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Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PST

Center Cut Mower

Center Cut Mower

Center Cut Mower

article and photos by Ben Jahnes of Hopewell, OH

Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say, and old used things aren’t necessarily cliché. That was my epiphany when I ended my search for a center-cut horse-drawn sickle-mower.

My foray into animal-powered agriculture began with a bred heifer and a bit of sentimentality. You see, my first calf ever was a bull, and who wants to send their first calf to the butcher? The solution to this dilema was a bit of education, on both my part and the bull’s, and a yoke. I was on my way to training an ox.

With ox-power on the horizon, I began looking for tasks on the farm suitable for animal power, and one of the most attractive seemed to be mowing. I caught sight of a couple of youtube videos featuring horse powered haymowers, and I was mesmerized by the pleasing hypnotic song of the sickle-bar mower, clipping through the grass to the hoof-beat of biological power. The desire to play this song, myself, led me to purchase an old rusty John Deere mower, and Lynn Miller’s Horse-Drawn Mower book. I learned that, with some work, my new-old mower could cut grass with more elegance than any modern fossil-fuel-powered appliance.

The prospect of clipping pastures and cutting hay with the mower was satisfying, but I wondered how I might take advantage of a sickle mower in my primary crop of grapes. The problem is, my grape rows are about 9 feet apart, and the haymower is well over 10 feet wide. The Horse-Drawn Mower book hinted at the solution; the center-cut haymower, but an internet search quickly proved the obscurity of such machines, and an antique center-cut mower would be hard to find. Surely there must be existing technologies to address my situation. Hours of searching revealed a prototype center-cut mower on the opposite coast, in Oregon, or the slim possibility of adapting a motorized walk-behind mower to ground-drive. With the prospect of lots of trial and error in assembling something nearly from scratch, I decided to reexamine the past, as many of us do in our unconventional agricultural pursuits.

The John Deere and McCormick Deering mowers have served us well through the decades, and proved their durability. Is it possible to adapt this proven technology rather than tinker with untested modern stand-ins? A couple of mental models and a sketch were enough to decide it was worth a try. With a second mower to experiment with, I set off with the task of reversing the bar and guards to lay across the front path of the machine’s wheels. The following is a detailed documentation of how the conversion was completed.

Center Cut Mower

The existing mower bar was stripped bare of guards, hold-downs, wear-plates, and removed from the inner and outer shoe. When flipped over and reversed to the left direction and positioned to be re-bolted to the inner shoe one notices that the underside of the mower bar has a raised rib towards the rear edge. This rib has a corresponding groove in the inner shoe that is left empty when the the bar is flipped.

Center Cut Mower

To ensure stability of the bar when bolted on upside-down, a shim is cut from bar-stock to fill the gap.

Center Cut Mower

Extending the shim to include a false guard will multiply the cutting surface of the inner ledger, as plugging might occur with the short inner ledger plate on the John Deere.

Center Cut Mower

When the inner shoe wear-plate is placed on the bar for re-installation, one notices that the rib will not allow the wear-plate to sit flat, so a sliver must be cut off of the back side to allow it to be seated properly. A thin shim must be sandwiched over the wear-plate so that the knife-head guide will be level.

Center Cut Mower

A reversed knife must be made to operate on the reversed cutter-bar. Any knife can be converted by removing the knife-head from one side of the bar, and riveting it to the opposite side of the knife, in a backward direction. For the knife to fit in the knife head guide, about 1/2” must be removed from back side of the head using a cutoff blade.

Center Cut Mower

A thinner knife-head guide must be fabricated to allow the pitman to attach properly and reciprocate unimpeded. The bar must be re-bolted to the shoe with a smaller nut on the right stud so that that the pitman head doesn’t rub.

Center Cut Mower

With the guards and hold-downs reinstalled on the bar, a small 2” caster wheel can be bolted onto the far end of the cutter-bar where the outer shoe holes remain. The outer shoe cannot be reinstalled because the hole pattern is reversed when flipped. The cutter bar can now be pinned back on the mower yoke, and the bar’s lead can be adjusted. Lead on the center-cut mower is the opposite of that on the normal haymower. To align the knife slightly forward of the pitman, the elliptical yoke adjustment should be shifted clockwise to increase lead. With the cutter bar now under the mower, the mower pole must be supported so the mower frame does not rest on the cutter bar and bend it. With the Mower reassembled, one can mow in short grass, but long grass will be pushed forward by the timing bar and be sandwiched between the pitman and the cutter bar, causing clogs. To clear potential clogs, the pitman can be modified to rake the falling grass as it cuts.

Center Cut Mower

Tines are inserted into the bottom edge of the pitman every 3 inches along the length, and cut so that they are shorter approaching the head. With this complete, the center-cut mower will cut and windrow the grass to the left side of the machine.

The converted center-cut mower performs beautifully over even ground, operating in fairly tall grass. However, it must be noted that such a converted machine has limitations. Because of the placement of the cutter bar under the frame of the mower, there is reduced ability to raise the bar off of the ground to clear obstacles. Additionally, the caster wheel on the left side of the mower always rolls over the ground, even during transport, so attention must be paid to its path.

So what’s the point of a center-cut sickle mower… couldn’t I just use a trailing gas-powered rotary mower to mow my vineyard? For animal-power purists the center-cut horse drawn mower provides the satisfaction of mowing in tight rows with 100% animal power. People not put off by another engine to maintain might be satisfied by a trailing gas-powered rotary mower. In my application, the rotary mower won’t work because I have intentions beyond trimming grass. At Flint Ridge Vineyard we practice mow and mulch, or mow and throw mulching. This weed control practice consists of mowing grass and raking it under the grapevines to smother the undergrowth. When grass is cut with a rotary mower it is shredded so much that it is difficult to rake, and doesn’t create an even mulch. The grass cut by a sickle bar mower is long and coarse and can be raked like a hay windrow under the row of vines, effectively covering many of the weeds.

Center Cut Mower

The beauty of this center-cut mower is in the simplicity of the conversion, the minimal expense, and the adaptability of a machine that you might already own. With a little time your mower can be converted back and forth between haymower and center-cut mower, serving multiple uses. This is another situation where it isn’t necessary to reinvent the wheel, just tweak it a little.

Spotlight On: Crops & Soil

Making Sorghum Molasses

Making Sorghum Molasses

by:
from issue:

Growing sorghum doesn’t take much work, according to Buhrman. You plant it in the spring, work it a couple of times and that’s about all that’s required until late in the growing season. That is when the work begins. Before it is cut, all the stalks have to be “bladed” – the leaves removed from the stalks. It’s then cut, then the tassles are cut off, and the stalks are fed through a crusher. The crusher forces the juices out of the plant. The sorghum juice is then boiled in a vat for four to five hours until nothing is left but the syrup.

Carrots and Beets The Roots of Our Garden

Carrots & Beets – The Roots of Our Garden

by:
from issue:

Carrots and beets are some of the vegetables that are easy to kill with kindness. They’re little gluttons for space and nutrients, and must be handled with an iron fist to make them grow straight and strong. Give the buggers no slack at all! Your motto should be – “If in doubt, yank it out!” I pinch out a finger full (maybe 3/4” wide) and skip a finger width. Pinch and skip, pinch and skip, working with existing gaps and rooting out particularly thick clumps.

Purslane, Portahoopies and Plow Planted Peas

Purslane, Portahoopies and Plow Planted Peas

For those not familiar with this tasty, nutritious weed, purslane can be a real challenge to manage in vegetable crops for a number of reasons. The seeds of this weed remain viable for many years in the garden, and generally do not germinate until hot weather — that is, after many of the market garden crops have already been planted. To make matters worse, this succulent plant often reroots after cultivation. Purslane also grows so close to the ground that it is impossible to control by mowing.

Cultivating Questions Ridge-Till Revisited

Cultivating Questions: Ridge-Till Revisited

Delay ridge building until early fall so that the cover crop on the ridge does not grow more than 12” tall before winter. The residues from a short cover crop will be much less challenging to cultivate than a tall stand of oats, especially if tangly field peas are mixed in. Waiting for the winterkilled cover crop residues to breakdown as long as possible before ridge-tilling in the spring will also make cultivation much easier until you gain familiarity with the system.

Lost Apples

Lost Apples

The mindboggling agricultural plant and animal diversity, at the beginning of the twentieth century, should have been a treasure trove which mankind worked tirelessy to maintain. Such has not been the case. Alas, much has been lost, perhaps forever. Here are images and information on a handful of apple varieties from a valuable hundred year old text in our library.

Rice as a New Staple Crop for Very Cold Climates

Rice as a New Staple Crop for Very Cold Climates

by: ,
from issue:

If you were visiting Earth from some other planet and had to describe its inhabitants upon your return, you might say that the average person eats rice, and grows it as well, usually on a small scale. You’d be accurately describing the habits of over a quarter of the world’s population. Rice has a special story with an exciting chapter now unfolding in the northeast USA among a small but growing group of farmers and growers.

Fjordworks Horse Powered Potatoes Part 2

Fjordworks: Horse Powered Potatoes Part Two

These types of team implements for digging potatoes were the first big innovation in horse powered potato harvesting in the mid-19th century. Prior to the horse drawn digger the limitation on how many potatoes a farmer could plant was how many the farm crew could dig by hand. The basic design of these early diggers works so well that new models of this type of digger are once again being manufactured by contemporary horse drawn equipment suppliers.

Beautiful Grasses

What follow are a series of magnificent hundred-year old botanist’s watercolors depicting several useful grass varieties. Artworks such as this are found on the pages of Small Farmer’s Journal quite regularly and may be part of the reason that the small farm world considers this unusual magazine to be one of the world’s periodical gold standards.

Cane Grinding

Cane Grinding: An Age-Old Georgia Tradition

by:
from issue:

Most sugar cane is processed in refineries to give us molasses, brown sugar, and various kinds of white sugar. However, some South Georgia farms that raise sugar cane still process it the old way to produce the special tasting sweetener for their own food. One such farm is the Rocking R Ranch in Kibbee, Georgia. It is owned by Charles and Patricia Roberts and their sons. The process they use has not changed in the past 100 years. This is how it is done.

Seed Quality from Two Perspectives

Seed Quality from Two Perspectives

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from issue:

We are approaching this from a seed quality standpoint, not just a seed saving one. Saving seed is fairly simple to do, but the results from planting those seeds can be very mixed; without a basis of understanding of seed quality, people can be disappointed and confused as to why they got the results they did. Both the home gardener and the seed company must understand seed quality to be successful in their respective endeavors.

What We've Learned From Compost

What We’ve Learned From Compost

by:
from issue:

Our compost piles will age for at least a year before being added to the garden. We have learned that the slow aging is more beneficial to the decomposition process as well as not losing nearly as much nitrogen to off-gassing as happens with the hot and fast methods. Another benefit is the decomposition is much more thorough, destroying weed seeds, pathogens and any unwanted chemicals much better in a slower composting setup.

Barnyard Manure

Barnyard Manure

by:
from issue:

The amount of manure produced must be considered in planning a cropping system for a farm. If one wishes to manure one-fifth of the land every year with 10 tons per acre, there would have to be provided two tons per year for each acre of the farm. This would require about one cow or horse, or equivalent, for each six acres of land.

Cultivating Questions Winterkilled Cover Crops for a Mild Climate

Cultivating Questions: Winterkilled Cover Crops For A Mild Climate Part 1

Our mild climate makes it too easy to overwinter cover crops. Then the typically wet springs (and, on our farm, wet soils) let the cover put on loads of topgrowth before getting on the soil. Buckwheat is the only crop that I can be certain will winterkill. Field peas, oats, annual rye and crimson clover have all overwintered here. Any suggestions?

Cultivating Questions Winterkilled Cover Crops for a Mild Climate Part 2

Cultivating Questions: Winterkilled Cover Crops For A Mild Climate Part 2

Finding just the right cover crop-tillage combination for crops planted the last half of June has always been a real challenge in our location. While surface-tilling mature rye and vetch in May works well for fall crops established in July and August, this cover crop-tillage combo does not allow enough time for decomposition and moisture accumulation for end-of-June plantings.

Open-Pollinated Corn at Spruce Run Farm

Open-Pollinated Corn at Spruce Run Farm

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from issue:

The old way of selecting seed from open-pollinated corn involved selecting the best ears from the poorest ground. I have tried to select perfect ears based on the open-pollinated seed corn standards of the past. I learned these standards from old agricultural texts. The chosen ears of Reid’s average from 9 to 10.5 inches long and have smooth, well-formed grains in straight rows. I try to select ears with grains that extend to the end of the cob.

Small Farmer's Journal

Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT