Cultivating Questions Concerning the Bioextensive Market Garden
The EasyCut System
by Anne and Eric Nordell of Trout Run, PA
When touring Tony and Fran McQuail’s horsepowered farm outside of Lucknow, Ontario, we noticed something strikingly different about their horsedrawn mower. Every other knife section was upside-down! Following the example of their Amish neighbors, Tony had converted the sicklebar mower to the SCH EasyCut system manufactured by S.I. Distributing.
He explained that the alternating face-up/face-down sections balanced pressure on the knife, preventing it from bending or breaking. More importantly, the heavy duty enclosed guards maintain the critical scissor-like action for smooth, carefree mowing without the need for constant adjustment.
We thought the EasyCut setup must have been designed just for people like us who somehow got into farming without a mechanical background. Sharpening one pair of household scissors was beyond our ability, let alone maintaining the equivalent of twenty scissors on our five-foot McCormick-Deering.
The illustrations in Lynn Miller’s Horsedrawn Mower Book make it look so easy! Apparently we just didn’t have what it takes to straighten a bent knife or guard with a well-delivered blow from a hammer, not to mention tightening up loose rivets or snugging down the knife holders. We managed to keep the mower in working order by using self-sharpening sections and by constantly shimming the guards and hold down clips. After twenty years of this time consuming process, we decided that it would be well worth the money for the complete EasyCut kit – knife, sections, guards and spacer bars.
Slow forward to the fall of 2009. This was the eighth year of using the EasyCut system without making any adjustment or needing replacement parts. The extra wet, cool summer had produced a double growth of rank grass and birdsfoot trefoil on the unused parts of our extensively grazed horse pasture. For the first time, the mower was repeatedly plugging up in the dense mat of wet grass underneath. Yes, the EasyCut had finally met its match!
On closer observation, we noticed that the coarsely serrated knife sections were looking pretty dinged up and dull, probably due to years of abusing it in the dirt and stones of the market garden fields. That winter we invested in a second EasyCut knife to be dedicated exclusively to mowing pasture. This one was equipped with finer serrated sections better suited to mowing grass.
The mower worked flawlessly in 2010. In fact, halfway through the season, we replaced the two-horse tongue with customized Pioneer shafts and mowed almost twenty acres of cover crops and pasture with a single horse on the five-foot No. 7.
So which cutting system is better, the new or traditional? When picking up a knifehead for the new EasyCut knife at Leon Brubaker’s Customer Appreciation Days last January, I asked his opinion. Although he did not have firsthand experience with the EasyCut, his clear preference was the traditional setup using new, hardened, open double guards and super thin, finely serrated sections. He claimed that this combination sliced through thick, moist grass effortlessly. “But,” he emphasized, “you have to keep after it!” For his high-use mower, that means stripping down the cutterbar every year and starting over with new components.
Recently, we met a horsedrawn mower shop owner from New York who has used both the traditional and EasyCut cutting systems. For clipping tall, dry, stemmy weeds and grass, he was very satisfied with the EasyCut. However, it was not his first choice for mowing dense grass wet with a heavy dew because the closed design of the EasyCut guards trapped wet forage and eventually plugged up the sicklebar.
Our conclusion? The traditional mower setup with new components is probably superior for the serious horsepowered grass farmer. But for those of us who rather not “keep after it,” the EasyCut is more than adequate.
The following photo essay highlights some of the unique features of the SCH EasyCut system. It also details some of the easy – and not so easy – aspects of setting up the EasyCut on an antique mowing machine.
Setting Up the EasyCut
1. One of the reasons we were attracted to the EasyCut system was putting together the knife looked like a straight-forward nuts-and-bolts job – not a riveting experience! What we had not counted on was the need to drill two extra holes in the traditional-style (MA999) knifehead to match the holes in the EasyCut knifeback. To avoid rivets altogether, we attached the knifehead with 1” countersunk bolts (allen wrench required).
Note the alternating face-up/face-down sections on the eight-year-old knife (pictured on top) and how we reversed the pattern on the new knife (positioned below) to take advantage of fresh cutting edges on the EasyCut guards.
2. The 17mm EasyCut guards completely enclose the knife, eliminating the need for hold down clips. Likewise, the 6mm-thick spacer bars take the place of the traditional wear plates and should last our lifetime, if not longer.
Be forewarned that it is necessary to position the spacer bars with the knife in place in order to make sure that the knifeback travels freely through the guards. Viewing the spacer bars and knifeback from the underside of the cutterbar in the upright (transport) position makes it much easier to line up everything.
3. S.I. Distributing provides heavy duty, open top guards to accommodate the knifehead at the inner end of the cutterbar. However, the otherwise very helpful staff was not able to provide us with any tips on how to match the knife, riding high on the thick spacer bars, with the inner shoe of the horsedrawn mower. They assured us that we had purchased the right size EasyCut kit, determined by the thickness of the mower’s backbone, and that they had sold many of these 17mm guard packages to satisfied horse farmers.
4. To make a long story short, we finally realized we could build up the cutting surface of the inner shoe to the same plane as the elevated knife by adding a second ledger and wear plate. This minor modification also necessitated raising the knifehead guides.
Recently we noticed that Midway Repair Shop listed SCH mower parts in their price list. We wrote the owner, Dan Miller, and he confirmed that doubling up the ledger and wear plates was the best way to remedy the situation. However, he prefers to use the 12mm EasyCut guards (black instead of grey paint) in combination with the traditional style mower knife and wear plates. This hybrid adaptation is less expensive than the complete EasyCut kit and eliminates the need to build up the inner shoe. It also makes it possible to use stub guards and other traditional accessories on the cutterbar.
5. For some reason we had to shim the triple guard at the outer end of the cutterbar to line it up with the knife. The EasyCut kit with the 17mm guards also required doubling up the ledger plates on the outer shoe. Note the countersunk bolts used to attach the ledger plates, a welcomed suggestion from one of Leon Brubaker’s boys.
6. Another Brubaker suggestion: replace the old pitman grease bearing with a sealed bearing plate. This upgrade paid for itself in peace-of-mind just knowing that grease could no longer work its way out of the pitman bearing and on to the cover crops, pasture or soil. The price tag did not include the elbow grease necessary to hack saw this aftermarket part into shape to fit inside the curved mower frame.
Surviving these elementary mechanical challenges, we got up the courage to improve the register of the knife and the lead of the cutterbar. Following the step-by-step directions in The Horsedrawn Mower Book, we removed the long bolt securing the lead bar (right in photo above) and gave the half-moon flywheel shield (directly in front of the new bearing plate) a couple of turns. This simple adjustment brought the sections right in line with the guards at the end of each knife stroke. It also pulled the outer end of the cutterbar 1 ¼” ahead of the inner end, the ideal lead for our five-foot No. 7 McCormick-Deering.
Whether due to, or in spite of, our low-level mower tuneup, the No. 7 with EasyCut system passed the LRM test: we could pull the mower in gear across the smoother parts of the barn floor one-handed.
There is a test I perform with my rebuilt mowers. After all work is done, with mower on a dry level surface (i.e. driveway), I lower the cutter bar, engage the ground drive, and move to the front of the tongue. Once there, I pick up the tongue to about table height, or 30 inches, and pull the mower towards me. If it takes two hands and a bit of a tug to get it started, cutter bar moving back and forth, I deem this to be borderline acceptable. If, however, it takes a tremendous pull, or yank, to get the engaged mower moving forward, this is unacceptable. What I am looking for is the mower which I can pull, after started, with one hand, offering minimal resistance, as the cutter bar slides back and forth and we move forward. This is my standard for excellence. And it, if met, supports my contention that the well set mower is not harder to pull than a wagon.
– Lynn R. Miller, The Horsedrawn Mower Book
7 and 8. The EasyCut system doing a clean job of mowing succulent sorghum-sudangrass and a mature rye cover crop. The Coarse SCH sections (7 serrations per inch) on the old EasyCut knife work like a hedge trimmer, cutting through tough cover crops, small saplings and Multiflora Rose. We also prefer to use this knife for market garden work where running the mower in dirt and stones is unavoidable, especially along the edges of tilled soil, we reserve the new EasyCut knife with Regular SCH sections (10 serrations per inch) for mowing lush pasture.