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A steel disaster parade

Meeting the engineers who design and build the products you use can be enlightening. That goes for both you and the engineers sometimes. They don't always know what you're doing with their product, and you sometimes wonder if they have any idea how the stuff they build actually gets used on a regular basis. My experience has been that it's a good idea to give them the whole spectrum of what could happen to their work eventually, or regularly, as the case may be. But the engineers probably wouldn't believe everything you could tell them.

We had a bunch of hay cut this summer with plans to get it made into either round bales or big square bales. The forecast looked good and the hay seemed to be decent enough once it was cut and lying in the field to dry down to the right moisture for baling. If you cut it and put the hay into a wide swath, it tends to dry faster if you leave it to rest in a narrow windrow ready for baling. Here in the Upper Midwest, that means you'll still have enough humidity to keep that hay from drying down to a level low enough to make decent hay in bales without using a preservative of some sort. You can drive over the swaths and rake them together into a narrow windrow to fit into your baler a bit better. The rake tends to fluff the hay and get more air circulating through the windrow to speed the drying process and get the hay uniformly dry. Add in some low-to-moderate humidity levels and a little breeze and you can finish raking around noon or shortly thereafter and still bale in the afternoon. 

On this particular day, I was raking a field we refer to as The Mountain. It's a really steep field that had spent most of its productive history as either hay or pasture land. One particular hill in the field is a bit more pronounced than the others. It’s the one where I shot this video of round bale bowling ( 

I finished The Mountain and headed to an adjoining farm to do a few acres of hay in the waterways over there before we finished up with the rake for the day. As I pulled onto the road, I saw two items headed my way further down the road. One was my cousin with his tractor and a rake that belongs to a neighbor who does custom work. The other one behind him was Woodrow with the pickup. I pulled into the building site at the other place and decided to switch places with Woody before I started raking. Something seemed to feel a bit different as I slowed down in the driveway and looked behind me. Lo and behold, my rake was not looking good. It appeared that I had been rear-ended on the road or something, because my rake looked like physics had gotten the best of it. I was pretty sure I hadn't been hit. I'd have felt a collision like that with the toy tractor I had on the rake.

Woodrow pulled in behind me and looked like he was about to swallow his tongue and make his eyes pop out of his head! 

I climbed out of the cab of the Fisher-Price tractor to have a look. My rake was in a much different position than it should have been. This would not be good, I figured. 

A quick check around the machine's perimeter revealed some structural failures. The giant box beam that makes up the frame of the rake in the back had a sort of a kink in it. Think about that for a moment. A box beam should be box-shaped. You know, square corners and edges and everything. That's not the kind of shape that lends itself to kinks and pretzel shapes. 

Further inspection revealed that the plate on the back side of the box beam where the big steel plate with all the bolts attaching it to the rest of the rake had pretty much severed its ties with the rake. It wasn't a fresh break with lots of shiny steel at the new line of separation, though. Nope, this was a divorce that had been building for some time. The relationship between the two hunks of steel had decayed to the point where it was beyond mild therapy. We were looking at major metal oncology efforts here. This was going to take the work of my other cousin, Merlin the Metal Magician. He and a partner run The Steel Shop just outside Cresco. They repair and build all kinds of stuff made of metal for us. Tell him what your machine looked like before your incident, or what you want it to look like after he's done with his torch and welder, and Merlin the Metal Magician will not disappoint you. 

Small problem. My frame had sort of given out on me, so it wasn't like I could simply drive my machine to The Steel Shop and have Merly work on it there. A quick glance at the layout of all the parts and assemblies on the rake told me and my non-gearhead brain that this was going to be major surgery to disassemble the rake, take the busted stuff to Merly and then try to reassemble it here at the scene of the crime. Simple stuff like flat tires or busted pieces that can be clamped together with a Vise-Grip just long enough to make the trip to The Steel Shop are one thing, but this project was pushing the limits of what a metal cobbler could do. This one couldn't even be cobbled with duct tape. It was also not going to be the kind of thing where Merly could show up with his portable welder and fix my mess on-scene. 

At that moment, what I really wanted to do was take my rake out behind the shed, put a bullet in it to put it out of its misery, and then buy myself a newer, cooler rake. Reality said that would take twenty to thirty grand, though, so that thought didn't get pushed up in my list of priorities in a big hurry. Instead, we went looking for the rake my cousin just went by with minutes before. That one would get us up and running in minutes so as to optimize our hay harvest window. You know, that axiom about making hay while the sun shines and all. It’s common knowledge. 

Once we got the replacement rake and got it running, I had another issue to consider. The busted rake was a big hunk of steel with a lot of specific mass. The Fisher-Price tractor, not so much. Looking at the spot where the two of them were parked, I was pretty sure I couldn't just pull the hitch pin and drive away from my problem at hand. Pulling that hitch pin would probably transform my rake with a broken pelvis into a giant heap of steel in a pile. The hitch pin was sort of the spine holding this pile of bones into its pseudo-skeleton shape at the moment. I'd have to eat dinner and think on this a bit. Pie does a body good. I seem to remember telling myself that on thousands of occasions. 

Sure enough, a little lard did the trick. It kept my genius switch from completely locking up. I realized that there was a big beam running down the center of the rake. It was sort of the point of attachment for the two wings of the rake where they'd slide forward and back as the rake was folded out to its working position and in for transport. The box beam with the crack in it was like an upside-down block letter “U,” or a horseshoe with square corners. That giant “U” was at the back of the rake and was attached to two wheels. Those wheels didn't steer. They were just there to provide support for the frame and allow the rake to trail properly. 

So why not make some leaps in logic? What if we left the rake hooked to the Fisher-Price tractor and allowed the tractor to remain as the steering part of the equation? What if we then brought the loader tractor from behind? We could hook a log chain around the center box beam (with the pyramid-shaped end on it, thereby not letting our chain slide right off the end of the now-unattached beam) and then suspended the rear end of the rake with the loader. A little touch of the hydraulic lever and the loader should hoist the back half of the rake toward the sun. It would take all the pressure off the failed part of the machine and still allow the rest of it to act as though nothing had happened. Drive it home like nothing was wrong and then deal with the carcass surgery and reassembly when you got off the road and in a building where there'd be no witnesses.

Why, that idea is almost cobbled enough to work, you're thinking. What kind of genius would come up with that, you wonder? I'll tell you. It’s the same kind of clown who would buy himself a size 16 boot for his size 13 broken foot, stuff his busted-foot-in-a-cast into the giant boot, and proceed to walk on his heel and keep farming like nothing had happened, that's who! I could gimp my rake home just like I had gimped myself all over the farm for a few weeks last year.       

Learn from our mistakes? Why, I should have an alphabet worth of letters after my name for all my graduate-level lessons.  

We got our chains and stuff together and attached at the proper points for the block-and-tackle-to-go experiment. Levers were moved. Frames were lifted. Mobility, however temporary and marginal, was restored. 

We did one other thing, too. We reviewed geography and topography. The usual route home had a couple of corners and a hill or two in it. This gimp parade we were conducting needed to stay on the straight and not-so-narrow. Altitude and gravity also needed to be in our favor. I had a plan. If we pulled out of the yard and made that corner successfully, we could stay on the road and take it directly west for a couple miles. There’d be a slight incline going down into the test plot area. We could follow the adjoining waterways and connected hayfields to get us back to a point not far from my place, but also without going around any corners or climbing any hills. (See "The Alps of Cardinal Marsh" and you'll see why hills, gravity and a big load don't mix well for me.) Much as I thought this whole thing would work, I didn't want to see us have the Fisher-Price tractor wimp out on the medium hill a few yards from my place and have the whole parade caravan run out of oomph and slide into the ditch once our forward progress stopped.

Everything went fairly well. We got the rake into my shed and got it torn apart. Merlin the Metal Magician did his wonders and had everything fixed in fairly decent order. A little paint was applied and the parts were reassembled to the point where you'd never know anything had happened. The rake looked as good as new. 

We would have gotten away with the whole thing if we had timed the event just a bit better and used one less tool. You see, when we were hauling log chains and other stuff over to the other place to get ready for the move, Woodrow took the replacement rake back to the other guy's farm with the loader tractor. That meant I needed to get over to the crime scene without having to ride in the cramped cab with him so we could get both tractors home without leaving a vehicle over there. I took my four-wheeler along as my mode of transportation. I took the cattle gate chain I keep on the front rack and attached my four-wheeler to the rear three-point hitch of the loader tractor. It then got pulled home behind the tractor and a retrieval trip was skipped. 

We were all done getting stuff put back together and were ready to rake some hay a few days later when my phone rang. It was a neighbor who helps us sometimes in the fall.  He's a bit of a character who doesn't like to miss an opportunity to tweak. 

"Hi, Jeff. You'll never guess what I saw the other day. It was a great big parade right past my house. First, there was this little tractor. Tiny little green thing. Then there was this giant red hay rake that was hooked onto the tiny tractor. Then there was this big green loader tractor. It had a log chain on it with the back end of that same big rake hanging from it so the rake wasn't even touching the ground! And you know what? The whole works was bein’ pushed down the road by this dinky little four-wheeler! Darnedest thing I've ever seen."

Obviously, he needs to get out more. 

Guy No. 2                   

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