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A matter of flexibility

Sometimes getting work done on the farm involves getting right in there to do the work
<p>Sometimes getting work done on the farm involves getting right in there to do the work.</p>

You frequently hear people talk about all the different things that farmers do and how we have to be flexible. We need to be mechanics. We need to be agronomists. We need to be number-crunching business owners. We need to be veterinarians. We need to be plumbers.

Then, after breakfast some days . . .

Most of all, we need to be flexible. The situation can turn on you in a hurry, and you need to be ready and willing to deal with it as best you can. The ability to improvise can be a huge plus. Sometimes, though, you still need to turn to the services of trained professionals. The big brick wall of the Improvisation Comedy Clubs (the Improv) is where professional comedians hone and display their work. Sure, there are open mic nights where anyone off the street can show up and try to look like they know what they are doing, but it's not hard to tell the wannabe's from the professionals. It's like the difference between welding and using duct tape.  

The harvest of 2015 will go down in the record books as one to remember. A good share of that is because of the nearly-perfect weather we've had for the vast majority of the season. The weather was warm and dry for an incredibly long stretch. It got to the point where we were really, really looking forward to some rain, just so we could have a break. We had more than 30 days in a row without any kind of precipitation. That actually moved us into a Moderate Drought rating for the University of Nebraska's Drought Monitor. Rainy days off to catch up have been hard to come by this fall.

Each of us in the operation has a fairly well-established role. My older brother (Guy Number One) has always run the combine. Dad (The Chairman Emeritus) usually hauls wagons of corn from the field to the bin site to unload. For the last few years that he has been on staff with us, Woody usually runs the grain cart and follows Guy No. 1 around to catch all the corn he generates without having to stop, and then fills the wagons so that The Chairman can zip into the field and hook up to them without getting out of the tractor to hook and unhook wagons. That's all thanks to the Agri-Speed Hitches we've had for years. My job is everything in between and over and above that. I get to make cornstalk bales to use for feed and bedding of the cattle. I get to haul corn to market in the semi. I get to answer every phone call from every interested party who may want to have something to do with almost anyone in the organization. With a Blue Parrot hands-free headset, everyone knows I'll answer my phone and keep working, so they call me. My other job is to be ready to step in do anyone else's role on a moment's notice.

Flexibility rules

This is not a site you want to see a full grain wagon with a busted wheel. Next question? Now What?

Despite our history as dairy producers who tend to follow rigid schedules, we love flexibility in this operation. Love it. (Some of us more than others.) Hauling all of the corn in a semi isn't as handy when you're going a fairly short distance from the fields to the bin site. That's where wagons can be a plus. If you've paid attention, there aren't a lot of pieces of farm equipment that have gotten smaller over the years. Our wagons hold 500 bushels each. We hook two of them together and pull them around in pairs, so we essentially have the equivalent of a semi's capacity. Add in the speed hitches and you can do a lot of work with the wagons that a semi would do. That allows me to get in the semi and deliver corn to other markets during harvest.

I got back from one such trip this fall and found a troubling site in the yard. The Chairman had been hauling a set of wagons from the field to the bins to unload the corn when a wheel bearing on the front of one of the wagons decided to take early retirement. There was no announcement, no gold watch, no retirement party, nothing. It just turned in its keys and quit. Fortunately or unfortunately, it gave up the ghost shortly after getting into driveway in the yard. That meant the tire and rim decided to explore other career opportunities and took a different route across the yard. That would have been a whole different situation on the road.   

We now had a set of wagons full of corn without the ability to move them. Oh sure, there were enough ponies out front that we could have just kept driving and pulled them to the unloading area, but that would create more problems than it would solve. You typically see cars driving around with only three wheels when law enforcement is somewhere behind with lights flashing and sirens blaring. Otherwise, four wheels makes the trip a whole lot smoother and more efficient. We didn't have sirens or flashing lights, but the rush of harvest makes it feel like that sometimes.

Improv at work

Time for some improv! Call it triage if you wish, but I prefer improv.

The front wagon of the pair was the victim here. The back wagon was just an innocent bystander. We couldn't follow standard cop-show procedure and say, "Go back to your homes. There's nothing to see here," and expect it to happen. We also couldn't just unhook the rear wagon and move it out of the way. It was full of corn and it wasn't on a dead-level landing strip. Gravity being gravity, you don't just toss a block behind it and expect it to stop when you complete the divorce proceedings from its mate.

First step is to empty that busted front wagon. The challenge is lining up all the moving parts.

We'd start by getting the front wagon unloaded and deal with the second one later. There was just enough room in the yard to get a short auger in under the wagon to unload the corn. We didn't have the grain cart handy, but we did have a second set of wagons that were empty. We'd empty the injured wagon into those and then figure out how to get the empty carcass moved.

All of the tools were assembled for corn transfer. I pulled the empty wagons into what I thought was going to be the right position and soon discovered that you don't whip a set of wagons hooked together into a tight circle in a limited space. You also don't unhook them and just use one. Yes, the wagons were equally-sized, but we'd end up having to shovel corn to get all of the contents of the injured wagon to fit into the empty wagon if we tried to swap wagon contents in one shot. (Guy No. 1 likes to use 102% of maximum capacity of whatever he is operating. He's not happy unless a 500-bushel wagon has a minimum of 509 bushels in it. If your truck can go a maximum of 120 miles per hour, he's going to see if it will do 125. He will then complain that it didn't get there fast enough.)

I decided to try a different tact. Television of the 1970's to the rescue! We'd go the lather-rinse-repeat route, just like the shampoo commercials said. Fill a wagon as fast and completely as we could get to halfway and then unload that wagon and do it all over again. That went fairly well, but it left us with an empty, gimpy wagon hooked to a full wagon. If only we could put a cast, or at least a sling, on the gimpy wagon and limp it out of the way.

Improv strikes again! Using a couple of air jacks and a handy portable air compressor in the form of a Ranch Hand (Raise your hand if you honestly thought the Ranch Hand wasn't going to appear in this story!), we raised the running gear of the wagon up and then put a series of chains around the various free-floating parts of the wagon in such a way that they'd stay somewhat suspended and give us the opportunity to pull the wagon out of the way. Without the chains, the axle was going to drag on the ground and the one good wheel would make us continually go in circles. The bad axle was resting on a block of wood. We needed a way to get that block of wood to travel with the wagon as we moved it out of the way while still staying in line to drive fairly straight.

We added some military structure and discipline to the procedure with just a touch of PBS's Red Green for flexibility. Our mower-conditioner has skid shoes underneath it that support the weight of the machine as it bounces around in hay fields as we cut hay. The skid shoes are a thick piece of steel with a slightly-upturned edge on them that acts sort of a ski. We'd take one of those skid shoes and put it under the block of wood and attach it to the chain. It would then let us march the wagon across the yard in a straight line without doing some unnecessary trench work in the yard. We'd march in formation, but skip the foxhole part for this military maneuver.

My job was to get in the tractor and do the pulling. Knowing how this chess game was going to work, I jumped ahead a move or two before I got in the cab. Let's say it works and the wagon moves. I wanted to know where I would be going with the gimpy wagon. Are we pulling it to the shop to work on it there? Are we moving it to the side, just far enough so we can get by and keep working? Since this is Saturday afternoon and no one is around to fix this right away, are we taking it directly to my cousin Merlin The Metal Magician at The Steel Shop so that he and his partner, Ron, and their crew can start working on it first thing Monday morning? (That would have been the perfect scenario to make this story complete -- me, hauling a gimpy wagon down the highway to the welding shop. What could possibly go wrong?)

We'd be pulling the wagon behind a shed where the ground was level, the wind was minimal for welding, and the space was available to leave it until whomever drew the short straw at The Steel Shop was able to come out and do some steel surgery.

Connecting to Grandpa

The whole episode started a couple minutes before noon on a Saturday. It wasn't just any Saturday, as it turned out. This particular Saturday was my grandfather's birthday. He's not with us anymore, but that will make more sense when I do the math for you. I'm in my 40's. The Chairman is 85 and still working every day. Grandpa would have been 128 that day. (We like long generation intervals.) Grandpa use to come to the farm for a week or two and marvel at everything we did. A good nine-hour day of harvest for him was 100 bushels of corn picked by hand. We had just done a few thousand bushels before noon.

It has probably been at least thirty years since we had Grandpa in a combine to ride around with us and watch what takes place. He lived about ten minutes away from me when I was in college at Iowa State University. I'd stop by to see him a couple times per week during college and whenever I'd be in the area the rest of the time. He'd usually be in his easy chair, either reading something or watching the news or a Cubs game. (He came from a family of bricklayers in Chicago that worked on a small project at 1060 West Addison.) As his vision got worse over the years, he wouldn't always recognize me when I walked in the house to see him, but he recognized my voice and he knew my handshake. "I know those big hands. They work! What have you been up to lately, Jeff?" he'd always ask.

That's when I would sit down and catch him up on everything that had been going on since our last visit. He loved the stories and the variety.

Grandpa would have liked this story. It involved several of his family members, it all worked out well in the end (the wagon was returned to service a couple days later), and we did a few things to make things work effectively and timely without spending a fortune. That's how he rolled for just a few days short of 100 years.

I'm just looking to do a bit more.    

Guy No. 2


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