Engineering on the Farm

September 29, 2008

I grew up in the small town of Bad Axe in the “Thumb” of Michigan. My father farmed 350 acres and milked over 100 cows.  I cannot claim to have worked too hard; unlike many farm kids, I was allowed to participate in many extra-curricular activities at school. Still, my summers were spent bailing hay, feeding calves, and helping with the never-ending repairs on the farm. My dad never used the word “engineering,” but as I look back, I can clearly recognize that much of the problem solving and jerry-rigging took the ingenuity of an engineer.  Agriculture is a tough business, and farmers carry a tremendous responsibility to keep their farm operating.

Equipment maintenance is extremely important – especially when your “fleet” is all second-hand. The new modern tractors that most people see advertised in those birds-eye-view country music videos cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. The typical family farm makes do with second hand equipment and does whatever it can to keep it running year after year.

This summer, on a trip back home for my 10-year reunion, my dad proudly showed me the work he had been doing on his combine.  He was in the process of changing out the metal screens that separate the shell-corn from the stalk waste. Removing these screens revealed more damaged parts that could only be accessed by crawling into the bowels of the combine. New parts would cost several thousand dollars, but he estimated that my uncle, who owns a specialty machining and welding shop, could reproduce an equivalent part for much less.

Around the front of the combine, my dad pointed out the features on a new header. This is the part that cuts the corn, or in this case, soybeans (different plants require different cutting tools). One feature was a stainless-steel plate over which the cut stems would be fed into the thrasher. Earlier designs had used a steel plate, but it tended to rust and eventually caused the plants to rub and cause further damage to the plate.  My dad was also replacing the metal needles that feed the stalk past the knives with plastic needles. These are cheaper to replace and less likely to bend out of alignment. Even a few misaligned needles and dull knives can slow the performance of the combine and lead to more serious damage.

Getting the seed into the ground is even more complicated than harvesting. Modern sensors in the planting implements help farmers ensure that exactly the right amount of seed is planted per acre. New monitoring systems can instantaneously compile the yield of that acre during harvest. By comparing maps of the data, farmers can adjust the amount of fertilizer used per acre – usually to reduce the amount placed on high-yield areas. The cost of fertilizer has increased dramatically over the past few years, and over-fertilization can pollute the local water supply.

Even the buildings that the animals and equipment are stored in have been engineered. Today, pole barn construction is very common, but before the 1960s, most farmers were still building big hip-roofed barns. The pole barn is named for its regularly spaced columns, which support a sloped roof framed with wood rafters. In early rafter designs, 2×4 boards were connected side by side. A bolt connects them, but a metal ring is cut into the face of each board. This ring is meant to spread out the force at the connection so that the board does not split. A more efficient connection can be made if the connecting members are in the same plane. This was made possible with two metal plates, each with many nail-like spikes, that sandwich the 2x4s.

As my dad continued the tour of the farm, I realized how much engineering had always been around me. Farmers engineer: biosystems – plant and animal genetics and care; mechanics – equipment repair and machining; structures – building barns, cranes, silos, grain bins; and complex systems – business management and process efficiency.  I’m amazed by the ingenuity of my father and the breadth of his knowledge.

It took me some time to appreciate the opportunity I had growing up to learn a strong work ethic and problem solving skills on the farm. That experience has prepared me as well as anything for the career I have today.

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