OFF ON ANOTHER RABBIT TRAIL
By Steve Moreland, January 4, 2018
Having been in the ranching business all of my life, and having reached the ripe old age of 66, I can remember a lot of hard winters. The longest hardest winter in all things considered was 1978-1979. It started snowing in early November, and we fought snow and bitter cold until about the first of March. The calving season weather from then on was not too bad.
Dad had a fairly new tractor for hay feeding purposes, but it wasn’t front wheel assist. It was an International Harvester 1066 model, and it pulled a Lehman stack-mover with a Baker Hydra-fork to feed the hay. There weren’t enough hydraulics to run a loader. There was no radio, and the heater was small and insufficient. The cab itself was an improvement over our previous feed tractor, which was a John Deere 4020 with only a canvas “comfort cover.” Another frustrating feature of this new feed outfit was that to run the hydra-fork controls, the back window had to be open. Your hand was out in the cold about a foot away from the cab, and this was quite uncomfortable on a cold day. The controls were directly behind the seat, and I got real adept at operating them with either hand. I’d sit 180 degrees to the right for a while, and then I’d switch positions and sit 180 degrees to the left. The colder the day, the harder it was to use the hydra-fork because the hydraulic oil would be cold and stiff. Many of those days, I’d just get the hydra-fork up in the air, turn the tractor loose with the steering wheel tied, and get on the stack with a pitchfork. Doing this with a stack-mover, which had about eight steel beams high off the ground and two feet apart, was not nearly as safe as doing the same thing with a normal solid wood-bottomed feed sled.
My dad was always real persnickety about not feeding hay in too big of blobs. He figured cattle wasted too much if it was fed that way. If we lost a big chunk of loose hay, we’d have to make sure it was thoroughly scattered with a pitchfork before we could continue on our way. Many of our neighbors had gone to hydra-forks long before we did, but Dad thought they wasted too much hay. Finally we were getting more cattle, and pitching the hay by hand was too labor-intensive. He finally gave in and bought the new feed outfit.
I still get a kick thinking about when he proudly got in the shiny red 1066 tractor and took off with his new rig. He was going to figure it out, and then teach his novice son (me) how to run it. I was fixing some fence and watching him as he initiated the new outfit. He was having a terrible time, and the hay was being jerked off by the sweep load. He kept after it, and things weren’t getting better. Finally he drove over to where I was working. I couldn’t resist chiding him a bit, and said, “I thought you didn’t like feeding big globs of hay. The cattle waste too much.” He kind of frowned and grunted, “You figure it out.” Being young and more adaptable, I had better luck. In fact, I got rather proficient in being able to string hay as good with the hydra-fork as could be done with a drag fork. After that, Dad would only use the new tractor and feeding equipment if absolutely necessary.
In those days, for six years I was a member of the Nebraska National Guard and was obligated to attend monthly two-day drills at Chadron. All through those years, I’d have to do a lot of feeding on Friday before I left. I’d feed for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and all Dad would have to do would be to open gates and call cattle through with his cake pickup.
One time the yard light burned out by Dad’s house. It was on a tall pole. We had the proper sized light bulb on hand but no way to get that high off the ground to change it. My solution to the problem was to drive the feed outfit as close to the pole as possible, to see if the hydra-fork would go that high in the air. It did, and I thought if Dad straddled the hay teeth, I could gently raise him into proper position to replace the bulb. He got on, and I tried to dexterously give him a very smooth ride to the top. The system worked, and I almost got Dad high enough to reach the bulb. He weighed just a bit too much, and the hydraulic arm wouldn’t quite get high enough. It was with a certain amount of justified fear and trepidation that I suggested we trade places, as I was quite a bit lighter than Dad. I would ride up on the hydra-fork while he operated the controls.
Dad was quite inept in using the controls, and it almost seemed like he was trying to buck me off. I tried to talk him through the process from my perch on the end of hydra-fork arm straddling the hay teeth. I was enough lighter that the idea worked, and the light bulb did get changed. It was a rough ride going up, and very similar coming down.
At about the same time, Dad got his first crew cab pickup. It was a brand new pretty blue 1976 Ford F250 4x4, with four doors and a six and a half foot box. Dad immediately mounted a Hastings 600 pound gravity-flow caker on the back, and that was his caking rig while I fed hay with the tractor and stack-mover.
Crew cab pickups had just barely been invented, and there were not many of them around. Dad had never ridden in one before, and was quite unfamiliar with the concept. Several times I would watch my dear old dad shut a gate, proceed back to the pickup, and crawl in the back seat. He would grab for the steering wheel which wasn’t there, and emerge looking quite sheepish. It provided a bit of amusing entertainment from my vantage point, being a ways away feeding hay.
The chain-driven stack-movers were also a new concept. One of our neighbors was trying his new feed outfit out for the first time. Some other neighbors were on hand to observe. They reported later that, as the stack was being pulled up the tilted platform by the moving chains, the old cowboy/rancher operating the tractor panicked and couldn’t figure out how to stop the chains. The stack kept coming and coming and coming, and was wrapped around the hydra-fork pedestal quite a ways before he was finally able to get things shut down. The observers thought the occasion to be much more humorous than did the owner/operator.
Big round hay balers had just recently been invented, also. Kenny Joseph lived down on the river south of Kilgore, and he had one of the first big round balers in this neck of the woods. Wherever he would take it to bale hay, there would be several curious onlookers checking out the new invention. Rodney Hockenbary was one of Kenny’s neighbors, and he was watching the first day Kenny tried the baler. As about the third bale came out, laying on its side as is always the case, Rodney and a few other guys that were on hand tipped the bale of hay over so that it was on end. Kenny was fumbling with the controls in the tractor cab, and didn’t witness what had happened. Rodney pointed out to him that the bale had landed on its end. Kenny was amazed and said, “Well, I’ll be darned, it did.” When Kenny would take the baler to a new area with a new crowd of onlookers, Rodney would always prompt one of them to ask, “So, does the bale always come out on its side, or does it ever come out on its end?” Kenny would earnestly respond, “Well one time a bale did come out on its end. That was the only time, but it did happen once.” Kenny died soon after that, and I think he went to his grave not knowing he’d been pranked.
During this real hard winter of 1978-1979, early on there were lots of antelope and lots of jackrabbits—more of each than I’ve ever seen before or since. Dad had an irrigated pivot of alfalfa northeast of his house. The antelope and the rabbits loved that alfalfa. Dad also had a large pile of ear corn just north of the buildings. This was fed to cows as ear corn, and ground up to feed the hundred or so young Hereford bulls that Dad sold every year at a bull sale at our ranch. The rabbits really loved this corn pile, too.
We had dual tires on the rear of the International 1066. Conventional wisdom is that it would go better in deep snow with just single rear tires, but we tried that once. It didn’t work. The feed outfit with a heavy stack on the back seemed to travel much better with the duals, even in deep snow. As earlier mentioned, with inadequate hydraulics, the tractor had no loader. If a person got stuck, a scoop shovel was the best remedy.
One blustery cold day I had traveled east through the meadow, and then north to the pivot, feeding as I went. I needed to continue on west to feed other cattle, but on the west side of the pivot I got stuck. Usually when getting stuck, if I could just rock back and forth a little bit, I could eventually get backed out with ability to try a different route. On this occasion ice formed immediately under the wheels, and there was no chance to rock it out. I tried the scoop shovel method for a while, but realized those efforts were futile. My next plan was to walk home.
Now I faced another dilemma, it would be a lot closer to walk home over the hills, but deep snow would be a barrier. Walking back along the tracks I had made earlier in the day would be considerably farther. I took off walking through the hills, and hadn’t gone far before realizing this was a bad decision. I decided to turn back and go the other way. In cutting across through more deep snow, I came upon a trail. It was made by hundreds of rabbits going back and forth between the alfalfa field and the corn pile near our buildings. This trail was tightly packed and about a foot above the ground. I started following it towards home, and it was like a pedestrian interstate. It was about a foot wide, and as long as I stayed on that trail the walking was easy. If I stepped off of it, the snow was deep. Even though the rabbits had devoured quite a bit of corn and alfalfa, and been a general nuisance all winter long, they did help me out that day.
To the reader: You were warned in the title that I would be off on another rabbit trail. It happened.