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SEEDER IS AN EXERCISE IN UTILITY

I finally got at a job I have been meaning to do since the snow cleared. I overseeded some pasture with clover and bird's-foot trefoil and now, having done it, I am willing to let the rains fall and the spring proceed.

There is probably no handwork you can do on a farm that shows more for your effort than broadcasting hay seed with a hand-cranked "cyclone" seeder. With this handy device hung around your neck you can cover an acre in a matter of minutes and, if you pay attention, spread millions of hayseeds evenly over your field.

A cyclone seeder, if you never had the pleasure of meeting one, is a clever little machine. It consists of a canvas sack mounted on a wooden base, which has a metal plate that shuttles back and forth, letting graduated amounts of seed fall out. This seed then hits a spinning disc with vanes mounted on it. This spinning "cyclone" kicks the seed out ahead of you in an even plume.

First the seed needed to be prepared. I took seed for medium red clover and put it in a cut-off barrel and dumped in some powder containing inoculating bacteria. These friendly bacteria are a great help in the whole process of getting the clover to work its magic.

The microbes scar the roots of the clover, and when the plant heals, the lumpy nodules have the ability to put nitrogen that the plant absorbs from the air into the soil. This added fertility makes the plant lush and enriches the soil.

Similarly, I mix a batch of another legume, bird's-foot trefoil. This plant requires a different strain of bacteria from the clover. Then, with the seeder filled with a mix of clover and trefoil and the feed rate set at 3 3/4 (as recommended by the table printed on the bottom), I step through the gate into the pasture and proceed on my cranky way along the fence.

The brood cows have spent the winter in this hilly, five-acre section and left it chewed down almost to the ground. The typography is steep -- two little hills with a drop about 30 feet in a swale between them where there is water standing.

When I slosh through I can see that the cyclone is doing its job; there are tiny clover seed splashes at the appropriate distances. I like the idea of the bird's-foot trefoil getting a toehold in this pasture. Bird's-foot trefoil is not the lush producer that alfalfa is, or even the equal of clover, but it has the virtues of being tough and tolerating conditions that other forages won't. It also lasts a long time. It even has a fine melodic botanical name: Lotus corniculatus.

This damp spot will suit the trefoil fine, and the plant won't complain that this section has not yet received the liming it needs. It will make do.

The first time I sowed this trefoil was at our small farm in Gasport. At the end of the sloping pasture was a wet spot with a dense, brick-like clay soil. At someone's suggestion I spread some bird's-foot trefoil seed one spring. I was disappointed that summer when none of it appeared.

But two years later it was a green carpet of short plants with yellow blossoms that looked like snapdragons. The seed pods were also curious and accurately explained the plant's picturesque name.

Bird's-foot trefoil also has a curious way of perpetuating itself. When the small pods mature and snap open, the seeds can be propelled 10 feet, which explains how it spread its dominion, much to the satisfaction of the cattle that grazed on it. It may still be growing there now, 20 years later.

I don't know why, but I have never been able to do this job without thinking I am in a hurry. I could just as well walk slowly and match my cranking to a leisurely pace, but I always go fast. So here I am huffing up and down the slopes and trotting through the wet spots to avoid soaking my work boots.

Some clever person should market this exertion as a miracle exercise for toning the entire body. They could put together videos of walking and cranking that would sell for $39.95 on late-night television. They would have to modify the cyclone seeder to exercise the left arm equally, however.

I finish the plot and refill the sack on the seeder and move into another section nearer the road that we will fence for grazing this spring. I set the seeder to be more generous to give the legumes a chance against the thick sod.

A year from now it will be better than it is. Properly managed, pastures seem to improve, with the clovers and trefoil replacing the coarse grasses and weeds. It is natural selection in operation, and the legumes, which regrow more quickly after they are grazed down, have the edge.

I stop at the top of a hill to align my path and have a moment of satisfaction with the way the job is going. It will be good to see the cows here as the forage improves. A pasture is an amazing thing -- a vast, green, solar-energy collector.

One of the really heartening things about modern agriculture is the rediscovery of the value of pasturing, a practice that is easier on the farmer, the livestock and the land itself.

Look right here -- that's not a tractor and plow chugging up and down those hills leaving them open to erosion but a middle-aged farmer on two feet winding up a crank on the very spring of the season itself.

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