Sunday, February 26, 2012

Engine Heater

Engine heaters are an essential component of every diesel rig in the North – and most gas outfits as well.  Oil gets stiffer as the temperature drops, and a cold engine gets harder to crank over.  The battery is rapidly losing efficiency at the same time.

Many diesel rigs are outfitted with an ether portal to help them start in cold weather.  But ether is explosive, and can damage the engine if not used properly.  The engine still requires a battery strong enough to turn it over at sufficient speed – and again, the battery has lost a lot of cranking ability in sub-zero weather.  That can require jumper cables to give enough power to turn the motor over.

An engine heater is the solution.  I like to plug in my diesel pickup at night when the weather is below zero.  That keeps the oil warm, and radiates enough heat to the battery that things spin over quickly in the morning.

I had plugged in both the dump truck and the tractor last week when the weather was cool.  The truck started right up, but the tractor required a jump.  A quick assessment revealed that the engine heater was not working on the tractor.

The plug had been ripped off the end of the tractor’s engine heater, and I had replaced that already.  Now I checked the heater element with an ohmmeter and discovered an open circuit.  The next time I was in town I bought a new heater.

I could see the heater easily enough, and it was openly accessible.  The loader was right in the way, but I could still reach it – although awkwardly.  The real challenge was that antifreeze was circulating through it, and I was too lazy to drain the whole cooling system.  So I clamped off the hoses leading to the heater with two pair of ViseGrips and pulled it out, sealing the hoses with pipe plugs.

But true to Murphy’s law, the new heater wouldn’t fit.  The design had changed in the 40 years since the tractor was built, and the new heater was too wide to fit in the space between the engine block and the tractor frame.

On the minute possibility, I pulled apart the old heater.  Murphy was wrong!  The problem was simple!  One of the wires leading to the element had burned in two.

I checked the element with an ohmmeter to be sure, and it was intact.  The wire had been attached with a copper crimp, and it was easy enough to pry it loose.  I stripped back the insulation, re-crimped the wire, and soldered it to be sure.  Soon enough I had the heater all back together, and I plugged it in to be sure.  Success!

The heater draws 1000 watts, and a load of sediment had insulated the tank from the thermostat, causing the heater to run excessively.  Soon enough I had the heater re-installed, and now the tractor will be easy to start next time I need it.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Turkey Soup

I like turkey – especially with mash potatoes and gravy.  The left-over slices make fine sandwiches, and the dregs make a good addition to enchiladas or quesadillas.  But the best part is soup stock made from the carcass.  That home-cooked soup will cure whatever ails you.

While casting through the freezer for dinner-fixin’s this morning I ran across a container of soup stock from last Thanksgiving.  It just won’t do for the stuff to get stale, I have enough saved from the Christmas turkey for contingencies, and it looked like a quick and easy supper, so I set it out to thaw.

Now while I do like soup, I want it thick enough so it doesn’t dribble down my chin when I get a good spoonful.  So while the soup was heating up on the stove I whacked up a batch of noodles to put in it.

First I put a couple of eggs in a bowl and stirred them up with a fork, then I added a cup of flour and a little salt.  When the whole mass was mixed together I dumped it out on a floured stone, kneaded a bit, then rolled it out and cut it into noodles with a pizza knife.

That whole process took only ten minutes - and by the time the soup-stock was boiling the noodles were ready to go in.

While the soup was cooking I went on to some other business, returning occasionally to stir the pot.  In 20 minutes I had a fine batch soup that was so thick you could almost eat it with a fork.  It had taken a little time in the beginning to pick the bones out of the soup stock, another 10 minutes to mix up the noodles, and pennies worth of flour and spices to make a meal that was delicious and nutritious.

How much does a box of Hamburger Helper cost, and how long does it take to cook?

Monday, February 20, 2012


After a week of effort I finally got the air valve replaced in the dumptruck last week, and was able to begin hauling.

I had bought the truck last summer to repair the huge gullies torn into our road by a deluge that came the end of May. 

For weeks we had to drive through the fields and around the washouts until we could haul enough material to fill them.  After we had gathered truck-loads of loose rock to dump in the ruts we had rented an excavator to dig up more fill.  There was a knob that had been jutting out into a hayfield, and we dug it up with the excavator, loaded it into the dumptruck, and deposited it in the washed-out road. 

This was one of the few knobs on the ranch that contained dirt rather than rocks.  This dirt was of excellent character for road-building, but it was rather a chalky grey and didn’t contain much organic matter.  With that knob out of the way we’ll be able to cut straight across and eliminate a lot of turning, but I didn’t think that the remaining soil would really grow much hay.

A neighbor down the road a piece had a big pile of manure in his calving lot.  He has no hayfields on which to spread the manure, and no equipment to haul it.  So I set it up with him to load it onto my truck to get it out of his way.

This manure will mix nicely into that plot of chalky soil and make the hay grow nicely.  I’ll have a lot of expense into hauling it, as the road out of his place is a long, steep pull, and I’m not convinced that the increased production will be worth the cost, but I’m also helping out a neighbor – and that’s worth something too.

A second hauling mission this week has been gravel.  Our soil on the ranch is rich, but fragile.  After the ground thaws, the roads can get badly torn up where there is no gravel.  And since there is no gravel on the ranch – only rocks and dirt – gravel must be hauled out from town.

I made three loads from town last week, and spread them on the three worst places for spring travel. 

One bad section leads down to the calving shed.  Often in the spring a person has to chain up the pickup to get out from the calving shed.  The chains only tear up the ground worse, and the mud carried out on the chains leaves those ruts deeper, which catches more rain & snow, which keeps them wet and slick longer. 

But one load of gravel will fill it in and dry it out, and give enough traction to eliminate the need for chains.  Now that’s progress!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Air Brakes

Last Tuesday I was heading out in the dumptruck to haul some manure.  The temperature was 20 above, which is cold for a diesel to start, and I had it plugged in.  The truck hasn’t run all winter, but it fired right up, and I thought I was in business.  The dumptruck only went about 100 yards, however, before it lugged right down – the brakes were setting up.
This is a heavy truck, and has air brakes.  It always takes awhile after being started for air pressure to build up enough to release the brakes, and there wasn’t a problem there.  But I hadn’t even used the brakes yet, and the gauge now showed that my air was all gone – and that automatically applies the parking brakes.
I walked all around the truck searching for an air-leak, without success.  I called the truck mechanic from Big Timber, who said he could be out in the morning.  That left me without a plan on a cold afternoon, with snow blowing on the breeze, and it seemed a good time to put together that proposal for another book publisher.
I tried to start the truck the next morning so that it could build air before the mechanic arrived, but it was just too cold.  I found the canister for the brake line anti-freeze and it was empty.  The weather had gotten worse in town, however, and the mechanic was swamped with towing and repairs – he couldn’t make it out until the next day.
I needed a new canister of starting fluid, and some brake line anti-freeze, so I went into Big Timber after lunch to buy them.  (Big Timber is a lot smaller than Livingston, but the road is much better).  After I installed the ether canister I was able to start the truck and find the leaking air-valve.  It was still only 20 degrees, but I lifted the dump box, propped it up with a fencepost, and removed the valve.

On Wednesday I took the valve in to the mechanic in Big Timber, and discovered that it was an old style – parts were scarce.  So I returned to the ranch, cleaned and lubed the plunger in the old valve, and reinstalled it.  It still leaked.
So I removed the valve again, polished the plunger with emery cloth, and lubricated it with oil.  But it was still hanging up.  Maybe replacing that O-ring would help.  I checked my assortment of O-rings, and found nothing that was close.

There had been an educational meeting in Wilsall scheduled on Thursday evening, and I had been vacillating about attending.  I could combine trips by stopping at the implement dealer for a new O-ring, then going on to the meeting.
But the implement dealer didn’t have the O-ring.  It would have cost about 14¢ if it had been in stock, but this size would have been special order.  He sent me on to the diesel mechanic at the truck stop near Livingston.
I’d only brought in the plunger out of the valve, but this mechanic assured me that he had complete valves in stock to replace whatever I had.  He put some special lubricant on the plunger that finally freed it up, and suggested that I bring in the whole valve.
On Friday I re-re-installed the valve, and it worked!  I was able to build enough air pressure to release the parking brakes and move the truck out of the road and back up to the shop.  But it was still leaking some.
Emma had a dentist appointment on Monday, so I took advantage of some warm weather on Sunday to remove the valve for the third (fourth?) time.  After dropping Emma at the dentist I headed out to the truck stop with the valve.  The mechanic quickly located a new generic valve, assembled the various plugs and fittings to accommodate my application, and sent me on my way. 
Today – Tuesday a full week later – it took only a half an hour to insert the new valve, tighten all the fittings, attach all the air lines, and fire up the truck.
It works! I have brakes!  And I am off to town to get a load of gravel!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Falling Snow

“Look, the snow is falling straight down,” said Emma at breakfast this morning.

That may seem like rather a strange comment to many people.   But the snow doesn’t often fall straight down here, so this was indeed a noteworthy event.

My son-in-law Phil was raised in the fertile and protected Gallatin Valley, where Bozeman is located, and went to college in Iowa, thus rarely experiencing the fierce wind-driven snow that is common in the prairie states.  One fall he commented to me:
 “I’ve never seen it snow like this and blow like this at the same time!”

I asked my daughter who was standing nearby if she had ever seen it snow and blow like this before.

“I never saw the snow come straight down until I came to school at Bozeman.  It’s kind of pretty!”

Wind is a constant factor east of the continental divide.  It can be quite a challenge to decide how much snow you’ve really had, as it is piled up deep down-wind of anything that interrupts the force, and blown clear where there is no obstruction.

A woman from Minnesota told the story of attending a convention in Shelby, Montana.  She watched anxiously out the window as it snowed heavily all day.  When she finally left the convention site, however, she was amazed that there was no accumulation.

“What happened to all the snow?” she asked a local.

“It’s probably in North Dakota by now,” was the reply.

There was no wind yesterday, but the temperature dropped from 18o to 8o above for an overnight low.  The cattle wouldn’t be huddled together out of the wind in the brush, so I gave them some nice, bright, straw to munch on and to bed in.  The heat of digestion and the insulation from the frozen ground will help keep them warm. 

One feedlot study showed an increase in weight gain of 30% when cattle were bedded out of the mud with straw.  I’m not expecting my cows to gain weight on straight hay, but they can lose weight when the weather draws away more energy than the hay produces.

 And besides, I live in a nice warm house provided by the production of those cows.  The least I can do is give those cows a warm bed as well.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Neck Scarf

Some people seem to consider a neck scarf merely to be a part of a cowboy’s “costume”.  In fact the term “Wild Rag” – as it is called in some places – would seem to imply that it is just a decoration.
For northern cowboys, however, that silk scarf is as essential as a hat and boots.  (And if you think the hat isn’t essential, then you’ve never sunburned your ears!)
You’ll notice that all the babies have beanies in a hospital nursery, as that bald head is a big source of heat loss.  A bare neck is also a place that cools quickly.  The scarf protects that bare skin, and also seals off the cold from going on down the collar.  One ranch visitor who was outfitted with a scarf during cold weather remarked that it really did keep her warmer – as if she thought we wore scarves for merely cosmetic reasons!
But just because they’re practical doesn’t mean they can’t also look good.  Notice here the how the colors of the scarf complement the plain-colored shirt:

And this same scarf looks good with a couple of other colors:

A patterned scarf, however, is a bit too busy for a plaid shirt. 

And vests also help set off the brighter colors of the shirts.
These two plain shirts require different scarves.  Note how the dark-hued shirt is set off by the bright scarf – and how it picks up the color theme of the brands:

If your guy is a cowboy, he’ll always appreciate another neck-scarf.  And here is just the tool to hang them up.  Also consider a slide to cinch it up around his neck – a knot could be dangerous if the scarf hung up on something.
No, a scarf is not just a dainty accessory – it’s an important piece of clothing.  But we can still look good and have a little fun!

Monday, February 6, 2012

Calving Preperations

Some of the fence in the calving field was 80 years old and in pretty bad shape.  The wire was so rusted and brittle that it could barely be spliced and tightened, and many of the posts were rotted off in the ground. 

We got the most of it completed last fall, and I’ve had all winter for the finishing touches.  This week I built the last two wire gates to seal in an adjoining field.  My technique was acquired nearly 40 years ago while building fence for a pair of finicky ranchers in the Bear Paws, and has proven quite effective over the years.  Rather than hang a bunch of clubs on the gate, I was taught to twist in some stays that are much lighter and more effective.

The typical ranch fence is thrown together in farmer fashion, which causes the opener-person to cuss every time he goes through.  (This is the reason there is always a mad scramble to avoid the shotgun position whenever a pickup is started on a ranch.)

I also finished setting new posts in the calving shed this week.  Like the fenceposts, many of the support posts in the shed are rotting off, and I replace them as necessary.  I used the backhoe to lift the sag out of the rafters as I notched the new posts in.

I sometimes wonder at the economics of this shed, which is only used during two months out of the year.   I’ve certainly calved thousands of head out on the prairie, with only brush for protection.  I spent considerable time and money on the shed a couple of years ago when a big section of the tin roof blew away.
But it is certainly nice to have when it is storming, and when you have a calf to pull.  And since it is here, I’ll keep it standing – besides, it would be a lot more work to clean up the mess if I let it fall down.