Chicken Scratcher!

June 1, 2010
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This past Memorial Day weekend I returned to my childhood home in Bad Axe, Michigan. I grew up on an operating dairy farm. It provided endless opportunities for adventure and exploration for a budding engineer. I learned a lot working with my Dad on the farm. In honor of my recent trip, here’s a typical story from the farm.

That’s all I heard over the loud sputtering of the old Ford tractor. It didn’t help that my Dad was sprawled beneath the blower attempting to remove the protective metal shielding. We had counted on the machine to shoot the chopped corn silage up 120 feet into the top of the silo. Unless my dad was able to figure out what was wrong, the harvest would be delayed.

“Chicken scratcher!” This time there was noticeable impatience in his voice. It wasn’t my responsibility to worry about the logistics, all Dad needed in this circumstance was a go-‘fer. And in these circumstances, one did not wait for a clearly articulated assignment.

Ah-ha! Chicken scratcher, check in the tractor. For what? It was too late to ask; better to bring every tool I could find in the cab. Behind the well-worn and subsequently duck-taped seat, I knew that I’d find a five-gallon pail complete with all essential farm repair tools: crowbar, hack saw and metal pipe included.

I dropped the heavy bucket from the tractor and jumped four feet to the ground. This earned a quick admonition from my father about safety. He was, after all, teacher of the annual county-wide tractor safety course. Seconds later he was giving me a lesson on prying technique as we worked to access the mechanics of the blower.

Apparently, the power take-off (commonly called PTO) had refused to budge. This rotating appendage links the tractor’s motor to the powered implement similar to differential that runs a rear-wheel-drive vehicle. The rapidly spinning connection is both powerful and dangerous. If the shaft refused to spin it meant a serious problem for the machinery and my Dad’s schedule.

The entire harvest operation might have to be abandoned for the day. It was simply a matter of logistics. On our small farm, three people took positions at the blower, transporting wagon boxes and in the field. We only had four of the specially made wagons for harvesting silage. One half-empty wagon was still adjacent to the blower, and I had just returned with another. If I didn’t return an empty wagon to the field soon, the harvester would be forced to go idle.

No matter the progress, the entire operation would have to end at 4:00 in order to milk cows and do other daily chores. Delay was not an option. Whether harvesting resumed tomorrow would depend on the status of the machinery and the unpredictable Michigan weather.

While I daydreamed, my father was pulling large clumps of moist silage from the blower shaft with his large calloused hands. Arriving at a bolt-head, he then searched for the appropriate wrench. Shortly thereafter, I knew I would be forced to sprint across the farm to fetch the right size wrench from the machine shed. This was my primary training for the 400 meter dash, my specialty on the track team.

Eventually, Dad produced a greasy metal housing. “The ball bearings are shot.” This was not good news, as no amount of pounding, greasing or torching were likely to solve the problem. The connection, meant to facilitate the rapidly spinning components of the machinery, would only be repairable by a qualified machinist. Buying new was seldom an affordable option on the family farm.

The day was shot, but no one’s responsibilities shirked. I was instructed to drive to the next city over and pick up a replacement part. But if I had any hopes of avoiding my evening chores, my Dad quashed those by quickly adding , “and hurry back before the balling calves drive me nuts!”

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