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Let me get my bearings

As I made my way across a field of raked cornstalks with the baler a couple of weeks ago, it was going quite well. The stalks were bone dry, the wind was quite brisk and I was getting a bale made, wrapped and dumped every 69 seconds. This was productivity at its finest. I was about halfway across the field and had about half the raked portion of the field left to bale. This year my goal was to make 600 bales to use as feed for my beef cows and bedding for my feedlot cattle over the winter. My bale counter showed I had just made my 530th bale of stalks. The end was literally in sight just 10 or 12 rounds away.

Then my baler suddenly stopped. When this happens, it can mean a couple of different things. The big drive chain running from top to bottom on the side of the baler could be busted, which would cease all operations. We had just replaced it the day before, though, and normally get at least 500 to 1,000 bales out of a new chain before replacing it. This one had less than a hundred bales on it, so that shouldn't be the problem. I shut the PTO off and then quickly flicked it on again to see if the pickup attachment moved, indicating a rock may have gotten stuck in it. No movement whatsoever. A rock will at least make it flex a little bit. That was not good. It left the other major potential problem. A bearing on a roll may have gone out.

I hopped out of the cab and was immediately greeted by the smell of scorched rubber. Sure enough, a bearing had gone out and a roll had busted. So close to being done, and rain in the forecast for the next day, and now I had to make another trip to Decorah to get the bearing fixed.

Small problem, though. There was smoke coming from the baler. It started as a small wisp as I got out of the tractor, but it grew to cloud quality in seconds. It was also accompanied by an orange glow in the bale chamber.


I did some quick mental math. I was in the middle of the field, with a 20- to 30-mph south wind, with dozens of other bales scattered across the field. All I could think of was the flames reaching the windrow, thereby lighting a multiple-mile fuse of neatly arranged stalks, or getting blown to the other bales in the field, each of which would be a mini-mushroom cloud as they ignited.

I had an idea. Why not drive the baler up to the road, thereby making it easier to access for the fire trucks? That would keep the fire out of my field, keep my bales from burning or getting soaked with water from a fire truck, and if all else failed, the road would maybe provide a buffer zone to fight the fire. Plus, worst-case scenario, the wind would at least blow the flames across the road into another guy's field.

Ladies and gentleman, I believe it was the great philosopher David Letterman who said, “There is no OFF position on the genius switch!”

All the while this is going on, I was on my phone trying to contact Guy No. 1, who was at the other end of the field in the combine . . . with the fire extinguishers. First call, no answer. Second call, no answer. Third call, no answer. Fourth call, no answer. Then he started heading my way in a big hurry. I was near the road by then and began to calmly and routinely unhook the baler, disconnecting the hydraulic hoses, the PTO, the hitch pin and all the other cables on the baler. The flames weren’t that bad yet, but I could tell it wasn't going to be good. We got the fire extinguisher and sprayed the flaming area of the baler. It had zero effect and the fire wasn't very big at all. That’s when Guy No. 1 and I had a very calm, quickie board meeting and decided I should be the one to call 911. He’s not a talker. That’s putting it mildly.

A few minutes later, we could hear sirens and saw lots and lots of flashing lights coming from the west. At the peak of the inferno, I decided to whip out my cell phone and snag a keepsake photo for posterity. The top photo was taken within a minute of when I had unhooked from the baler. All I heard afterwards was, “You took the time to jack it up and unhook everything! Ya didn’t just pull the pin and drive away?”

No. That would be irresponsible.

Altogether, I believe six trucks showed up for the event. They got the fire out and hosed down the bale I had kicked out of the bale chamber when I got near the road. A couple trucks drove down into the field and a couple of them stayed on the road. One, incidentally, showed up late and came from a different direction. The guys got out of the truck and immediately began swearing at their GPS unit. (I had given the 911 dispatcher the two numbers of the street and avenue at the intersection where the fire was located in the field, because it wasn’t close to any of our building sites.) This particular truck apparently has a Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong GPS unit to give them directions when there’s no name or building address involved.

The baler was a total loss. Try not to choke on the irony here, but my favorite Deere salesman, whose voice-mail greeting says, “This is Honest RC, The Farmer’s Friend From Beginning To End,” had been out to look at the baler the day before. We had asked about trading it off for a new one for next season. Turns out Honest RC was on the phone with Guy No. 1 closing the deal when I was trying to call for help. RC told me later, “Roger and I were just getting done and all of a sudden he says, ‘Uh-oh. I think we have a bale on fire, Dick.’ Then he paused and said, ‘Uhhhhhh, no, it’s a baler.’”

Guy No. 1 finds text messages to be too wordy.

Within minutes of all the fire truck excitement, and even before they left the scene, my phone rang. It was the Deere dealership’s number. I answered with my standard greeting of, “Hello, this is Jeff.”

It was Mike, the service manager, on the other end. “Is this Jeff ‘Scorch’ Ryan?”

Well, so much for keeping this incident quiet!

Mike said he understood I may be in need of a baler and probably didn’t finish baling for the day right at the end of the last windrow. A loaner baler was available and they would either send it up to me or we could come and pick it up. I told them to get it on its way. Honest RC showed up about an hour later and I was back to baling within two hours of the original problem. Believe me when I say that RC's voice-mail greeting is dead on.

After dark, I got the skid loader and headed up to the scene of the crime to drag the baler carcass out of the mud hole that had been created by the tanker truck's contents. The tire on the downwind side had melted in the blaze, but the one on the upwind side was in good shape. I sort of wanted to get the carcass removed, seeing as how it was pretty close to the highway and a breeze all night long could not be good. I dragged the carcass ahead a few yards to dry ground and planned to return to put a replacement tire on the carcass and get it out of there without leaving a trail by dragging it on its rim. First, I had to feed cattle.

As I was in the middle of feeding cattle around 9:00, my phone rang again. Guy No. 1 wanted to inform me, “There's a ball of flame in the field again. It looks big. You must have churned up some sparks when you moved the baler.”

Perhaps. Did you call 911 already?


I see. So you just wanted to call and let me know the field is on fire, because I’m probably a one-digit speed dial for you, whereas 911 requires the pushing of THREE buttons!?!? So, do you want ME to call 911?

“Yeah, I suppose.”

I dialed up the number and got the same dispatcher as before. “This is Jeff Ryan. My baler has reignited again. It’s the same spot as before.”

“Okay, I’ll let them know.”

I was in the middle of chores, so I decided it would be wise to finish feeding the cows rather than leave them hungry, thereby giving them a reason to go through a fence if I left to watch another blaze, and then creating a traffic disaster when they would spill onto Highway 9, looking for feed. By the time I had them fed (and securely quiet), I hopped on the four-wheeler to head to the scene of The Towering Inferno II. The trucks were already leaving as I pulled up. The firefighters didn't even stop to chat with me or give me any more static. Turns out their annual pancake supper was that night, so they barely got done with my first blaze in time to get back to flip flapjacks before heading back to splash me again.

I did a little fire marshal work at the scene. All around the baler carcass were crunchy cornstalks. Not a sign of fire anywhere. Zero. At the site of the bale carcass I had dumped before, though, was a whole new area of scorched earth. It was a much bigger area than before, so I was pretty sure the second fire had nothing to do with the baler and everything to do with the remnants of the bale fire. Looked to me like maybe some embers must have smoldered in that incredibly tight, extremely well-made bale.

On my next baler, I don’t want the pressure gauge to be one of those standard-issue ones with a green, yellow and red range from low to high. I want it to run from "Boring" to "Full of Adventure!"

Guy No. 2

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