LittleField Notes: Mower Notes
by Ryan Foxley of Arlington, WA
Dark Night of the Soul
My sensibilities have been hijacked by the mechanized world I was born to. It will take me three weeks to put up the same amount of hay that my mechanized neighbors will put up in four or five days. The weather has been near perfect; the horses sound and fit, the help reliable and good. So why this nagging sense of hurry? Why this unbidden static in my mind that makes me question the whole operation? It can only be because the option of speed exists. Pandora’s box of fossil-fuel-driven-speed has been opened and it has, like it or not, been a part of my reality for my whole life. If tractors had never been invented of course, I wouldn’t be experiencing this cognitive dissonance at all. I think all of us who aspire to a slower mode of living, surrounded as we are by modernity, must struggle at times with our choice to go slow. I know farmers who have given up entirely on horses because they simply couldn’t see to it to leave the tractor parked and hook up a team. The pressures of time weigh heavy on even the most high-minded of us and we suffer at times a sort of Dark Night of the Soul of the modern day horse farmer.
Part of what saves me, however, is that I have intentionally set up Littlefield Farm to be reliant on horses. I have no baler to fall back on, or tractor compatible tedder. The hay must be gathered loose and put in the haymow using horses. So day after day I harness up and go to the field and fuss over my crop and get the work done. When I stop to rest the horses and listen to the quiet while swallows dive and dip in front of majestic Mt. Pilchuck, my doubts melt away and I feel nothing but contentment and gratitude.
A New Routine
As I write this we are in the midst of the most gorgeous haying weather I can recall: day after day of beautiful sunshine, with only one inconsequential overnight shower to break things up. We have fallen into a new routine this year wherein I mow a couple of acres each morning while the previous couple of day’s mowing is tedded. When the dew is off, the cured land is raked with the side delivery rake. By 1:00 or 2:00 in the afternoon we are hooking onto the hay loader and getting the cured hay to the barn. We have generally been putting away two loads per day. Two loads doesn’t sound like much, but keep in mind we are a three man, four horse crew with a pair of Fjords and a pair of Suffolks. The work must be kept in balance for man and beast. In years past I have typically mowed more than our three-man crew could pick up in a day, meaning essentially that we put three or four loads in the barn one day and none or one the next. We really didn’t get any more work done in total, just bit off bigger chunks at a time. This year’s measured approach seems more suited to the endurance of the horses and humans, and fits nicely with our typical daily weather patterns as well. I do my mowing each morning when it is too damp to pick up hay and when I know the horses will appreciate the cooler conditions. Hay in our moist climate is rarely ready for pickup before noon anyway, so rather than try and push it and risk the potential for putting damp hay in the barn, now we don’t even think about picking up hay until after lunch, when it is usually plenty dry and ready for storage.
When a system relies on human and animal power the pace of operation is as important as the tools and techniques. It takes three solid weeks to put our hay up. The horses and people must be able to keep going through this long stretch of sustained effort, which requires careful consideration and distribution of work and timing of operations. A tractor and baler can work all day and all night if need be. Horses and aging gentlemen need to pace themselves if they are to be in it for the long haul.
I have added a new tool to the mix this year. I found a really nice Oliver dump rake in excellent condition that we are using to rake the “scatters,” or “scatterin’s,” as some old timers back in Wyoming called it. This is the residual hay left after the hay loader has gone through the field. Inevitably some hay sloughs off the wagon during loading, particularly at the corners. It is amazing how much hay we have been leaving in the field because we lacked an efficient way to gather it in. The one horse dump rake scoots easily over the field, gathers the scatters into one or two windrows and is quickly picked up by the hay loader before moving to the next waiting land. We will easily gain an additional three or four tons of hay this year by employing this handy tool.
The horse drawn mowing machine is a marvel of engineering. Imagine a pair of horses turning the energy of their walking into a reciprocal cutting motion able to drop acres of forage at a time without ever burning a drop of fossil fuel. And then consider that the forage being cut will fuel the horses that will in turn cut next year’s crop. What a beautiful concept!
Since I’ve been mowing some everyday I’ve had lots of time to think about the workings of these marvelous machines. Keeping in mind that you’ll find lots of differing opinions about the care and feeding of mowers, here are few notes about the intricacies of these machines that have worked for me over the years.
I like under-serrated knife sections. They hold a good edge and can easily be sharpened with a hand held grinder. Sharpen frequently but don’t be too aggressive. Carefully watch the edge and grind just enough to take the burr off the ends of the serrations to restore a good sharp edge. Keep the original angle as much as possible. Once the serrated points on a section are worn away and you are into solid steel you will never be able to restore the original cutting edge. It is time to replace it with a new section. While you’re at it do yourself a favor and switch from rivets to bolts. They will be readily available at your local tractor store. With a 7/16” socket you can change a bolted section in about 45 seconds and you won’t have to subject your vise to all that pounding in order to remove rivets. In the big scheme of things knife sections are cheap; don’t be shy about replacing them. If you maintain very stringent standards for their replacement, your mower will cut cleaner, you’ll have less plugging and your horses will appreciate the lighter draft.
In order to daily maintain your knife you will need to be able to quickly and easily remove and replace the knife from the cutter bar. Keep a flat screwdriver in the mower toolbox for this purpose. When replacing the knife I always spray the guards and knife on both sides with a liberal coat of WD-40. The knife should slide right in. If it doesn’t you have a problem somewhere, which should be found before going back out to mow. Do not just get a bigger hammer and force the knife into the cutter bar, though I know this may be tempting at times.
You’ll be ready for most any field breakdown if you stock these items in your mower toolbox: two crescent wrenches, a ball peen hammer with the handle cut short, a flat screw driver and a pair of pliers.
Cutter Bar Rod
This is the rod that holds the cutter bar in a vertical position when the mower is traveling to and from the field. Don’t ever trust the cutter bar rod to stay secure in its little bracket on the tongue when mowing. Inevitably it will pop loose and you won’t notice until it is wrapped up under the mower. Instead of a nice straight rod it will now resemble a C, which you will have to hammer straight again back at the shop. I simply carry a little piece of rope in the tool box and tie the rod securely to the tongue, always being careful to run the rope through the draft bracket (where the double-tree attaches) so the rope won’t slide up on the tongue and render itself useless.
Especially in an extra heavy grass crop like I have to contend with, a little extra care is needed to avoid breaking this important part of the mower. The grass board folds the outside edge of the swath in, leaving a nice clean line to follow on subsequent rounds. This clear stubble strip keeps the inner shoe area of the cutter bar from plugging on previously mown grass. For the most part the grass board just follows along and doesn’t require much thought or attention. That is until you come to a corner. When swinging the horses over in a heavy crop with thick stubble the grass board can easily get wedged in the stubble and as the mower either backs or swings over the board stays in place and in a wink of an eye it will break and send you back to the shop — not the place you want to be when you have a crop ripe for harvesting.
At the corners I pump the foot lift mechanism up and down as I swing the horses over which helps prevent the grass board from sticking too long in any one place. (* See Ryan’s “up and down” motion in Andrew Plotsky’s film of Ryan haying.) If you provide a little up and down motion the spring on the board will kick it out to its normal position. Incidentally, I much prefer the old style wood grass board/grass stick to the newer all steel grass “boards” now available. It is not hard to fashion your own replacement wooden ones re-using old hardware. Just this morning I had to replace a broken grass stick and I used the good end of an old broken shovel handle.
Tilting Lever and Angle of Cut
I found after first arriving in Washington, that I had to stop frequently to remove clogs in the cutter bar caused by field mouse houses getting lodged on the guards. The extremely thick carpet like conditions at the ground level of my grass hay fields didn’t do me any favors either. I had about decided to trade in my mower for a scythe in order to mow the field more quickly when it occurred to me to use the tilting lever to position the cutter bar in its most angled position relative to the ground. In other words, running with the tilting lever positioned in its most forward position. I worried that at this extreme setting the mower would not function as well. Despite my fears, I have found no problems associated with operating full time with this extreme tilt. This simple step has dramatically reduced the number of clogs needing to be removed and hence greatly increased the efficiency of my mowing.
McCormick vs. John Deere
By far the most common of the old ground drive mowers still in use is the McCormick-Deering #9 with plenty of #7’s in operation as well. The one other mower commonly used is the John Deere Big 4. These mowers are very similar in most respects, the most important being that they run “in an oil bath, like an automobile.” Earlier models had open gearing. One can easily see why the enclosed gearbox style rose in favor so quickly and completely.
The only downside of the #7 is that the gearbox is set a bit more forward on the axle than the #9. The concern here is extra tongue weight, but in all the years I used a #7 I have never had any undo trouble related to the extra weight. Hundreds of thousands of acres were mowed with these machines in the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s and they will still provide good service today.
I’m often asked which model I prefer. Until now I always offered wishy-washy noncommittal answers, saying I’ve used them all and they are all fine machines. True enough, but now I’m finally going to come forth with an announcement. I have decided, after many years of mowing, I actually do prefer the John Deere.
The #9 and John Deere Big 4 represent the pinnacle of horse drawn technology at the dawn of the tractor era. Both are excellent with similar basic mechanisms. So in order to decide on my preference for the Deere I had to look to some of the details. For example, I prefer the way the lift mechanism functions on the John Deere. Maybe it is due to my smaller stature, but I have found it is decidedly easier to manipulate than the McCormick. The #9 has a clever eccentric on the hand lift lever to change the horizontal position of the cutter bar, but a fair amount of force and downward pressure must be exerted to lift it. On the John Deere you simply push down with the foot lever and pull the hand lever back a notch and you are in position to remove a clog. When you are ready to cut again, push the foot lever down and throw the lifting lever forward and away you go. I also prefer the clutch lever design on the John Deere. With the #9 you have to reach down with your hand to put it in gear, or sort of awkwardly do it with your foot, while the #4 goes easily in and out of gear with the foot alone.
I realize these are fairly minor things, but details such as these taken over the course of a season do add up to enhance or detract from the overall experience. Again, I realize I’m going out on a limb here even offering these opinions because people have such fierce allegiances to certain brands and models. In the end you just have to find what model works for you (as well as what models are available to you in your area) and embrace it.
A mower is a must-have tool for every farm. Even if you are not making hay, then you will want one for clipping pastures, mowing cover crops, roadsides, headlands and crop perimeters. Your farm will be well served by finding a good mower and keeping it well maintained.