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Getting the wheels moving

Aug 18, 2014 - By Randy Tucker

Until last week, my wife had never even driven a tractor, much less the windrower I needed her help with.

Farmers' wives will sit up all night with sick lambs or calves, battle the snow, wind and rain, and even bale or cut hay -- but many draw the line at pulling her husband and one of his hopelessly mired pieces of equipment out of the mud.

I've had my share of stuck tractors, pickups, full-sized trucks and swathers over the years. I've helped neighbors and family pull implements out of a wet field and had the favor returned, but wives in general, and my wife in particular, hate to pull something with a chain or large tow strap.

There is a twist when it comes to wives helping in the field. They are incredibly helpful, but if you get a bit excited, lose your temper or yell too loudly, then you lose that helper for a very long time -- sometimes for good.

Many a farm wife has simply climbed off the equipment, walked to the house and ignored her helpless husband after he shouted something at her.

Back in May the intermittent rains made it difficult to get a field prepared or a crop planted on time. Push it too soon, and you found yourself stringing out cable or connecting chains to a tractor or oilfield winch truck.

If agriculture teaches you anything, it is to be patient and wait for your opportunity.

The same intermittent rains of May returned at the end of July and stayed for a couple of weeks. I had planted a new stand of alfalfa back in May with a cover of oats. It's common practice around Fremont County, and there are thousands of acres of oats in the county at present providing cover to young alfalfa plants.

Timing is key when it comes to harvesting "oat hay" and getting the new alfalfa a chance to absorb all the sunshine it can in the final weeks of summer in order to build strong roots and create a solid stand the following spring.

There is a tight window of time that separates oat hay from becoming largely inedible oat straw. Catch the plant with the oats formed but still soft, and you have good cattle forage for the fall. Wait a bit longer, and you can combine the oats. Miss both marks, and you shock all the grain onto the ground when you cut it, leaving nothing but dried-out stems. Cattle love to lie in straw, but they don't get much nutrition from eating it.

My oats and the fields of a couple of friends were ready around Aug. 1, but nature didn't cooperate. The steady afternoon deluges kept the field wet and didn't allow it to dry after the final irrigation back in July. So the waiting began.

Last Friday it looked like I could get in the field and cut the oat hay while it was still in good condition.

We have an older diesel Hesston with a 14-foot cutting head. It works great -- except as an all-terrain vehicle.

The first two laps around the perimeter of the field went well. The ground was dry, the windrows were piling up high and fluffy, and it looked like I'd be finished in a couple of hours.

As I started the third run, the right tire began to spin, throwing mud in a fantail beside the cab. A multi-ton windrower isn't a dune buggy, even with the oversized balloon tires on the front. A quick change to reverse just dug in further. I shut down the machine and walked back to my truck, thinking the GMC might pull the Hesston out of the mud.

Carrying at least two 25-foot chains is a good idea in the field. With almost 50 feet of chain connecting the windrower's rear frame to the hitch on the truck, I tightened the chain and the beast started to come out of the mud -- just as the truck started to sink into it.

I've starred in this movie many times. Quickly I unhitched the truck and was able to drive it out.

The tractor was going to the field in a few days anyway to bale, so I drove home, asked wife Sue to follow me back to the field in the truck, and took the Oliver and baler up to the field. She patiently waited for me to pull the windrower out before I drove her back home.

The tractor pulled the windrower a few feet and started to bury itself in the soft dirt.

Any piece of agricultural equipment is imposing to someone who never used it before, and my wife, a self-described "city girl from Lusk" had never driven a tractor, much less the windrower. At 10 feet high, 15 feet wide and about 25 feet long it is an intimidating machine to the uninitiated, but small by comparison with some of the newer models.

Sue came over, sat in the seat, and I gave her a quick lesson in turning and driving the windrower. If the wheels are turning on a vehicle stuck in the mud, it helps when you're trying to pull it out.

The Oliver inched the chains tight, the windrower started to move, Sue put it in gear, and it jumped out of the hole. She backed it up a few more yards and we parked both of the implements.

I cut the oats Monday morning without incident and now await a few days of sunshine to bale them up.

My mom hated pulling my dad out of similar predicaments with his GMC truck a generation ago, and I'd wager that 50 years from now wives still won't relish the thought of hooking up and pulling their husbands out of the mud.

But it's all in a day's work on the farm.

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Editor's note: Staff writer Randy tucker is a retired public school educator.

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