nitrogen to the soil.

The man who is struggling to make a living from a poor farm must of necessity grow legumes in a small way at first. Growing legumes must fit in with the main purpose of making a living from the farm. But a small start can be made on every farm.

If a few of the poorest acres are put to cowpeas or soy beans the loss will hardly be felt. In fact, a legume crop is likely to pay as well as, or better than, other crops. In such a small way the farmer on a poor farm may begin at once to make both the soil and himself richer.

Growing corn and cowpeas in alternate rows will help greatly to maintain the fertility of the soil and will result in as much corn per acre on all but the best bottom lands. An excellent farm practice.

COWPEAS GROWN WITH OTHER CROPS. An excellent way to grow cowpeas (or soy beans for that matter) is to plant a field in alternate rows to cowpeas and corn or other row crops. By this method every other row is planted to corn and every other row to cowpeas.

The corn is planted the usual time in double-width rows, A month to six weeks later, cowpeas are planted between each row of corn. Both crops are cultivated as they need it. The corn is gathered out in the usual way and the cowpeas left in the field.

The whole crop of cowpeas, together with the corn stalks, weeds and grass may then be turned under. But the better practice will be to turn in the hogs and let them eat off most of the cowpea grain and the ears of corn missed in gathering. Then turn in the milk cows and calves and let them eat off the best of the pea vines and blades of corn.

Finally, not later than December 15 or January 1, turn under everything left on the field. The field will then be more productive than it was a year before. This method of farming will go a long way in building back a farm of poor soil. At the same time it works no hardship on the farmer. He gets the full use of all his land.

In the average year he will raise as much corn from wide rows as from the usual way of planting corn. He will have the cowpea grain and pasture in addition.

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