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Sliding into an Amish existence

Normal0falsefalsefalseEN-USX-NONEX-NONEMicrosoftInternetExplorer4Do you know what keeps winter interesting up here by the North Pole? Is it the brisk air? The fluffy snow? The short days? More of that snow — this time, the heavy, wet stuff? The layers upon layers of fashionable clothing? The spectacle of frost-laden trees in the morning? More of that #@$%^&* snow, because it's been, like, 36 hours since it last snowed?

No, those things keep winter merely a mild diversion from the end of one hay-making season to the beginning of another. What keeps winter interesting is ice. Lots of ice. We've had an unbelievably interesting winter this year. We've had plain ice as a solo act. We've had ice as the opening act for multiple inches of snow. We've had ice that just couldn't muster the courage to make the jump to sleet or even slush, and stayed as a lovely coating on all surfaces rather than melt away.

So what's it mean? It means you move differently. Traction is a distant memory. If, say, for instance, from a purely hypothetical standpoint, you sell hay, you end up hiring other people with trucks to deliver it for you. A 4% upward slope at an intersection suddenly looks like something Franz Klammer would relish . . . coming from the other direction. Trying to go UP that slope is a different story entirely. It instantly takes me back to the week before my departure to California last February when I almost made it up a hill with a load of round bales. The key word there being “almost.”

Without knowing any of the engineers at Hershey's who came up with the recipe for Magic Shell, I am quite confident at least one of them was raised on a ruminant farm in the upper Midwest where round bales were fed. Something about the plastic mesh wrap around round bales seems to form a hard candy shell of ice over the bale that rivals the strength of any space-age polymer Max Raphael could tell you about on Modern Marvels. While insurance industry Yuppies in Des Moines are working out at any one of three fitness centers on each block, I'm doing some intense cardio work trying to get the net wrap off several bales of cornstalks each day.

The only way to improve that workout would be to add some ice as a platform on which to perform my daily routine.

Welcome to January 2009.

While my Embryo Transfer (ET) crew was busy running cows through the chute, I was busy feeding the rest of the herd. Having the ET cows in the working area made it much easier to feed them a round bale. Normally, at least one of them tries to escape while I open the gate to enter the pen with a bale on my skid loader before I can climb out and shut the gate again. (Back in the old days, I had an assistant to watch the gates while I drove in with the goods. Guy No. 1 will help me with chores as soon as cattle are raised in offices, but not a moment before.)

I began my descent down the concrete ramp into that part of the feedlot and was reminded of my engineering roommates in college right away. They always talked about the coefficient of drag, and resistance, and friction, and all kinds of stuff like that on days when the grounds crew at ISU went out with what they called power brooms to clear the sidewalks. We called them ice polishers.

It didn't feel like I was driving a skid loader so much as a Zamboni. A Zamboni where the steering mechanism wasn't really hooked up to anything. I slid sideways, then corrected and began to slide in the opposite direction. I lowered my cargo and allowed the bale to touch the ground to give me a little bit of an anchor. It worked quite well. It also saved me a bit of time on net wrap removal.

Then I moved over to the pen where I would feed the bale. Again, there was less-than-perfect traction. I weaved between a couple of gates and felt like I had gotten by pretty easy with my ramp maneuver. My bale had taken on a slightly different, definitely non-auction-topping appearance. I raised it up slightly to make sure the whole thing made it to the pen.

Normal0falsefalsefalseEN-USX-NONEX-NONEMicrosoftInternetExplorer4That's when reality walked up and whapped me upside the head like I'd stolen its little brother's sack lunch at recess.

The very top of my bale caught the overhead electrical wire that supplies power to the waterer for the east half of the feedlot. In an instant, the lovely triplex wire was draped across the highway guardrail fence to my left and to my right. Amazingly, there was no shower of sparks or sizzle of really fresh beef, still on the hoof, hitting the grill.

I backed up and assessed the situation. No dead critters anywhere. No strange tingling sensation on my person, other than a dull throb in the pit of my stomach. Better yet, no assembled crowd of onlookers from the working chute area to marvel at my Disney-On-Ice-Meets-Kramer maneuvers.

Sadly, though, to my left was the stump of the big 4 x 6 pole that serves as the conduit for power to the waterer and the spot from which my stadium lighting shines down on the assembled critters for late-night heat detection in the summer.

First things first. Went back to the main utility pole in the yard and cut the power to the whole place. Then I went to the working chute area to see if anything taking place there needed juice. It did not, but the crew said they had been impressed when they heard my incident moments before. Fortunately, all they heard was the crack of wood as the pole snapped, not the sizzle of electrical current coming in contact with all things nearby.

We went out to the pen to move some cattle around and see if we could at least get the snapped pole straightened up enough to get the wire out of the way. The wire hadn't come loose at either end, so maybe we'd get lucky and be able to turn the power on again and get juice flowing if everything was clear of a short.

This was about 4:40 on a Thursday, so I knew I wouldn't get an electrician out there yet that day. With typical northeast Iowa January warmth, having no power to the waterers to run the heating element in them overnight was probably not going to be a good thing. A call to the electrician revealed that no one was around at the moment, but the receptionist would put me at the top of the agenda for morning.

We all took a position back from the feedlot as I threw the switch to restore power again. Again, there were no sparks and no flashes of light. As amateur electricians, we felt that no sizzle sure looked like success to us! "There's nothing to see here. Go back to your homes!" Time to call it a day and wait for Friday.

After discussing my adventures with The Chairman, it was decided that we'd replace the 4 x 6 post with a 6 x 6 instead. The lumberyard didn't have any 6 x 6 posts when we put the other one in, so we went with the slightly smaller post. This time, we'd go big. A call was placed first thing Friday morning for a delivery from the lumberyard. It arrived not long after that, even before I had a chance to completely clear the yard of yet another snow event.

This was the pole where an incident had taken place in October 2006 when we originally strung up the overhead wire. It involved The Chairman, a high-reaching ladder, a large thud, and a call to 9-1-1 as said Chairman was in a heap on the concrete. He wasn't in the hospital for more than a few days. While there, he developed an aversion to ladders and overhead power lines. His inclination to climb poles and string wire pretty much ended that day.

On this lovely January day, we went about the installation of the new pole. Two guys don't just grab a 20-foot-long six-by-six and toss that puppy up like a volleyball net in the yard. We got the loader tractor and a log chain and got the pole into position after a few attempts.

Now you have a pole standing upright in the proper position along the fence next to the waterer. What do you say we wrap it with duct tape to secure it to the railroad tie post next to it and call it a day?

The vote on that motion ended in a 1-1 tie. Repeatedly.

The Chairman does not cobble. We would take this new post and run a long piece of ready-bolt through it to secure it to the railroad tie. A nut welded on one end of the ready-bolt would serve as the bolt head. Slide it through the railroad tie, then the 6 x 6, toss a washer on, tighten the nut down and you've got yourself a well-anchored pole once again.

Amazingly, and against the way everything else had gone for me in the last 24 hours, this activity went extremely well. We got the pole drilled, lined up and secured. It was now 10:45 and we still didn't have any electricians.

Just then, my phone rang. It was one of the electrician brothers. He sounded somewhat sheepish. Turns out the "top-of-the-list" spot I had been placed on was a Post-It Note on the giant bulletin board in their office. He had just found it among the other random notes. By the way, his brother and the bucket truck for this job were already out of town on a job a couple hours ago. It would be the end of the day before they could get to me.

Nice. All the electronic communication gadgets in our world today and my own personal Edison Brothers are sticking with Post-It Note technology.

So we waited. At 3:45, power was once again restored. Seeing as how the waterers had been almost 24 hours without power, and seeing as how it was in the double digits below zero, restoration of power and restoration of water flow to the herd did not coincide. The waterers were still frozen. So we gathered every thermos and water jug every seed corn and implement dealer has given us over the years and shuttled hot water from the other farm. It felt like a high-end Amish bucket brigade of sorts.

Normal0falsefalsefalseEN-USX-NONEX-NONEMicrosoftInternetExplorer4One of the other waterers — where we didn't have to do any work with wires or poles — broke its icy grip after the start of the second thermos. The one with all the activity was another story. We got to about the third or fourth water jug and the water began to gush . . . out the base of the waterer, not in the trough where it belonged.

No problem. Open the side door and see what's going on down there. Remember all of those weather events all winter? Each one, and the ongoing row-crop-fertility-production in the feedlot, meant the waterer kept shrinking in height. The access door on the side of it was covered by a mountain of ice and, uh, stuff.

So I switched to Amish mode again and got an axe and a giant steel crowbar and went cardio once again. We finally got the access door opened. The valve to shut off the water was turned to the OFF position. This looked like a job for professional plumbers. A call was placed. Once again, it was in the 4:00 hour. Once again, I'd be at the top of the batting order the next day.

At 7:35 the next morning, while moving yet another million skid loader buckets of winter weather production, my phone rang. It was the plumber. He already had a job booked at 8:00, but he'd get to me right after that. I should look for him in that 11:30-ish range.

Hey, trust me, I didn't look surprised.

At 11:32, the van arrived. The plumber got down in the cubby hole I'd dug out to get to the waterer and took a look around. He tried connecting the loose water hose to the threaded stud on the base of the trough like I had done several times unsuccessfully the previous night. Each time he turned the water valve on again, the gusher returned. I had secretly hoped it wouldn't be easy for him.

He finally decided he needed to go back to the shop and get some more supplies. He was going to install a 90-degree elbow to improve the access we had down there and make it a whole lot easier to work on this in the future.

No complaints here, buddy.

Around 12:40, we finally got everything together and turned the water on. All was right with my world once again. The plumber looked at me and asked how long it had been off. When I told him it had been about 44 hours, he was amazed I wasn't a bit more agitated.

Hey, in my world, it's just another day . . . and-three-quarters. Try it sometime. You'll enjoy the ride.

Guy No. 2

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