Thursday, July 18, 2024
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Make Sure Your Equipment Doesn’t Turn Into Just a Pile of Steel

“I need you to come right away. The driveline just snapped off the baler”

“IT DID WHAT?! Shut it down. I’ll be there in five minutes”


The heat of the afternoon sun smacks me in the face as I scramble down the steps of the big, blue New Holland PowerStar 120. I hit the dirt running, yanking hay out of the feeder, hoping against hope that the mechanical debacle I’d watched unfold from the driver’s seat at least hadn’t been my fault. Like a guilty grade-schooler waiting for dad to get home, I pace between the windrows.

I don’t bother hoping it isn’t as bad as I expect.

It doesn’t take a mechanic to see the problem on this one.

Hesston the dog is the only one not worried in this situation.

I look to the clock to see that it is just after four in the afternoon. It’s a Saturday and also the Fourth of July. The chances of acquiring a replacement driveline before Monday are incredibly slim.

We have thirty acres of premium grasshay on the ground and there’s rain forecasted for Tuesday night.

My dread multiplies until I look up to see Sten’s dusty, black service truck flying into the field.

He’s not exactly a knight in shining armor, but I don’t need one of those. I need my freakishly talented, diesel mechanic-fiancé, busted knuckles and all.

He screeches to a stop, slams the door and in the span of one breath his eyes scan the scene and he’s come to the same conclusion I have.

We’re in a world of hurt…And it finally feels like hay season has truly arrived.

Farmers and ranchers alike pursue a lifestyle that requires that they be not only stewards of the land, but also masters of the machines they use to get the job done. Even in the most enlightened of operations that strive to minimize economic inputs, it is likely that there is a pesky horsepower requirement hidden somewhere that needs attention.

Custom hay operations like ours are by necessity on the upper end of the mechanical spectrum, but breakdowns have the unfortunate habit of reducing efficiency as well as profitability in operations of all shapes and sizes. You might be a pro like Sten, but if not, keep reading.

I’m not a mechanic, but I’ve spent the better part of a decade working alongside one. He even still likes me well enough to ask me to promise to be his wife. These are the things I’ve picked up along the way that just might help you be successful in dealing with that big ‘ol pile of steel in the barnyard.

1. Build your fleet to meet your needs.

What needs to be done around your place? How often will these jobs come around? Do you have the skills to maintain and fix older equipment? If not, do you have the capital to upgrade?

These are not questions that can be answered without a hard look at your operation, your skill set, and your financial circumstances. Do a cost analysis and ensure that you are not operating outside of the realm of economic viability. If you are, make adjustments like downsizing or hiring a custom equipment operator to take care of projects for you. If your needs are infrequent, this might work just fine, especially in your area’s agricultural off-season.

2. Care for your equipment all year long.

Full, timely services that meet manufacturer recommendations are not optional. Your eyes need to be on each piece of equipment at regular intervals throughout the year. Grease points are not merely a suggestion, or something to be tended to only when the mood strikes you. Thorough, regular cleanings can help expose issues you might not have noticed otherwise. If this is not your “thing”, hire a mechanic. There are likely people you can trust in your area that will help keep your wheels rolling throughout the year.

3. Do your research. Know your machine inside and out.

It is impossible to troubleshoot when issues arise if you do not have a good understanding of what “normal” should look like. Use the internet as a resource; there is so much information out there. YouTube is rich with tips, tricks, tutorials, and recommendations concerning nearly any piece of equipment you could imagine. This is a great stormy, winter’s evening project. Type the name and model number of what you have to work with in the search bar and I guarantee you will be surprised by how much you can learn for free. If it ain’t broke yet, it probably will be at one point. Even if you are not a mechanic, you can at least be a well-informed equipment owner.

4. Know your resources.

Who are you going to call when that driveline busts at 4 ‘o clock on the 4th of July with rain in the forecast? We called the after-hours line for every parts house we knew of within a 100-mile radius. When that left us high and dry, we started calling our “farmin’ friends”. Within an hour we had a good lead on a new driveline for Monday morning as well as a borrowed driveline to keep our tractor moving through the weekend. If you borrow something, though, be prepared to take full responsibility if Murphy’s law strikes and you face a second breakdown… but this time with someone else’s equipment. Renting equipment or hiring someone to finish the job are also options when faced with a deadline.

5. Expect problems and deal with them as they arise with a cool head.

Farmers and ranchers everywhere know that some days everything that can go wrong, will. This is something I struggle with that Sten does to perfection. On days when I’m on the verge of pulling my hair out because things just won’t work the way they should, he stays calm and collected. Regardless of the problem at hand, he moves with deliberate, unwavering focus and grit. When I ask how in the world he keeps it together, he always replies simply, with a raised brow: “Freaking out never helped anyone do anything”.

Hailey and Sten and the New Holland Tractor after a long day of

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Hailey Rice
Hailey Rice
Despite growing up in the grass seed capital of the world, Hailey’s childhood connection to agriculture ran no deeper than a girl’s voracious appetite for Little House on the Prairie books and an inherent love of animals. She thought she might like to grow up to be an accountant until she spent her 19th summer on a hay crew with a farm boy. That’s when everything changed. She fell in love with long days spent under a sunny, summer sky doing good, honest work. In the years since, she’s learned to drive a tractor, bucked her fair share of hay bales, and worked on a grass-fed cattle ranch with its own direct-marketing program. She graduated from Oregon State University with a B.S. in Agronomy focusing on forage production, plant physiology, pasture-based agroecosystems, and soil health. She still loves grass and sunshine almost as much as the farm boy and their yellow lab, Hesston. Hailey is interested in economically and ecologically sustainable agricultural practices so that farming families everywhere can stay on their land, do what they love, and make a profit. Her Little-House-on-the-Prairie heart hopes for a future where folks understand and appreciate the precious connection between farmers, their animals, and the land.


  1. Thank you for this advice. (Re: “without a hard look at your operation, your skill set, and your financial circumstances.”) Know your limitations: I know mine, and mechanical fix-it ability is not one.

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