by William Castle of Shropshire, UK
When making hay with a single horse, turning and tedding the hay as described in part one of this series were definitely the easy part. Mowing presented me with a greater challenge, but with suitable equipment hard to find and little spare money, in the beginning I was happy to enjoy doing what I could do with the horse and not worry too much about the things I was unable to do. But as each year passed, my desire to mow with my horse increased, not only because the horse would get more work, but also so I had more control of the process. Of the stages in the hay making process I always think that cutting the hay is the least important thing to be able to do yourself, because unlike baling or turning, if you can’t get it cut one day the grass is not going to deteriorate if left, though being able to choose when to cut does give a better chance of making the most of the weather. My other reason for wanting to mow was that even the smaller contractors around here have now switched to mowers of 10 foot or more in width, which my horse drawn turner or tedder would be unable to tackle satisfactorily.
In my search for a solution to mowing with a single horse I had a number of options. The first was to find an old single horse mower, which were probably more common in Britain than America, but even though I have seen quite a few, only once in the last twenty years have I seen a usable example for sale, and even then, if just one part broke the chances of getting a replacement would be minimal. A further complication is that the single horse mowers cut a swath of three foot or three foot six, which would not match the working widths of my turner or tedder.
The second option was to find an old two-horse mower, but with any British made mower the parts problem is the same as with the single horse machines. Keeping other less complicated machinery working showed me how difficult it is to be reliant on old parts, but with a mower this would be more critical. To give myself a chance of being able to mow with a single horse I needed a mower in tip top condition, so because of the lack of parts, I ruled out using a British mower. The parts situation for some American made mowers, however, is completely different, and although any parts would need to be imported from America, that was still a possibility.
Another option was to use a mower with a more modern cutter bar. At the time I was looking, the new I and J mower with double reciprocating knives was not available, but I did know about the older Busatis cutter bars, which also have two reciprocating knives, but unlike the cutter bar on the I and J, the sections on both top and bottom knives have the same spacing. This cutter bar was what the late Charlie Pinney used with his hitch carts, and although I only ever saw pictures of Charlie’s mower, I have seen a Busatis cutter bar on a homemade horse drawn mower when I visited Joe Godderidge, a horse farmer from Norfolk.
On Joe’s machine the Busatis cutter bar is mounted in the middle of the two axle mower, using the axles from an old dumper truck. The powered axle is at the back, and via the dumper’s gearbox, turns a shaft running forward to the pto connection for the belt drive to the cutter bar. The front wheels, which were originally the steered rear wheels of the dumper, have the Ackerman steering connected to the pole between the horses, the front axle eliminating any side draught on the horses. The 6 foot cutter bar is lifted by a battery powered hydraulic pump. With this mower Joe can cut two acres an hour, but he does use three horses, which is just fine for him; but it was not really a model for me and my single horse, because even if I built the whole thing proportionally lighter, it would cut a very narrow swath. A mower using the same cutter bar, but driven with a small engine would have been another possibility, but although I am happy enough cutting and welding, I did not fancy the precision metalwork necessary to build such a machine, or the cost of an engine for an experimental mower.
The last option was to buy a motorized forecart to use with a tractor mower, but the expense would be considerable, and although in theory I have nothing against using engines with horses it was not something I wanted to do if I could avoid it.
Weighing up the options, in the end I decided on an old American two horse mower. For the availability of parts, the choice was between John Deere and McCormick Deering, but John Deere mowers were never imported into Britain as far as I know, so that only left McCormick Deering, who exported horse drawn mowers until the Second World War. From 1939 the trade switched to tractors and machines to go with them, so the No. 9 mowers, which started rolling off the production line that same year, probably never made it across the Atlantic. This left me with just the No. 7, which do turn up from time to time, and in due course the friend who found me the side delivery rake sold me his mower which he had bought a few years earlier, but he had only used it occasionally as a topper behind a tractor.
My original intention with this mower was to completely rebuild it, to put it in the best possible working condition to use it with my horse. Although I was still unsure whether this would be too much for her, at least I did not pay very much for the mower, and if necessary I could always make the cutter bar shorter, or even disengage the clutch mechanism and mount a small petrol [gasoline] engine to run a belt to the pitman wheel. Once the mower was back at home I cleaned everything up so I could see what work needed doing. The frame, wheels and gearbox looked OK, but the cutter bar really needed rebuilding with new guards, wear plates etc. In addition there were also a number of other missing or worn parts, including the draft bracket which had been discarded, suggesting the mower may have had a hard existence being dragged behind a tractor. Although these problems weren’t insurmountable, when I inquired about the cost of two new knives, a complete set of guards, ledger plates, grassboard, pitman, oil seals, seat, draft bracket and all the other odds and ends, it added up to not much less than the cost of a reconditioned mower, which would probably be a better mower than my first attempt at restoring a less than ideal candidate. So the mower rebuild was put on hold while I reviewed my options, the new option being to import a reconditioned mower from America.
Once this idea was in my head, it offered some new possibilities. I would no longer be confined to having a No. 7, and the No. 9 perhaps had some advantages. From reading the Small Farmers Journal, I knew that some people are equally happy with either model, but because McCormick Deering had gone to the trouble of developing the No. 9, it suggests they could see that there were improvements to be made on the No. 7. Even if the improvement was small, with a single horse any improvement was likely to increase my chance of success. It also seemed to make sense that the two stage gearbox of the No. 9 would use less power than the three stage gearbox of the No. 7, and the gearbox being behind the axle would also help in reducing the weight on the horse.
Another advantage in getting a reconditioned mower was that I could specify inflatable rubber tyres rather than cast wheels, which should also reduce the draught. Although some people prefer solid wheels over inflatable tyres, the two comparative tests I have seen, one made with a two wheeled tip cart [dump cart] by Reading University in 1937 [*1], the other by Tillers International in 2001, both showed a reduction in draught when using inflatable rubber tyres. Depending on the surface the wheels are running on, the difference varies, but on hay sod the Tillers study [*2] showed that rubber tyres reduce the draught of a wheeled vehicle by 45%. Obviously with a mower, there is more happening than just pulling it along out of gear as if it were a cart, but Tillers also did draught tests on McD No. 7 mowers. [*3] With a 5 ft cutter bar the rolling resistance [the amount of force needed to pull the mower when out of gear] was 94 lb, the mechanical resistance [the force needed to make the whole machine work] was 74 lb, and the force used in cutting the crop was 152 lb, making a total of 320 lb.
So with my mower, if by using rubber tyres I was able to reduce the rolling resistance by 45%, from 94 lb to 52 lb, and with a 4’ 6” cutter bar reduce the mechanical resistance to 67 lb [the figures suggest this is largely proportional to the cutter bar length] and the resistance in cutting the crop to 139 lb, that would theoretically reduce the total force required to 258 lb. That would mean that compared with a normal draught of about 65 lb of force per foot of cutter bar, my mower would be using under 58 lb. Another way of looking is the use of rubber tyres would have a similar effect to cutting six inches off the end of the cutter bar. Of course, this was all theoretical; my as-new No. 9 might work better than Tillers’ No. 7, or conversely, I might not adjust it as well as they did, or my crops might be harder to cut. Still on balance, the extra cost to have rubber tyres seemed well worth the possible improvement in draught.
Despite the advantages of a reconditioned mower, ordering it from the States was still a shot in the dark, because I wasn’t about to jump on a plane across the Atlantic to compare different shops. So after corresponding with a couple of firms, I placed an order for a No. 9, with inflatable tyres, three topless guards, and for the ease of shipping, a very short tongue. Nearly a year later, unfortunately just after hay time was over, the mower duly arrived, resplendent with new paint, parts and possibilities. Nicely painted in red, yellow and blue, this was the first time I had ever had an as-new implement, but my excitement was tempered by the very substantial packing case, which took a good couple of hours to dismantle, and despite the case, a new crack in the lifting lever sector. This was not the end of the world, as I had a year to get a replacement before hay time would come around again, and it gave me time to familiarize myself with the mower and get it ready for work. Although getting an as-new mower theoretically meant it would be ready to go, and would save me time in not having to rebuild an old mower, it actually took quite a while to get it going. The first task was to remove the paint from the wearing surfaces of the cutter bar and to adjust the wear plates and clips so the knife ran freely, but it was a job I needed to learn in order to keep the mower running. The other job I had not expected to do was cleaning the gearbox, which from the colour of the oil was not a job included in the restoration. My concern that this had not been done was allayed when I drained the oil and cleaned the gearbox with diesel and a tooth brush, which showed the gears to be in good condition. The removal of the gearbox lid also caused the gasket to fall apart, and since finding a suitable piece of gasket material at that time proved impossible, I had to grudgingly make do with some proprietary gasket gunk out of a tube, which almost does the job. I have since found some proper rubberized cork, and before next summer I shall make a proper gasket.
The other job was to rig up a pair of shafts on the mower, either fixed directly onto a stub pole, or in front of a tongue truck or dolly wheel. Both methods offered some advantages and disadvantages. Originally these mowers were designed without a wheel, the weight of the pole being carried by the neck yoke, and thence to the horses’ necks. Although this weight can be minimized by having the neck yoke high enough, lowering the point where the doubletree attaches to the mower [*4], and by the teamster eating more food than is good for him, having a dolly wheel or tongue truck means the horses’ necks are carrying only the weight of the front of the pole. The downside of the tongue truck is that the horses can move sideways independently of the mower, so could end up on top of the cutter bar, and the extra wheel[s] causes extra draught. If the combined weight of the wheel itself, the bracket, half the weight of the pole, and most of the weight of the cutter bar amounted to 150 lbs, even with a rubber wheel, this could equate to about another 9.5 lbs in draught. For a pair of horses, this may be a price worth paying, but for a single horse I would do well to save this extra load. The alternative was to put the weight onto the shafts and hence onto the horse. Although this was going to be less than the actual weight of the cutter bar etc, [using the same leverage theory as a wheelbarrow], it nonetheless was weight on the horse. However, unlike when using a pair of horses when the weight is on their necks, using shafts meant this weight would be carried on the horse’s back. In my case, the cart saddle of the British harness would be ideal, having two pads 13″ by 7″, which are designed for carrying the weight of a two wheeled tip cart. [*5]
Having decided on fixing the shafts to the stub pole, the next decision was where to fix them, either in line with the stub pole or offset to the side. The original position of the pole on the mower, it seemed to me, was mostly determined by the need to have the offside horse between the standing grass and the pole, rather than at the centre of draught, which I imagined would be nearer the grass, probably somewhere in line with the offside wheel. This suspicion was suggested by the shaft position on the single horse mowers, where even with a shorter cutter bar [and therefore less side draught], the horse still walked near the standing grass. In practice, the position of the pole bracket limited any lateral adjustment that could easily be made, so I built an additional bracket so the draught bracket is mounted immediately to the side of the stub pole. This moves the draught point 4 inches towards the grass, and also makes the draught rod more parallel to the direction of travel. With the mower in use, the shafts remain central on the horse and do not rub either side, suggesting that the line of draught is pretty good. The final addition was a wooden support to hold the shafts up when not in use, so I do not have to lift the shafts when hitching up, a difficult enough job with a pole, but nigh impossible with shafts.
With these jobs completed, the mower was ready to go. Even with a horse that is used to a variety of sounds and sensations, if possible I still like to break down the introduction of anything new into smaller parts, so whilst the mower was up on axle stands and I had Molly in the vicinity, I took the opportunity to turn the wheels so she could hear and see the sickle bar move, and hear the clicking of the ratchets in the wheels. As I expected, she moved her ears sideways, backwards, and then back to normal in the time it has taken you to read this sentence. Even so, the first time I put the mower in gear on a grazed piece of ground with a field of hay in front of me, she stopped after two steps. This is a reaction I don’t mind, and since I trained her on her own without an older horse [not a preference] I actually encouraged this response. If something really is wrong, being stationery is the right time to sort it out, and it is certainly preferable to the alternative. So I quickly said ‘whoa’ and relaxed into staying still for a moment or two. Then with an upbeat, ‘go on, me lass,’ followed after one step by a more commanding but encouraging, ‘go on,’ so that she was sure I really did want this vibrating annoyance to continue, we went and cut some hay.
The amount of hay we cut, however, was tiny, as after about ten yards the mower jammed. Putting it out of gear, I used the stick I always carry with me and cleared the grass from the cutter bar, got back on the seat, put it in gear and set off again, but after another few yards it jammed again. Backing up a step probably cleared it, but I can’t remember, because we must have had a jam ten times in the first hundred yards. With all this enforced stops which jarred the horse, then backing the machine, putting it in and out of gear and getting on and off, I started to wonder whether I was ever going to get the hay cut. But as we continued mowing, the remaining traces of paint on the underside of the guards were perhaps wearing smooth, perhaps the grass towards the field was less matted, and I was probably gaining in competence and confidence as the minutes past, so the job became easier. I learned to encourage Molly and push her on when I got to a spot where the grass was thicker, so the stops became fewer. But we still had to stop two or three times every round of the field. With two horses and their greater reserves of power to push through the hard bits, I expect some of these stops would have not happened, but cutting hay the first year was definitely hard work.
With that year’s hay making done, I decided to try and improve the mower’s performance. As I mentioned earlier, the three inside guards on my mower were topless guards. The usual reason for using topless guards is to avoid the need for a grassboard. This leaves the hay lying at the full width of the cutter bar, so the sun shines on the widest possible surface area of hay, but if on the next round some of the cut hay gets in the cutter bar, the topless guards chomp through it rather than jamming the machine. My reason was slightly different, as I do use a grass board, but if I wanted to reduce the power required a little by driving slightly away from the grass I could cut 6 inches less, and if I did drive a little inaccurately and cut into the swath, the knife still wouldn’t jam. But on my many stops to clear the cutter bar that first year, I noticed that the knife never jammed where the topless guards were, and unlike on the conventional points where a mouse nest or other mess of hay got stuck between the points preventing the standing grass from reaching the knife, the topless guards were always clear. So why not put topless guards along the whole length of the cutter bar? Then the modified bar would have a similar scissor action to Joe Godderidge’s Busatis, except only one knife would be moving rather than two. I had never come across any mention of anyone doing this before, but it seemed worth a try, so I ordered a complete set of topless guards. This makes the mower look a little different, but the first outing proved the value of the change. Forced stops are now extremely rare. It still does happen occasionally in matted grass, if I hit a mole hill, or if grass builds at the far end of the cutter bar, but backing up a step with the bar up, then starting again with the knife down is nearly always sufficient to clear the knife, so I rarely have to get off the mower. In the beginning I did wonder whether the mower pulled a little harder, but perhaps I was looking for problems. Anyway, even if it is a little harder, being forced to stop two or three times each round is surely more jarring and tiring than voluntarily stopping once every round and having a quiet rest, which is what I now do, at least on the outsides of a field.
Mowing is now a much more pleasant job, though it is still hard work for the horse. Like most horse work, it is the little details which added together make the difference between a problematic job and a pleasurable job, but with a single horse those little things can mean the difference between success and not being able to do a job at all. So like Alan and Shirley Slavick [*6] who described their evening and morning technique when using a single horse, when mowing, I will often cut a few times around the outside of a field in the evening, so the horse has a rest and time to feed before cutting the rest the following morning. Even if there is a threat of some rain overnight, as long as the forecast gives a good spell of weather to follow I will still cut some the night before, because by the time the rest of the hay is cut, the bit that may have been rained on is as dry as the hay in the centre of the field. I also like to keep the mole numbers down and do a good job of chain harrowing in the spring, to spread any mole hills and find any other obstructions, which all helps when it comes to mowing. During mowing I am also very careful with Molly’s shoulders and often wash them with salty water after this hot and heavy job, and in the otherwise not very busy time before haymaking I try to have some firewood or manure to move with the sledge to help keep up her level of fitness.
Looking back over the last few years of mowing, I sometimes wonder what mower I would choose if I was starting again now. Having seen the very impressive I and J ground drive forecart and mower at work at last year’s Horse Progress Days, I wonder if it would work with a single horse if the knife was 4’ 6” instead of 7 foot. The extra weight of this unit compared with the No. 9 would be a disadvantage, but the inherently more efficient cutter bar with its staggered sections to minimise the torque, and the knives working in opposition to each other which eliminate the vibration would probably outweigh the disadvantages. Alternatively perhaps the No. 9 could be modified by replacing the pitman with a belt pulley drive, and use an ESM Busatis cutter bar with the double reciprocating knives? What the answer is, I don’t know, but I look forward to finding out. In the meantime, it’s back to the number nine.
[*1] Years of Change – Mike Soper
[*2] Rural Heritage magazine, Holiday 2001
[*3] Rural Heritage, Spring 2002 issue
[*4] The Horsedrawn Mower book, Lynn Miller
[*5] The Tip Cart – William Castle. SFJ Winter 2000
[*6] Farming with the single horse, SFJ, Spring 90 and Winter 92