I’m looking over my system for raising hogs. Aside from wanting to carry them a little longer to put more fat (flavor) into them, I’m pretty happy with the end product. My animals live a high-quality, low-stress life as part of a process that builds soil. If I can get those outcomes with less labor, all the better. But how?
Friends and family have suggested that it’s time for a tractor. I’m not ready to go there.
It’s not that I harbor some horseless-Amish fantasy. I love working with tractors and machines. I like spending enough time in the seat to get a feel for a machine, to understand it enough to finesse the controls. That goes whether it’s a modern, GPS guided, fully programable, Infinite Variable Transmission John Deere or a 1926 Caterpillar 60.
I don’t have a machine aversion. I have debt aversion. I hate the idea of spending money on something that may not actually improve the business —the quality of the end product or the costs/labor of producing it. I’ve done that with tools—think I need something only to discover that, with a little more knowledge and skill—I could get by without it. If the goal is producing the highest quality pastured pork while continually improving the farm’s ecology, then a tractor might not be the next step. It might look like I’m backing myself into a corner. Maybe. But I know this corner. It offers some perspective.
Moving from our leased Watertown farm to Madison several years ago forced me into a shop space so small that I put my planer, router, and table saw in storage. I was already interested in hand-tool working, but taking most of my machines out of play (I still had my drill press and small bandsaw) nudged me farther down that path. In time, I got better at squaring and flattening boards with planes. I taught myself how to sharpen handsaws and got better at cutting straight and to the line. Now I can cut respectable tenons and dovetails by hand. Even with my table saw set up in the barn loft now (where I store lumber), I still use handsaws when one or two simple cuts by hand is much faster than dragging a circular saw and cord around or setting up a machine. Sometimes, the older, simpler methods—with requisite skill—beat the modern solutions.
I also know that focusing on machines might obscure a better, simpler answer:
In the early 90’s, when my dad transitioned from raising grain-fed to grass-fed beef, we started stockpiling round bales for winter feed. In the field, we loaded bales onto a flatbed trailer with the front-end loader. Sometimes, we’d borrow a second loader tractor to unload near the winter pasture. Otherwise, we just pushed bales off the trailer by hand, leaving a scattered mess for us to sort out with our loader tractor once all the bales were out of the field. Dad and I wrestled with finding more efficient ways to move bales from hayfield to winter stockpile.
We dreamed up a bale stacker/transporter. We’d take an old school bus, remove the body, and build a hydraulic arm at the right front. The arm would load bales onto the left or right side of a tube-framed bed where manure-spreader type paddle-chains, just below the tube rails on each side of the bed, would progressively move the bales back as more were stacked up front. We figured we could get six bales per side for a twelve-bale load. The transporter could move down the road at fifty miles per hour. At the stockpiling site, the bed would tilt back from a pivot point just behind the rear axle so that it wouldn’t take much tilt for the rear of the bed to almost touch the ground. Then, the driver could ease the truck forward while the paddle chains slid the bales into two tight rows on the ground. We figured that one machine and operator could replace two tractors, a truck and trailer, and three operators. Brilliant.
Thankfully, we never built it.
The goal was feeding grass-fed beef. Instead of improving our bale-handling, Dad got better at pasture management and rotational grazing, which achieved the end goal while reducing the number of bales needed (and our desire for a transporter).
With those lessons in mind, I’m trying to think inside-the-box. Instead of going too far down the build, buy, and modify path, I’m staying minimalist for now, trading labor for less debt. The answers are probably in front of me. Like my hand-tool work, I’ll become even more efficient in how I work. If I stay focused on the end product, I might find smarter ways to cut my labor that I wouldn’t have found from a tractor seat. There's a tremendous sense of satisfaction in discovering that you already have everything you need right in front of you. I’m looking.
Former Marine Infantry Officer. Iraq Vet. Interested in Regenerative Agriculture at any scale.
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