A Good Mower
by Leroy Keim of Poland, OH
It is my opinion that mowing hay, on the horse drawn farm, is one of the more pleasant jobs to be done there! You wait for a period of fair weather and when it comes there is often bright blue sky, high moving clouds and a small breeze stirring the tall grasses as you enter the field!
The mowing, when using ground driven equipment, is a relatively quiet affair. There is the subdued noise of harness and chain, the deep breathing of the animals at work, the snick snick of the cutter bar in the hay, the murmur of gears and cogs meshing in the gearbox and the flow of the cut hay across the cutter bar as the mower advances. For me there is the pleasure of watching the play of muscles across a broad rump and the rise and fall of hocks and hooves on a strong pulling horse! I like the feel of the leather in my hands and the ebb and flow of contact with the horse’s mouth as we move across the field.
In my part of the country there will soon be barn swallows swooping and sweeping around us as they feed on the insects disturbed from their hiding places in the hay as we pass. Often there will be a hawk or two wheeling in the bright sky overhead watching for the field mouse or young rabbit rushing across the cut hay in their panic to get away from the cutter bar. Twice I and my horse have been startled by the sudden leap of a fawn, hidden in the hay by its mother in the predawn darkness and probably watched from the edge of the woods as the little creature makes its escape!
There is the widening expanse of cut hay as the morning progresses and the slowly strengthening and subtle scent of the cut hay as it begins to dry in the sunshine! That is when everything is going well!
I have, over the course of my seventy odd years, used a two horse Case mower while working for my father, a John Deere or two, several McCormicks in different models and both McCormick and Oliver one horse mowers. Some of these were the open geared models, some like the JD #4 and the McCormick #7 and #9 were closed gear models with the gears running in oil. All of these mowers when the components were well adjusted, the knife sections were sharp, and the lead of the cutter bar was as it should be, mowed quite well most of the time. Some of them were less effective in the fine stemmed grasses and legumes. The open geared models tended to require more care and were a bit noisier in operation but even so, my Oliver one horse mower with a good fast walking horse mowed a wide variety of pasture and hay crops for me and I enjoyed using it. I had been told by several of my mentors at various times that I should try a high gear McCormick #9 sometime, but over the years of using and buying and selling these various models I had not used one of them, all of mine being the regular gear models.
Probably like me, some of my readers may not be acquainted with the difference between the regular gear and the high gear in the McCormick mowers! The speed of the knife in the cutter bar is what we are referring to here, or the number of strokes of the knife with every revolution of the drive wheel. This difference is accomplished by the choice of the bevel gear on the end of the drive shaft to the pitman bar. The regular gear has thirteen teeth and the high gear has eleven. This means that for every revolution of the drive wheel the high gear model’s knife will move fifteen percent faster, or have fifteen percent more strokes, than the regular gear model!
In my state there are several shops that recondition and sell McCormick and John Deere mowers and parts. I’m most familiar with two of them, and as I began to look for a mower two years ago I was bemused to hear that the one said, “his customers want mostly the McCormick #9 in the high gear model” and the other said “his customers only want the regular gear”! At the shop of the second dealer the owner said he had a high gear model he hadn’t been able to sell! It turned out to be a late model #9 in original condition with a five-foot cutter bar and a two-horse pole. The gears were clean and sharp, the overall condition was good and the price seemed fair. It also had the 36” wheels instead of the standard 32”.
I was setting up a one horse powered farm for a client so the two-horse pole and the five-foot cutter bar would need to be changed for use by a single horse. I knew that both of these shops were making these changes so in our discussions we settled on a four-foot cutter bar and steel shafts manufactured to fit my big horse. We discussed using a tongue truck because of the greater weight of the #9 mower than that of a typical one-horse mower. I had used these readily available tongue trucks and did not like the narrow wheel regularly furnished, as I had some problems with it cutting into soft ground especially on sharp turns. We decided on rigid shafts since I knew we could change it without too much trouble if it proved to be unsatisfactory. We concluded that with the bar in cutting position and a one-hundred-and-eighty-pound driver on the seat, the weight would not be prohibitive. Another consideration was that the weight would be carried on the horse’s back instead of on his neck as in a two-horse hitch, using standard breeching harness. The shop changed all the oil seals and the brass bushing on the pitman drive shaft, installed a new ball bearing, pitman bar connector to the pitman drive wheel. There had been a wooden swath board with a turning stick on the mower and I decided to use a newer style metal divider board with steel rods. While many do not use a divider board at all and replace the first three guards by the inner shoe with short guards, I decided that I wanted a clean path for the inner shoe to slide in, and a clearly defined swath, which the rodded swath board gave me without pushing as much hay into the inner edge of the swath as the original divider would. I also wanted the regular guards all the way to the inner shoe as I had experienced some problems with the short guards in fine stemmed grasses before.
If I were ordering this mower today I would use a tongue truck instead of the rigid shafts. I soon realized that I was not strong enough to lift this heavy mower by one shaft high enough to slip it into the shaft loop on my horse’s harness. I found that by releasing the cutter bar before hitching I could just manage it, but then the weight of the mower on one side tended to pull my harness down on that side as I went to the other side to fasten the shaft there. The solution I worked out was to put an eight-inch square wooden block under the drag bar and single tree bracket before unhitching. My good horse willingly backed into the raised shafts when hitching and I simply backed him off the wooden block and set it aside before getting on the seat. I also used a one inch thick vinyl pad under the harness saddle twenty by six inches to help spread the weight across his back. I would now install a tongue truck if I were starting over for the following reasons: the only weight on the horse would be the weight of the shafts, it would be easy to pull one pin to remove the shafts and make the mower’s footprint much smaller in the machinery shed, or if there was headroom enough, one could simply raise the shafts and rest them against the base bracket out of the way. However, I would widen the yoke to allow for the use of a five or six inch wide rubber tire making the flotation much better under all conditions.
Now I must describe what challenges this mower was facing. I had at this property two pieces of lawn I was to turn into hayfields. The first was an acre and the second two acres. The first was almost 100% blue grass. It appeared in the early spring to be a very dense stand so I fertilized it with one hundred pounds of 40% urea. The second was also largely blue grass but with some clovers in spots and here I used two hundred pounds of a triple blended fertilizer. I could not know that we would receive about twice the normal rainfall that spring, and I could not remember ever seeing blue grass grow so tall and rank! When it finally got to be the middle of June and the weather seemed to be settling into a more normal pattern of sunny bright days, I hitched Doc to this mower and drove to field one. The grass averaged 20 to 24 inches tall and was as dense a stand as I had ever encountered. Although by this date it was becoming quite mature, being mostly in seed head, because of the prolonged cool and wet weather, it was still very green and fine stemmed! I had actually considered asking a neighbor with a tractor and discbine to mow for me since my earlier experience with ground drive mowers warned me that this could be quite a challenge! Doc is a big horse, 18 hands and about 1850 pounds in good condition, and a fast walker and very strong puller! I turned him into the edge of the small field and the sudden onslaught of the thick stand of grass in the cutter bar muted its clatter into a quiet, snick snick snick, which increased in volume as I encouraged Doc to, “get up”, even though he was already responding to the hard pull of the mower on his own! The initial cut was up a slight grade and as I turned him at the far end to cut across the top and looked back the way we had come I saw an even swath of perfectly lying grass. After the perimeter cut around the field I stopped Doc for a brief rest and walked back a ways and kept pulling parts of the swath aside to see a uniformly clean cut stubble below the cut grass. I thought back to other mowers and days when I would not have believed I could have gotten through that challenging round without at least a couple of stoppages! To be fair, I did have to stop and back up and clear the cutter bar on the next round, but there was a crude woven nest of some kind impaled on a couple of guards which caused the grasses to begin bunching on the bar. I mowed this small field in three sections since I was getting it up by hand mostly alone, and did not want to risk having more than I could handle in a reasonable fashion at once. I finished the field with only very minor problems on consecutive days while mowing with only one load being rained on a little.
My conclusions at this point were these: the combinations of the high gear feature, coupled with the oversize wheels which gave some extra torque, a mower with all new cutting components, and a willing, fast-walking horse, made a difficult mowing job possible and enjoyable! I believe that the high gear gives you just that margin that at times is the difference between the possible and the difficult!
Before I got to the two acre piece we had a terrific wind and rainstorm and when I went to see it I discovered that it was all lying slanted to the north west, necessitating mowing it from one direction. This increased the time it took to mow it considerably since I was always driving one way across the field without mowing. The difficulty I encountered here was that the clovers, which were several fine stemmed varieties, were especially tangled and prone to get caught on the guards and sometimes pull out of the soft ground! This piece was sloping toward the north all the way so Doc had the extra work of a long slope to overcome on every cut! As many Belgians do, he wanted to speed up when the pull is increased and within reason that was an advantage in this case, but I tried to keep him at a reasonable pace throughout. Once again I was impressed with the mower’s performance. As I sat contemplating the field while Doc rested, I really wished for my Oliver to see its performance in this circumstance. I suspect that it would have been very difficult to get through this tangle with that little machine, much as I liked using it when conditions were favorable!
I mowed this field a second time in early August, at which time the grass was about a foot tall, and the clovers were standing tall, and the ground was hard and dry. I started about nine o’clock and by eleven thirty my fast walking horse had mowed it all without a hitch.
Until early fall, from time to time, between other jobs, I trimmed pastures with that mower. Some of it was older pasture, quite smooth and with grasses and clovers in a fairly even mixture not difficult to mow. Some was an area I had cleared and was fairly rough with a mixture of vegetation from the new grasses and legumes I had seeded in early spring, to briers and bushes attempting to reclaim their places in the sward. I don’t think I ever drove back to the barn on this mower without the title of this article going through my mind! This is a good mower!