Most of the fabled romance of cowboying comes from the trail drive days right after the civil war. Cattle in Texas had been multiplying while the boys were off doing battle, and demand had grown for beef. So a number of enterprising fellows had gathered up wild cattle from Texas, trailed them north to Montana, and fattened them on the short, hard grass that grows there.
But the hard winter of 1887 put an end to wintering cattle on the open range. Thousands of cattle died in Montana that winter, as Charlie Russell characterized in his painting “Last of the 5,000”. Ranchers began to cut hay to provide for their cattle when the snow got too deep.
Cowboys still had plenty of work then – before there were fences – and didn’t have to stoop to the menial labor of putting up hay. But times have changed. Most ranch hands of today spend far more time haying then they do cowboying – and I, unfortunately, am one of them. And while mechanization has displaced the sheer hard work of haying, fixing equipment has displaced the joy of driving a good team of horses.
This week I’ve had far more than my share of fixing equipment.
My son Ted had begun cutting hay Friday a week ago. We’d had a few rain showers, and the hay was ready to bale on Monday afternoon. I made only 600 bales before things went to hell.
A pin fell out of one of the knotters. The cast iron “needle” - that brings the twine up around the end of the bale – hit the knotter, breaking the needle, bending the wiper arm and the twine disc – and, of course, stopping the baler from making bales.
Being 60 miles from the nearest dealer, I have a stash of spare parts. But in spite of several new parts – and my expertise as a baler mechanic – the rig still wouldn’t tie knots consistently. I spent most of the rest of the day making adjustments to the knotter and trying again. About the time I had everything back together we got an afternoon thundershower, and I was out of business until the sun dried things out.
The next morning the hay was wet and it was time to move the cows, but two of my horses needed shoeing (as I chronicled in my blog yesterday). By the time I got the horses shod and the cows moved, the hay had dried and I was ready to go back to baling. I quickly discovered, however, that the new parts hadn’t solved the problem, and spent the rest of the afternoon making adjustments and trying again. Maybe the problem was the generic twine I had bought.
So I made a call to the local implement dealer to set out some name-brand twine for me, took a shower, and headed to town to have supper – with margaritas – with three of my adult progeny and my brother who was passing through for a visit.
The next day I put in the new twine and tried to bale, with much the same results as the day before. Ted and I made adjustments and tried again until I finally gave up in frustration and called the local implement dealer. They would send someone out ASAP – which turned out to be mid-afternoon the next day.
In the meantime, all the hay that Ted had cut was laying out in the sun getting drier and drier as the nutrients bleached away.
Wednesday afternoon a mechanic showed up. I’d already spent hours on Tuesday doing everything I knew how to do to that baler, and still hadn’t made 50 good bales. Even with the new twine, the afternoon was a repeat: the mechanic spent hours doing everything he knew how to do, yet by suppertime we still hadn’t made a good bale
Lying in bed at 5:30 on Thursday morning I had a flash of inspiration: if the twine discs were bent it would account for the inconsistent knotting we’d encountered for the last two days. I made a run the 60 miles to the dealer and bought all the parts I thought I’d need. It was mid afternoon by the time I had made the round trip and had all the new parts installed. I fired up the baler and started down the windrow – and it baled! Three days later and countless hours of frustrating work, it baled! For a while....
I’d only made some 25 bales when it went to missing knots again. And again I went through a whole list of remedies that just didn’t work. It was almost quitting time – for town folk – when I called the implement dealer again: he would send someone out first thing in the morning.
Now it was Friday. The hay had been lying out for a full week, and the baler still wasn’t working. A new mechanic arrived soon after 8:00 in the morning.
As I had already done on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, we worked for hours making one adjustment after the other with much the same results. It was almost noon when the mechanic decided to bend the wiper arm to give it a longer stroke. Two of us pulled on a prybar until we felt it give.
It worked! We baled for awhile, fine-tuning some of the other adjustments, and the mechanic left satisfied shortly after 12:00.
After a quick lunch I headed out and made another 500 bales. The hay was drier than I would have liked, but I was making good, tight bales – and after four days I was baling! .... Until the tine bar blew apart.
It was 4:00 when I came in the house and got on-line to look up the parts I would need to fix the new problem. Luckily, my older son Ben was headed out to the ranch from yet this afternoon and could bring the parts with him.
But the dealer in Belgrade didn’t have what I needed.
Neither did the dealer in Billings – 110 miles away.
Billings referred me to the dealer in Lewistown – who had one of the parts in stock – he would put it in the mail yet tonight. And Great Falls had another of the parts I needed – and they would mail it tonight also.
So here I sit: hay waiting to be baled and parts in two different directions more than 100 miles away. The parts won’t be cheap, but the price doesn’t begin to cover the service from the dealers who have been so helpful in finding those parts and in running them to the post office to get them on their way.
It is terribly frustrating to have wasted five days mechanicing rather than five days getting the haying done, but it is times like this when a guy really appreciates the rest of the people in his community: the dealer who sends out a mechanic, the mechanic who works in the dust, grease and hot sun to get the equipment working, the parts-men who are quick to locate what is needed and to get it delivered, and family willing to run in whatever direction to bring parts out to the ranch.
Maybe there IS some romance in this lifestyle...