I came across a picture of a decorative ornament made by the company Border Fine Arts. It’s just that seeing it, a tractor pulling a forage harvester and trailer, brought back a lot of memories. The first tractor I ever had anything to do with was a David Brown 950, and the one on the model is pulling a single cut forage harvester identical in everything but colour to the first one we had.
I was still at school when we switched from hay to silage. It must be confessed that the west of England isn’t good hay country. We grow fabulous grass, mainly because of a combination of good land and high rainfall. It’s the latter that rather militates again making good hay. Indeed I remember talking to somebody in the Cotswolds a few years back. He made tower silage and I asked him whether he considered saving the effluent (juice that runs from silage) to feed to livestock. His view was that it wasn’t worth the effort. After all it wouldn’t fill a forty gallon drum. In his immortal words, ‘We always have a fine fortnight for silaging.’ We can think we’ve done well if we get four consecutive fine days.
The old single cut forage harvesters had flails (hence the other name, flail choppers) which whirled round, cut the grass, and simultaneously created a draught which blew the cut grass up the spout and into the trailer. They weren’t without problems. With heavy crops of wet grass the spout could get blocked. Still they were more reliable than making hay.
When we started silaging, my father would milk, feed round, and then start cutting and carting silage. He would tip trailer loads of grass in heaps in the yard and then after afternoon milking he would have his tea and go out and stack all the grass he’d cut in the pit using a tractor and buckrake.
This was not a quick process. He took several days to do a five acre field. But then Brian arrived. In the shipyard the apprentices went on strike. As a striking apprentice Brian was at a loose end and was not exactly flush with money. So he would use the tractor and buckrake to fill the pit whilst my father cut and carted grass. That doubled the speed of working. We might have hit four acres a day. It doesn’t seem a lot but these would be heavy crops.
I remember father and me going on a farm walk. It was a Yanwath Hall near Penrith. (You can see it from the motorway if you know just where to look) There the owner showed a bunch us round the farm and commented that they could silage 70 acres in three days. When I told Brian what had been said, he just muttered, ‘The lying sod.’
But we slowly upgraded tackle and got another tractor and another chopper. This chopper had a pickup reel like a baler. The picture I found on the web is of a later, more sophisticated version.
But you mow the grass first with a mower. Then you come back to pick it up with a beast like this. The reel feeds the grass into a spinning drum with a lot of blades. These cut the grass short and also blow it powerfully up the spout and into the trailer. The shorter grass is better for cows to eat and the whole thing works so much faster.
The problem with this generation of forage harvesters is that they’re bigger, wider and less manoeuvrable than the little flail harvesters. So when you’re working, the harvester tows the trailer. Then when it’s full you drop the trailer off, the carting tractor picks up the trailer and takes it back to the farm. At the same time the forage harvester backs up to the trailer the carting tractor brought and hooks up to that. You need more kit but it’s an awful lot faster.
Our problem was that we needed a third tractor. You have one for carting, one for buckraking and one pulling the chopper. Father would pull the forage harvester behind a John Deere 1120, I could buckrake with the David Brown and the local agricultural engineer loaned us a little Fergie 135 for carting with. Because this is a three man system (three tractors) and we had two men, I ended up doing two of the jobs. I would buckrake the grass into the pit, get onto the other tractor, take the empty trailer to the field, collect a full one, empty it and buckrake the grass into the pit. Rinse and repeat.
At this point I ran into a problem. Tractors back then had in their gearbox a high box and a low box. (For silaging I just stayed in high box) There were three forward gears and one reverse gear so with the high and low boxes you could get six forward gears and two reverse gears. For buckraking I would just use second and reverse. The David Brown gearbox was a pretty good one. They’d produced the gearboxes for the Centurion and Chieftain tanks. Rumour had it that Fergusons hadn’t so much as developed their own gearbox as taken the David Brown gearbox and produced a mirror image of it. I don’t know whether that was true or not but when I got from one tractor to the next, the gears were in exactly the opposite place to where you expect them to be. Now rather than stopping for milking, my father would go and milk when Brian or somebody else would come from work to help us silage. They would get on the tractor pulling the forage harvester and we’d crack on. As you might imagine, by nine or ten o’clock at night, I’d got to the stage where I wasn’t entirely sure what day it was never mind which tractor I was driving. So I would just push it into gear and the direction of travel came as a constant surprise to me.
Mind you, the old David Brown was a good tractor for buckraking with. For those who have never seen a buckrake, think of it as a fork that is fastened to the hydraulic arms on the back of the tractor.
You back the tractor into the heap of grass that the trailer has tipped. You then lift up the buckrake and drive forward with a load of grass. You then back up the pit and spread the grass where you want it.
But it’s not that simple. With the old flail cutters the grass was long and tangled and you had to tear the heap apart. This involved backing the buckrake into the pile, lifting the buckrake, and then continuing to reverse. Except that at times there was so much weight on the buckrake that your front wheels were no longer touching the ground. On one occasion I backed into the heap, picked up a load of grass, but grass managed to somehow jam under the tractor clutch peddle. Thus I couldn’t stop, change gear and go forward. The old David Brown, channelling the Centurion tank somewhere on its family tree, continued to power backwards. As it tilted at forty-five degrees to one side I decided this was time to abandon ship. (No roll bars or suchlike back then). Without a driver the tractor continued to go dead straight, over the heap, and then started to carry the buckrake full of grass up the silage clamp. By this time I had rejoined it, pulling the grass out from under the clutch as I did so. Together the tractor and I spread the grass where I wanted and headed back down the pit to get another buckrake full.
We did eventually get the tractor fitted with a roll bar. This wasn’t an entire success. The batteries were placed one either side of the seat, which was really convenient for recharging etc. But the roll bar was fitted close to the battery cases meaning that all sorts of grass and oil and suchlike used to collect round them, especially during silaging. So more than once I’ve been buckraking away and suddenly discovered a small fire burning next to me. Brush if off and keep going, grass doesn’t harvest itself.
There again, what do I know?
And from anybody but Amazon
As a reviewer commented, “You know how a lot of books or movies follow up with a sequel and it’s often a disappointing effort that never quite manages to beat or match its original?
Yeah well this isn’t one of them.
It doesn’t do justice or even feel fair to say “follow up” because in effect it’s just the second half of the same brilliant story.
Jim and his dogs have a world in which I become totally engrossed, involved and invested. Even if you haven’t so much as seen a working farm it won’t matter because the beauty is in the story telling and Jim is one of the greatest story tellers.
The perfect escape from the current global pandemic and highly recommended reading for everyone and anyone.”