Breaking the Land

Pipestone Flyer

Agriculture has evolved at an unbelievable pace in a very short time. It was just over 100 years ago that Europeans were convinced they should come to Canada and help ‘open up the west’. They arrived with considerable optimism, often coupled with lingering sadness about leaving their home, country and  family and friends. They acquired land either through the Homestead Act or purchasing a parcel of land and began the tedious task of building a house and barn, acquiring livestock and breaking the land. They were also required to occupy the land for at least three years and make improvements such as building a house and barn, fencing, breaking and cropping a portion of the land before they were granted legal title. 

    Clearing land and planting was done by hand or with the help of horses. Equipment and tools were often handmade.  Early farmers produced enough food for the operator and his family and sometimes had a surplus they could sell to raise a few dollars to buy necessities.

    In just 100 years later, farming has evolved into huge operations with modern tractors sporting motors delivering 560 horsepower. Many farmers have operations comprised of thousands of acres of cropland, huge herds of cattle, massive feedlots, hundreds of milk cows, sow operations numbering in the thousands or huge barns growing thousands of turkeys, chickens or eggs. The huge industrial farms of today are supplying food to markets throughout the entire world. 

    When settlers acquired their homestead, they were faced with the arduous task of preparing it for planting. Areas were designated for breaking (i.e., ploughing the sod as the first step in getting it ready for planting to crops).  Any trees or shrubs on the designated area had to be removed.  They were cut down with an axe and burned.  Large trees (greater than 10-12 cm in diameter) were salvaged for fire wood.  

    Big trees (12-25 cm in diameter) were cut about a meter off the ground.  The stump that was left was pulled out of the ground using horses or a tractor.  A chain was wrapped around the protruding trunk and the trunk and root pulled out and thrown on the piles for burning.  

    Some of the more properous farmers had steam tractors but most relied on horses. However, the increased demand for food and the manpower shortage caused by the First World War, combined with the availability of gasoline tractors brought the steam tractor era to a close. Increasing numbers of newer and bigger equipment enabled farmers to cultivate more land and produce more food.

Each year, the farmer would select a tract of land on his property and using a tractor and breaking plough, break it up and prepare for planting. The following year they would choose another tract of land to break to increase their cultivated acreage and boost crop production.  

    The Titan tractor was one of the early tractors that helped ‘open the west’.  It was a powered by a 2-cyclinder engine.  As each cylinder fired one could actually hear it giving out a rapid pop-pop-pop-pop rhythm.  The Titan did not have a radiator.  The engine was cooled by water contained in a huge barrel (200-litres) mounted on the front.  The water would get so hot it would boil (and had to be replenished every couple of hours).  That old tractor with steam pouring out of the lid of the water tank, sparks flying out of the exhaust that was pointed skyward and the popping staccato of the engine was some sight to see when it came over a hill.  

    Once ploughed, the sod was broken up with a disc pulled behind the tractor or  pulled by four horses.  After the sod had been broken up with the disc a float made with 4 or 5 logs that were tied together, was dragged over the field by a team of 3 or 4 horses.  Rocks and pieces of tree roots were removed by loading them in a wagon.  

    Following WWII, commercial companies, which contracted to clear trees from the land, sprang up across Alberta.  The brush was cut with a brush cutter (a V shaped snowplow-like blade attached to the front of a crawler tractor.  The tractor and operator were protected from the falling trees by a steel cage that extended back over the tractor. The cut trees were pushed into windrows with a bulldozer and burned.  

    Often dirt was pushed up with the trees or some of the trees protruded from the windrows so burning was incomplete.  The pieces that did not burn were re-piled by hand and again burned.  This was a dirty job; walking and working in the ashes and charcoal left one looking like a chimney sweep at the end of the day.  Anything remaining was hauled off the field.  

    The land was “broke” (ploughed) with a plough that turned over two furrows at each pass. The newly ploughed field was then levelled with a float pulled by the crawler tractor (the float was 3 pieces of rail road track  chained in tandem).  Other companies made floats from worn-discarded, tractor tracks.  The process of preparing the land for planting was done by cultivating it with a disc that cut the soil into small chunks and again going over it with a float.  

    For the first 3 or 4 years, the newly cultivated land was sown to wheat; the cash crop.  Newly cultivated land always resulted in a better harvest and cleaner sample of grain (no weeds to contaminate the sample) then land that had been farmed for several years.  In addition, the profit from this newly cultivated land could be increased by seeding “certified” seed and selling the harvested crop to neighbours for seeding their fields the next spring.  

    As the 1930’s came to a close, the drought ended and with the outbreak of WW II there was once again, an increasing demand for farm products. Following the War, the country began to prosper and demand for food increased.  Farming practices became more modern with increased mechanization and the trend to more specialized, larger farming operations.