Thursday, November 18, 2010

Man versus Machine (part 2)

Dave got the tractor stuck on a Tuesday. When I initially scolded him, I told him it HAD to be out by the weekend. After another 200 mm of rain though, I took pity on him and suggested he wait a few more days for the ground to dry out. He wanted to give it a shot anyway.

Sunday November 7
It's raining today, but for the first time in three days it's steady showers instead of a torrential downpour. Dave is armed with 100 feet of heavy duty tow-ropes and he's anxious to try and free the tractor from its muddy resting place. I tell him to call a tow truck. He says it's too expensive (this from the guy who just spent 70 dollars on tow-ropes).

I swore I wouldn't waste a single minute of my time helping Dave get out of this mess. But I worry about him working on the tractor alone, so I throw on my rain gear and trek down the muddy slope with him. True to form, Zorro follows too. We both act as "project supervisors."

Dave's plan is to jack-up the tractor, shove boards underneath the rear wheels (the tractor is backwards, with the front pointing down the hill toward the bus), put the tractor in neutral, and hope to heck that the truck has enough horsepower to pull it out. This would likely be a much easier task if the tractor would start. But no, despite balmy 14 degree temperatures, the engine simply won't turn over-- and this time there's no way to position the truck to boost it. No, our poor old Dodge Ram is going to have to pull several thousand pounds of dead weight. To make matters worse, all the rain has created a mini-river that now runs between the tractor's tires.

With the tractor jacked up, and boards wedged beneath its mismatched tires, Dave strings together his newly-purchased ropes. He hoped they would be long enough to reach to the top of the hill so the truck to pull from firmer, level ground. But no, the ropes have come up short, and while the truck is nearing the crest of the hill, it's still on a slope. It's not ideal, but it will have to do.

Dave puts the truck in 4WD low and hits the gas. As the ropes tighten, the truck surges forward the tractor lurches ahead a foot or so. Then the truck loses traction and the tires spin the wet grass into a muddy mess. As the truck slides, the tractor rolls back into its comfortable rut.

We try putting boards under the truck tires too. It simply spits them up in the air. Then, Dave lengthens the distance between the truck and the tractor by hooking a series of ratchet straps to the tow ropes. We're still not on flat ground, but it might just be enough. He hits the gas in the truck again. The truck jumps forward a foot, then two feet. I look through the rear windshield and can see the tractor tires beginning to turn. It's moving.

Just then, one of the newly attached straps breaks, and the tractor rolls backwards. For one awful moment, I'm afraid it will keep rolling right into the bus, but the deep ruts are so well worn that it simply rocks back into its muddy cradle.

The rain is picking up again. We call it a day-- and I repeat my suggestion to call a tow-truck.

Wednesday, November 10
Once again Dave brushes aside my tow-truck suggestion. Instead, he heads to the hardware store to pick up another 60 feet worth of ropes.

Thursday, November 11
It has finally stopped raining. As soon as the horses are fed and turned out, Dave turns his attention to the tractor. It's the day of reckoning. This time, there's enough rope to bring the truck onto solid, flat ground. The problem now is that we can just barely see the tractor. It's down the hill and around a curve. I'm not overly optimistic about our chances, and I make it clear that if this doesn't work, I'm calling a tow-truck myself.

The ropes are attached. The truck is in 4WD low. Dave puts his foot on the gas. The tires find traction and our "Ram Tough" Dodge pickup rolls smoothly ahead. I crane my neck to look through the rear windshield. I can't see the tractor at all, but the ropes are tight and we're moving, so it must be moving too. We creep along, hoping, praying. Then, we see it.

It's as if the hill is giving birth--a breech birth. First the chest-high, mud-caked rear tires emerge over the slope, then we see the back of the driver's seat, and the red of the engine casing. The tractor is halfway up the hill now. It's rolling. It's moving. It's really free. It's...oh no, it's rolling straight toward a thick, 10 foot high stand of alder trees.

As the tractor reaches them, the alders bend, but they don't bow. The truck groans and strains. The tow ropes vibrate. The tractor stops moving. The truck tires start spinning. Dave puts the pedal to the metal. Suddenly, the truck lurches forward and the tractor barges through the stand of trees.

With the trees conquored, the tractor crests the hill. We keep pulling until it's well up on flat ground. Dave and I both let out huge sighs of relief. We run down to inspect the tractor. Branches stick out at all angles from the tractor. It's covered in mud, but otherwise unscathed. After nine days in the mud, our Massey Ferguson 35 has finally been liberated. Now, what on earth are we going to do with 160 feet worth of tow-ropes?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Man Versus Machine (part 1)

*NOTE: I feel compelled to start this blog by saying that I love my husband very much. He's a wonderful, thoughtful man who does many things right. Unfortunately for him, the best stories come from the things he gets wrong. So, Dave, I apologize in advance.

Tuesday November 2nd.
It's a day best described as "bleak". The damp fog has shrouded our view, and the rain of the past week has muddied our fields. Nonetheless, Dave has the day off and we have loads of outdoor work to do before winter unleashes its icy fury.

Wearing splash pants, rain jackets, and somewhat waterproof work gloves, we toss torn shingles and other construction debris into the back of the truck in preparation for a trip to the dump.

Then we start the tractor (by means of a boost from the truck) in an effort to help move 80 pounds or more of a 30 year-old white, powdery chemical that we recently discovered hidden near the two-seater outhouse in the former sheep barn/ soon-to-be workshop. As Dave maneuvers the tractor, its tires spin in the slick grass and mud. For a few moments, despite being on flat ground, it's stuck. I guess the rain of recent days really has softened the soil.

After a few hours work, I head into the city to teach riding lessons. I leave Dave with a list of chores to do. Topmost on the list is removing a stack of rotting boards from an empty stall in the barn. I'm worried that the mould-covered wood is irritating Murray's sensitive lungs.

When I arrive home, I check on the horses before going into the house. I notice that the pile of boards is diminished, though not gone. Well, it's a start. I also notice that the tractor is nowhere to be seen. I foolishly assume Dave has parked it around back to keep the front of the property looking tidy.

When I come inside, Dave greets me with this: "Don't start, I'm upset enough about it as it is."

I have no idea what he's talking about.

Dave: "I don't always have the best judgement."

Now I'm really confused. Then I remember that I didn't see the tractor.

Me: "Dave. What did you do?"

Before I continue, I should enlighten you about a conversation Dave and I had two days earlier. You see, we recently discovered that the decrepit school bus at the far end of our property (that's a whole other story) seems to have been used as hunting camp in the past. Amongst the broken glass and animal feces, we noticed a battered, and somewhat rusted wood stove.

Dave wants this stove for his workshop. However, that's easier said than done. In order to get it to the workshop, he has to raise the stove from the gully, drag it through a stand of alders, and up a long, steep slope. He figured it would be a perfect chore for our 50 year old, impossible-to-start tractor. I tentatively agreed, then promptly forgot about it.

Then, on Halloween weekend, Dave mentioned the idea again. I looked at him, shook my head, and rolled my eyes.

Me: "Dave, we've had more than 100 mm of rain in the past week. The ground is soft and wet and slippery. There's no way that tractor will make it down the slope into the gully. It would be crazy to try it now. You don't even know if the stove's any good. There's no rush, just wait until things dry out a bit."

I thought that Dave agreed with me. I thought that would be all for awhile. But I was mistaken, because after two more days of steady rain, Dave, bored by the list of chores that needed to be done, decided to attempt the feat.

Back at the house on the evening of November 2nd:

Me: "Dave. What did you do?"

Dave: "I took the tractor down to the bus to get the stove. I didn't get the stove. The tractor's stuck."


Dave: "On the bright side, I didn't get the truck stuck. Well, I almost got it stuck trying to drag the tractor out, but when it started sinking in the mud I decided to leave the tractor and just get the truck out of there. I knew you'd be really, really mad if I got the truck stuck."


Dave: "Well, I was smart. I drove it down the slope to the junk pile first and it didn't get stuck there, so I figured it would be ok."

Me: "That slope isn't anywhere near as steep, AND, what would you have done if it HAD gotten stuck there?! Never mind. I'm not worrying about this. You are going to fix this. You are going to get the tractor out and I'm having nothing to do with it. If you don't get it out than you can shovel the driveway by hand all winter long. I won't yell about this anymore....but (here my lips curl into an evil smile)....your punishment is that I'm writing about it on the blog."

Dave: "No, not the blog."

Me: "Yes, the blog. I can write about it, or I can yell about it. It's your choice.

Boys and their Toys (part 2)

Late one August evening.
It's dusk when I hear the living room phone ring. It's Dave. He's on his way back from Amherst, on his way back from test-driving the tractor.

Dave: "Well, we're now proud owners of a Massey Ferguson 35 tractor".

Me: Trying unsuccessfully to sound enthusiastic-- "Uh, great."

Dave: "Well, we've put down a down payment anyway. We'll hand over the rest when he delivers the tractor on Saturday".

Me: "Oh, he can deliver it. Well, I guess that's a good thing. So it's a good tractor? Everything works well?"

Dave: "Yep. I'm happy with it."

Me: "Did he tell you how old it is?"

Dave: "We think it's from the late 1950's"

Me: "What!?"

Dave: "Probably '58, maybe early 60's. "

Me: "It's that old? How many hours on the engine? What kind of work has it been doing?"

Dave: "Oh, he doesn't know. He's kind of a broker. He just buys and sells these things all the time, so he hasn't had it for long."

(that sinking feeling returns to the pit of my stomach).

Me: Resignedly, "Well, I guess you can tell me more about it when you get home."

When Dave finally does get home, he surprisingly shares the excruciating details of the test drive with me:

Dave: "He had it running when I got there, but I shut it off so I could make sure that it would start ok. "

Me: "And it did?"

Dave: "Well, no, it wouldn't start. But it's ok. He showed me a trick. You just use a little ether to help it get started. I don't think it will really be a problem though. I think maybe the engine had just been running for a minute or two, and then we turned it off, so it just was a bit sticky after that to start. It just needs a good run. At worst, it might need a new battery."

Me: Trying very hard not to roll my eyes-- "Uh huh."

Dave: "Yeah, oh, and I accidentally broke the attachment to the three-point-hitch."

Me: "What?!"

Dave: "Yeah, but it's ok. He had another one, so he'll just give us that. I'm just not used to those controls and I just think I brought it down a bit hard".

Me: *sigh* "But the hydraulics are good?"

Dave: "Yes. The hydraulics are great. But the parking brake doesn't seem to work. That's no big deal though. It's not really necessary."

Me: "I don't think I want to hear anymore."

A few days later.

I arrive home from work to see an old, red tractor parked in my usual spot. It doesn't look so bad. It's kind of quaint. Then I notice the tires. None of them match, and there look to be cracks in the rubber on the four-foot high rear tires.

Dave: "Yeah, it probably should have new tires soon".

Me: Exasperated "DAVE! Those are going to be really, really expensive!"

Dave's response is to offer to take me for a spin on our new, old piece of farm equipment. He tries to start it, but it needs a boost from the truck.

Dave: "Yeah, it definitely needs a new battery."

Me: "What about gas...does it have enough gas? Maybe that's the problem."

Dave: "Diesel. It runs on diesel. And yes, there's some it in. A tank of diesel will last us forever in this thing."

With the help of jumper cables attached to the truck, the tractor eventually coughs and sputters to life, leaving a cloud of stinky black smoke in its wake. Dave pleads with me to jump aboard for a ride. I reluctantly agree. My gut still says this tractor is trouble.

A day or two later:

I arrive home from work to see the tractor parked on the grass down by the riding ring.

Dave: "I used the tractor to drag the ring for you."

Me: "That's Great! Thank you! Would you mind bringing the tractor up closer to the house though? I don't want Murray to be spooked by its faded chrome."

There's a long pause.

Me: "What. What is it?"

Dave: "Well, the tractor won't start. I tried boosting it and it still won't start. I'll go get a new battery tomorrow. "

Me: Ugh. Fine.

The next day

It's dark by the time Dave is home from work. Nonetheless, new battery in hand, he's determined to get his tractor going again, and he's determined that I witness his success. He drags me down to the tractor, shines the truck lights on it, installs the new battery and turns the key. The tractor growls, and groans, but it does not start.

Me: "I told you this tractor is a lemon. Why can't you listen!"

I leave Dave and his machine in the shadows as I walk back up to the house in disgust. If I stick around, I may say something I'll regret.

After tinkering for awhile, Dave sheepishly returns to the house and announces that the problem seems to be that the tractor is out of gas--diesel.

Eventually, Dave does manage to awaken the tractor from its slumber, but neither a tank full of fuel nor a new battery rids the machine of it's reluctance to start. Months after we bought it, and with the temperatures still above zero, it almost always needs to drink-in energy from our tireless truck before being coaxed into an hour or two of work.

This proved to present quite a problem two weeks ago when Dave went against my advice and pushed the tractor a little too hard and a little too far.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Boys and their Toys (part 1)

As the sun beat down on us in early August, Dave and I started thinking about the most logical topic to come to mind-- snow removal. Unlike when we lived in downtown Moncton, we knew that shovels and muscles just weren't going to do the job here on the farm. We thought about getting a plow blade for our ride-on lawnmower, but worried that the mower might not be up to the job. Then, we weighed the pros and cons of getting an ATV with a plow attachment; but in the end, we decided that buying a tractor would be much more practical. A tractor would give us the means, not just to move snow, but to spread manure, turn the manure pile and do various other manure-related tasks. If only I'd known then what kind of "manure" we were really getting ourselves into.

Sometime in August

During the spring and for much of the summer, our drives into down brought us past a blue and white tractor with a "for sale" sign taped to the window. At first, we didn't give this antiquated looking piece of machinery much thought, but as we contemplated the winter months to come, I wondered whether it might be just the snow-removal tool we were looking for.

One day, another sign appeared on the side of the tractor listing the for-sale price as $3700. It also mentioned the tractor's age...I believe it dated to 1972. I mentioned this to Dave. We agreed that it seemed like a bit too much money for a 38 year old, well-loved, piece of farm equipment. We left it at that.

Soon after, we started seriously looking for tractors. After scrolling through Kijiji's online ads, we were surprised to find that $3700 was actually a pretty darned good deal for a tractor of that vintage. We decided to check it out. The next morning, on my way to work, I prepared to pull over as I drove by the familiar "tractor spot", so that I could copy down the phone number. Unfortunately, the tractor wasn't there. Either it finally sold, or the sellers took it off the market, we were never able to find out. Back to Kijiji for us.

I scanned the online ads tirelessly, bookmarking any which seemed even remotely likely to meet our needs. I asked more-experienced farm friends what features we should look for, and what to avoid. I e-mailed sellers for more details (usually finding that the tractor listed was already sold). I wasn't in a panic to get a tractor. I hoped we still had several months before the first flurries would flutter down from the heavens and fill our driveway. That's just how I shop: if I'm at a mall, I look at all the shoes in every shoe store before going back and finding just the right pair, at just the right price. If I'm searching online, I look at all the ads, make several phone calls, and send several e-mails before deciding what to buy. However, I think Dave misinterpreted my tractor-shopping enthusiasm as a call to immediate action. And I think that may have led to some rash decisions.

About a week into our search, Dave found a tractor that appealed to him. It was one I had noticed too, but since it was located close to an hour and a half away in Amherst, I had relegated it to the bottom of my list. Dave, however, was not daunted. He called the seller and was told that the tractor was on its way to Moncton to be looked at by a potential buyer. If they didn't want it, it would stay there and be sold at auction. Still, Dave was not daunted.

The next day, Dave called back. As it happened, the other potential buyer didn't want it. So, Dave asked the man to bring the tractor back to Amherst so he could have a look. According to Dave, the seller grumbled about moving the tractor again. He said several people had looked at the tractor already and had opted not to buy it. He was tired of accommodating uninterested buyers.

Now, I might have interpreted this lack of interest by other buyers as a warning-- a clue that people were finding fault with this ageing hunk of metal. Not Dave though, he saw this as an opportunity-- destiny even. He told the seller that if he'd bring it back to Amherst, he'd be practically guaranteed a cash sale. Apparently the seller saw this as an opportunity too, and in the end, he heartily agreed to have the tractor back on his lot by that evening so Dave could take it for a test drive.

Dave told me all this by phone while I was at work. I pulled up the online ad and took another look. When I did, I got a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach. It's the same bad feeling I had the day Dave came home driving a used Izuzu Rodeo SUV (he had it for about six months after which time it sputtered and limped off to auction to be re-sold at a considerable loss to us). I shared my skepticism, and I urged him to change his plans. We argued a bit, and Dave reminded me that as an engineer who spent close to a decade working in mining, he had vast experience with all kinds of heavy equipment. He knew what he was doing. I knew that he was right. With a sigh, I gave him my blessing to do whatever he thought best. I just urged him to keep an open mind, and to be willing to walk away from the deal. Of course, he didn't.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

November Rain Brings Hay Pain

When it comes to the horses, hay is our biggest expense and I spent hours and hours searching the countryside for the best quality bales I could find. It wasn't fun, and I accidentally offended a local Mennonite farmer in the process. Finally though, I found exactly the kind of nutritious, fine, soft hay that Murray needs to keep his weight up and his lungs clear. Only now, I'm watching hundreds of dollars worth of hay morph into moldy, dusty, useless lumps...and there's nothing I can do about it.

Late July
It's a warm Saturday afternoon day when our first load of hay arrives. It's first-cut. It's very good quality, but it's coarse, and it has a fairly low protein content. It's exactly the kind of hay that would cause Murray to turn up his nose. However, it's perfect for Maggie, an overweight mare who eat absolutely anything. Unfortunately, I'm at work, so it's up to Dave to hoist the bales from our bright yellow hay conveyor. When I get home, I assess his work, and I'm impressed. Two hundred and fifty bales are stacked neatly in the back portion of the loft.

Late August
The call comes that the second load of hay is ready for delivery. This is the expensive hay-- Murray's hay. It's second-cut, high in protein, bright-green, sweet-smelling, and very fine and soft. Unfortunately, Dave and I are in Newfoundland. We can't be there to accept the load. So, our horse/house-sitter kindly offers to offload the hay for us... with the help of her friend who's visiting from Germany (some vacation).

I feel for them. Loading hay is hard work in any weather, but this is the hottest week of the summer in Nova Scotia. Daytime temperatures are in the low to mid 30's. Nights are just as warm. Humidity is through the roof.

The hay arrives on a sunny, sticky weekday afternoon. We thought the loft would be able to hold all the hay. At most, we figured the last few bales could be stored in a spare stall next to Murray. But the girls filled the loft and there were still many bales left on the truck. The girls filled the spare stall to the rafters. Still there were more bales to offload. They had no other choice but to put some of the hay in one of the newer stalls-- a stall with cinder block walls. A stall which oozes with mold-inducing moisture anytime it's rainy or humid. The girls did everything right. They stacked the hay neatly and they kept the doors and windows open for ventilation.

By the time I got home though, and by the time hurricane Earl whipped up the winds and brought still more humidity to the air, several of the cinder block-stall bales were starting to turn black and moldy. Dave and I moved a few things around and hoisted as many bales as we could from the stall up to the loft. We lost about two dozen bales, but we weren't overly concerned-- especially when we found out that our hay suppliers had sold us 120 more bales than we'd planned to buy (no wonder they wouldn't all fit in the loft). The rest of the hay looked great. And it continued to look great until about two days ago.

Early November

With the exception of two days last week, It's been raining steadily for the past two weeks. During that time, we've had close to 300mm of rain. On top of that, the temperatures have been unseasonably warm, and even when drops of water aren't falling pounding down from the sky in the form of rain, they're sitting heavily in the air causing everything to become sticky and wet. The high humidity is exaggerated in the barn where moisture oozes through the relatively new cinder block walls, and drips from the corrugated plastic roof over Murray and Maggie's heads. Nothing in the barn seems to stay dry in this weather.

Despite the moisture in the barn, the hayloft above (with its wooden floors and walls) stays much dryer. It also has very good ventilation in the form of spinning roof vents. Even so, I check the hay regularly, for signs of mold. All was fine until two days ago.

Two days ago I went into the loft to throw down some more bales of Maggie's hay. I picked up a bale and noticed tiny white spores on several of the stalks-- mold. I reached for another bale and yanked it to the floor. It fell with a thud and a cloud of white dust rose around it-- mold. I started checking more and more bales and I started finding more and more mold. My stomach sank. I tossed several bad bales down the chute-- destined for the manure pile. But how many more are up there? There's no way to know.

I hoped at first that the problem was confined to Maggie's hay, but as I delved further into the neatly stacked pile, I found a few of the once rich, soft, sweet-smelling, expensive Murray bales also covered in tiny, sour-smelling white spores. My hay is going bad and I don't know what to do. Because we accidentally bought extra hay, we have a cushion. But it's only November, and I don't know whether that cushion will fill Murray and Maggie's bellies until next July.

Monday, November 8, 2010

It's a Mystery

Murray's ability to find new ways of performing strange feats never ceases to amaze me.

Sunday Nov. 7, 2010
6:15 pm
I arrive home from work and head straight out to the paddock to bring in the horses. Dave emerges from the basement after a project-filled day to help. Thanks to the time-change, and a cloud-filled, starless sky, it's already very black out. Thankfully there is a dusk-to-dawn light at the back of the barn which sheds a few beams toward the horses' paddock.

At the rattle of the gate as I unlatch the chain, two shadowy horse figures emerge from the shelter of the run-in shed. It takes me a moment to sort out who's who, but as I squelch through the mud toward them, I see that Murray is closest. I'm about to put his halter on when I do a double-take. It's dark, so I'm not sure until I reach out and touch his shoulder...then I can feel that I'm right-- Murray is naked. This is odd because I put his rainsheet on to protect him from the day's deluge before turning him lose this morning. I turn to Dave, who's been home all day:

"What happened to Murray's rainsheet?"
"What do you mean?"
"It's gone. He's not wearing it."
"Really? I don't know what happened. I have no idea.".

*Sigh*. It's ok, I understand that he's been busy and might not have noticed Murray's lack of clothing...especially if it happened after the sun dropped below the horizon.

Horses in hand, we squish our way around the paddock in the dim light in search of clues. Then I see it, a dark pile in the back corner of the paddock. It could be a monstrously large pile of horse manure, or it could be the remnants of a rainsheet. I lead Murray toward it. It's at the edge of the light and I can barely see it, so I'm not certain until I give it a delicate kick. Nope, not manure. I reach down and lift the mud-soaked sheet from its puddle and carry it to the barn at arm's length.

With Murray and Maggie happily tucked into their stalls, devouring their grain, I inspect the sopping sheet, expecting to find that it's in tatters. rips or tears, that's odd. I look at the buckles, amazingly the belly straps are still latched together, as are the hind leg straps. What the heck? How on earth did he get it off? I look at the front buckles, the ones that attach across his chest. They're done up too, only the tabs on the left hand side have been pulled free of their stitching. Nothing ripped in the process, the nylon reinforcements are still there, they're just no longer attached to the tabs.

Here's the only way the blanket could have come off: the front chest straps somehow tore free of their stitching (I have no idea how), then, the blanket would have to have slid off Murray's back, over his bum, and down off his hind legs. How on earth does such a thing happen? And how did Dave not notice? I can only imagine that the always "flighty" Murray must have been rather unnerved as his normally secure blanket slithered down his backside. It probably would have been quite the show to behold.

Murray's not talking, so I guess the mystery as to what happened will forever remain unsolved. On the bright side, Murray seems to have escaped the "blanket incident" unscathed. On the downside, I now need to find someone to repair the sheet.