Monday, August 29, 2011

Barn Wall

            A section of the horsebarn wall collapsed in the deluge of this spring.

            We had already poured a new footing under the adjoining section of wall, and had just finished roofing the barn a year ago, so it was pretty discouraging to find such a daunting task ahead of us.
            This barn had been built in 1918 by Kathi’s grandfather William Elges, who had filed the original homestead in 1896.  Over the years it had fallen into disrepair.  Kathi’s father had rebuilt the corner on the far right in the early 1970s.   

My son and I had been able to salvage the next section of wall by using a line of screw-jacks, then pouring concrete for permanent support.

But this new cave-in would require re-laying all the rocks.  The task overwhelmed me, and I called in my cousin with his team of experts.  They poured a new footer, then laid up the stone to form a new wall.

The result was a beautiful piece of masonry that I appreciate as artwork suitable for a mansion.  That section of barn is now far stronger than any other part.

While the masonry crew was working on the barn, Ted and I were busy with a myriad of other tasks on the ranch: replacing a sprocket and the skid plates on the swather; replacing the clutch in the balewagon; spraying knapweed plants that had been missed on the last pass; discing and leveling the hayfield below the house; rebuilding an air valve on the dump truck; gathering up electric fence from summer grazing; loading out several old combines for sale as scrap metal.

No matter how long and hard we work, there is no end to the tasks that continue to line up before us to be accomplished.  But with the electrical line reconnected, a new roof, and a foundation along the front completed, several years of preoccupation with the barn can come to an end.  We can at last turn our attention to other projects.  Which one will move to the top of our priority list now?

Thursday, August 18, 2011


            The soil on the West Boulder is rich and deep – around the rocks.  It is rather silty, however, and gets pretty soft when it is wet.  I do my best to maintain a good sod cover to hold it in place, but it is subject to erosion in areas of high travel.
            The road from the barn down past the house has been reinforced with gravel, but a hundred years of use had taken their toll.  The level of the road was nearly a foot below the surrounding fields, and made a natural pathway for any runoff – and the runoff from our May deluge was an extreme event, leaving a gully where the road had been.
            All summer we have been detouring around the washouts, crossing in a few places where we had hauled in fill.  With a rented excavator and our newly-acquired dump truck we have been earnestly moving dirt from a couple of knobs that were in our way to fill the ruts in the road.

            The work has been going reasonably well, and we are encouraged at our progress.  There have been only a couple of minor set-backs: one blown tire and a bogged-down dumptruck – three times.
            The most expeditious way to fill the road is to straddle the rut and spread the load of fill while driving along.  But the truck is big, the ruts are uneven, and the steep sides of the washouts are unstable.

            We were able to extricate the truck without damage each time - with the help of the backhoe, and the road base built is now back up to grade.  There is plenty more work to be done in leveling the road and then topping it with gravel hauled out from town, but at least now we don’t have to worry any longer about loosing an animal or a vehicle in a pothole.  The next project is to extricate all the sediment that was deposited in the upper pond.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Miracle of Hydraulics

One of the casualties of The Great Deluge of May 2011  - - was a section of the foundation of the old horsebarn.

The barn was built in 1918, and the walls are 18” thick.  Ted and I had already repaired part of the wall, jacking it up and pouring concrete to support it.  We had started working on this next section last fall, and were stopped by rain and snow.
The extreme precipitation of this spring softened the ground under our jacks, and the wall caved in.  We finally got time to work on it now in August.  The first step was to dig the rocks out and pile them out of the way, then push the concrete rubble out away and dig out the trench to pour a new footer.
As we worked, I thought about the process of building this barn ninety years ago.  The stones were all picked by hand and pulled by horses to the site on a stoneboat.  The concrete was likely shipped in to Big Timber by rail, then hauled out in a wagon.  Everything was done by sheer muscle-power.
We enjoyed the benefit of a tractor and front end loader.  We could roll the stones in until we had a load, then simply put the tractor in gear, drive it to where we would pile them, and move a lever to dump the load.  We could likewise scoop up the remaining ruble and place it where it will be a help rather than a hindrance.
Soon after we got the wall cleaned up, a truck arrived with an excavator to dig up material we will need to fill in the huge ruts left in the road by that same spring storm. 
In the old days they used a fresno to move dirt.  This implement resembles a wheelbarrow without the wheel.  Pulled by a team of horses, the driver walks behind, raising the handles to dig the leading edge into the dirt, lowering the handles to let the load drag along, then lifting the handles up and over to tip the load where it is needed. 
The dirt must first be loosened with another team and plow.  It took a lot of muscle-power on the part of both man and beast.  Hauling for any distance would have required an overpass structure to get the team and fresno up over a wagon to dump.
This excavator, however, takes almost no physical effort.  The operator sits in a comfortable seat in an air-conditioned cab.   Both hands and feet are on hydraulic controls that respond quickly and easily to the lightest of touch.  It picks up tons of material in minutes and drops it into the truck, which hauls more in one load than a team could move in a day, and tips the box up at the touch of a lever to leave the material in a pile or spread it wherever it is needed.
Ted’s demeanor at the controls of that excavator is the same as his demeanor atop a horse.  He is totally relaxed, yet both the horse and the machine are equally responsive to his every movement, reading his intentions and magnifying them to accomplish the task – the machine vastly increasing the power of his arms, and the horse giving him speed and agility he could never accomplish afoot.
William Elges, who homesteaded this ranch in 1896, could never have imagined a time when every ranch would have hydraulically-operated equipment to cut, bale, stack, and feed the hay, to dig, and to haul, and to lift – but I’ll bet he would have been quick to use it!
The casualty of this move toward mechanization, however, is millions of jobs in agriculture.  Rather than a huge workforce of unskilled labor, ranching now requires many fewer workers, but with much higher skill levels.  And it is much harder for a person with no experience to find a job on a ranch.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

More Weeds

The first cutting of hay is in the stack and now we can look around to see what else needs to be done.  The first thing I see is more weeds.
Every crop has its season: each matures at a different time.  In August I look around and see blooms on the Russian Knapweed.
Knapweed is an invasive species that was introduced from Europe in the early 1900s.  It is not palatable, and seems to be one of those plants that secrete toxins which inhibit the growth of other plants.  Many thousand (millions?) of acres of land in western Montana have already been infested by knapweed.
So I do my best to control it, and the best I know is to spot-spray each plant with a selective herbicide that kills only broad-leaf plants and does not affect the grasses, administered from a back-pack sprayer that holds four gallons of solution.
The first seeds of a new infestation are brought in by the wind and by wildlife.  When that first plant grows up and matures, it spreads dozens of new seeds.  If that plant goes un-noticed and un-controlled, it can spread hundreds – and even thousands – of new seeds.
We are always on the look-out for these invasive weeds, and usually respond quickly to any new sighting.  Every year we return to the areas of previous infestations to catch anything we missed the previous season.  But the seeds from that first plant may take several years to sprout.  And a year or two can go by without us noticing the newest infestation.
Knapweed is insidious in its early stages.  It is a rather spindly plant that can be hard to spot before it blooms.  And the early stages of the plant are hard to pick out among the grasses.  So a person is often surprised to find a new infestation. 
But once it gets ahold, it is tough to annihilate.  A guy can spray every weed he sees, but he always misses a few plants.  And whatever seeds were missed in the first years may lay dormant in the soil until after a guy lets down his guard and forgets to check back.
So I spent two full days this week carrying forty pounds of solution on my back and walking carefully through several areas where I seen knapweed.  Dye added to the solution makes it easier to see which weeds have been sprayed, and a four-wheeler makes it easier to get through the pastures searching for the weeds.  It’s a lot of work and expense that yields no positive result – but the alternative is to let the weeds grow and eventually have them crowd out the grasses – leaving us with no forage for the cows.  What’s a guy gonna do?

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Hayin's Done!

            Finished baling yesterday and finished stacking today.  Finished irrigating as well.  That means that we have no more work that must be done yesterday  until the feeding starts coming winter.

            That doesn’t mean that that we can relax and enjoy it, however.  With the hay off I can now see the field bindweed that is still spreading in the hayfield around the grade.  The house and deck still need a coating of stain.  We have barely begun to fill the ruts in the road left by our May deluge, and the section of collapsed barn foundation must be repaired.  The field below the house needs to be disced, and we need to spray and plow that 20 acres up west.  We haven’t even begun on the five miles of fence that needs to be rebuilt every year just to keep up.
            We need to get the hay equipment back into shape while we still  remember what needs to be repaired: the ignition switch and clutch on the balewagon, the sprocket on the swather, the gas gauges.....
            I haven’t done my annual pasture monitoring photos; there’s a bull that needs to go to the auction; the stackyards need to be closed up.
            I need to pick up the baler I bought, and bring home the sprinkler pipe.  We should fire up that new sprinkler for a test run....
            And second cutting...
            In Billings the second cutting is already in the stack.  They are in the middle of putting up second cutting in the Bozeman area.  On the West Boulder, however, we won’t know for a month what the weather will allow.  So we’ll restore the haying equipment to “ready” condition for second cutting this year or first cutting next year, and see how it all plays out.

            I have heard about the “relaxed” lifestyle of ranching – but I have rarely experienced it.  There is always work to be done.  With feeding, calving, irrigating, and haying behind us – at least now we can take Sundays off.  But a rancher doesn’t get paid for the hours on the timeclock, he gets paid for what he accomplishes.
A rancher is his own boss, and he can take time off whenever he chooses.  But whenever he chooses to be gone, there is a growing backlog of jobs that are costing him money.  Will we ever get caught up?

Thursday, August 4, 2011


It was mid-afternoon and Ted was making good progress at the stacking when the balewagon died.
Out of gas, he assumed.  That rig really burns through the gas driving through the field picking bales, then hauling the 5-ton loads to the stack.  There are two 40-gallon tanks, and Ted switched the valves to draw from the other tank.  It took longer than usual, however, for the engine to catch and run.
He had only picked a few more bales when the rig ground to a halt again – but this time the electrical system was dead.  I had just finished baling, so I jumped on the 4-wheeler and headed out into the field to help him figure out the problem.
We ran back to the shop for a voltmeter as I thought through the possible causes.  I recalled that I had replaced a faulty circuit breaker a couple of years back, so that was the first place I looked.
Sure enough, that breaker was broke.  It took only a minute to extricate.  There was still plenty of time to get to the parts house before closing, and we needed a few groceries.  I quickly changed my shirt and headed for town.
The new breaker was hanging on the shelf in the front of the store. The price was $3.49 – the cheapest repair we’d had all summer – so I took two.  After I quick trip to the grocery store I headed back to the ranch, and made it in time for supper.
I wanted to be baling first thing in the morning, and there was plenty of stacking to be done, so I went out after supper to install the new breaker. 
The job took only a few minutes, and power was restored.  I jumped in the cab to fire up the engine, but it cranked and cranked without ever firing.  We thought we had plenty of fuel in the other tank, but why wouldn’t the engine run now that the electrical problem was fixed?
I’d had enough fun for one day, so I left the balewagon in the field and headed for the shower.  In the meantime I ran the sequence of events through my mind, looking for a new diagnosis.
I had hay to bale in the morning, but the stacking was important too.  I ran some gas into the transfer tank, and picked up a new piece of fuel line to replace some that was getting pretty frayed.  Perhaps that frayed piece was allowing air into the line so that the fuel pump wasn’t able to draw gas.
I pumped more gas into the empty tank and installed the new fuel line, then we cranked the engine again.  The battery was getting pretty low, so we attached jumper cables to the pickup.  Still no fire.  Perhaps the fuel pump was bad.
I rolled underneath and opened a fitting – there was plenty of fuel pressure!  We now had power to the electrical system and we had gas to the carburetor, but did we have spark to the plugs?
The “hood” over the engine in the balewagon is a table that accumulates 15 bales to tip up into the load rack.  We needed to have the engine running to activate the hydraulics to raise that table.  We were able to squeeze in far enough to reach the distributor, however, and checked the coil wire for spark as we spun the engine – only an occasional weak arc.  Ah, here was the trouble.
All millennium rigs have electronic ignition.  But this outfit was made in the 1970s when breaker points were standard.  I had replaced the points with an electronic module a few years back, and still had the points in my spare parts stash.  We made another trip to the shop.
To replace the ignition components we needed better access to the engine.  We loaded up a couple of chains and a couple of come-alongs.
Back at the rig we attached our come-alongs at the corners of the load rack arch and the corners of the table covering the engine, and commenced cranking.  We finally gained enough clearance to climb in and work. 

It took only a few minutes to remove the electronic module and swap for the original points and condenser.  The electronic module showed an obvious burn.  A quick check - and we had spark!  Perhaps it was a short in this module that had burned out the breaker I had replaced the evening before.
Back in the cab of the balewagon I turned the key, and the engine roared to life – as long as I kept the key turned to the start postion.  As soon as I released the key to the run position the engine died again.  We peered under the table to see if I had failed to connect a wire, but saw nothing obvious.  We needed to get that table up out of the way for further trouble-shooting.
The balewagon had died coming downhill, and it was sitting in a precarious position.  The last tier had tipped forward when the rig stalled, and was in danger of falling down.  We only needed to run the engine long enough to pick up two more bales and turn back up hill, then we could raise the table, stabilize our load, and have a clear view of the engine.  I knew it would be hard on the starting circuit, but I only need to have it run for a couple of minutes.
I kept one hand on the key and juggled levers and the steering wheel to pick up the bales and turn back uphill.  But we had to stop and straighten some bales before tipping the table.  When we tried to start the motor again the starter just whirred.  We had fried the starter Bendix!
I had an old used-up machine from which I had been robbing parts – I knew that I had replaced the starter on that old balewagon not long before I had parked it.  We made another trip to the shop.
The starters were easily accessible, and we soon had the swap complete.  I found no loose wires, and determined that the short in the module must have burned the contacts in the ignition switch.  I grabbed a coil of wire and a couple of alligator clips to make a jumper wire.
With the new starter in place and a “hot wire” connected to the battery we tried one more time.  Success!!
It was now almost noon on Thursday and the balewagon had quit the middle of the afternoon before.  I had made one trip to town and numerous trips between the shop and the field before we at last had the machine running.  It had only cost $3.49 in cash, plus the fuel for the trip to town, but we had lost half a day of baling and most of a day of stacking.
We are nearly finished with the haying, and have only a couple of thousand bales to stack.  The hot wire works well enough to get us through to the end.  We replace the ignition switch later.

And thus went another day in the life of the Millennium Cowboy.