October 18, 2008

First job - mowing grass

Farming in the North Pennine Dales
By Eric Wilson

It started to look as if t’ grass was going to grow despite the severe winter of 1947, and against dire predictions against such a possibility. The record snows had arrived late that year to catch everyone out.

Once a Dale’s farmer is absolutely sure that “grass is goin t’ grow”, the next thing to start worrying about is - how to cut it down, again because this is the mainstay of the farming cycle, - harvesting “winter feed” because without it nobody (beast or man) eats.

So what’s to do? Better have a “leeoouk” at the mower, to start with. Now where was it left? Filling in gaps in that stone wall “ower by’t eight acre”! Oh dear, now he remembers. This is where I came in, having recently transferred from the redundant ranks of aircraft fitters ex RAF, to the fledgling industry of farm machinery and agricultural engineering-to-be; post-war variety that is.

By 1948 I was selling and servicing what few farm machines were available in the Dales, and through the medium of the “moorland drums” I had heard that a certain farmer could be “in’t market” for a new mower.,Of course things were changing. For some time we had been supplying upland farmers with the Allis Chalmers model B tractor, which previously had only been used for “row-crop” work on arable farms down country.

Most of the “die-hard” older Dales’ farmers swore never to replace their “osses” with “them new-fangled contraptions” called tractors! But of course some had different ideas, and once Harry Ferguson came along with his TE series and their hydraulics, the flood gates opened. The Allis B was a very nice basic tractor – I guess you could say the B stood for “very basic” as it was literally a horse with an engine. The only “equipment” provided was a drawbar.

My potential customer in need of a new mower had an Allis B tractor – so he was something of a revolutionary. Now as tractor drawbars don’t marry up very well with mowers with “oss poles and swingle trees”, he had to face more decision-making and money-spending before he would be able to cut any grass at all. In other words – he would have to really modernise and this meant money!

It happened that manufacturers in North Yorkshire were busy once again converting back from guns to plough shares, so to speak. One such family firm which had specialised in mowers for some years (Bamletts of Thirsk), had not been slow in realising that their traditional horse-drawn mowers were hardly going to satisfy the needs of farmers who were replacing horses with tractors.

So the “tractor conversion” kit was born. It was nothing too scientific at this stage. Instead of the horse pole, a sturdy piece of 6 inch x 4 inch timber was fitted (preferably oak), the length calculated to suit the tractor drawbar, and a bracket made up to allow for lateral and vertical adjustment.

Then after the customary round of “wheeling and dealing”, discussions with neighbours, arrangements about discounts and/or delayed payment until “t’lambs were sowld”, the Dales farmer became the proud owner of the tractor conversion kit.
It could hardly be described as a giant leap forward in grass mowing. Many problems arose. The horse may have been eliminated, but an extra person was required to sit on the mower seat to operate the cutter-bar lifting-mechanism at the corners and when backing. You couldn’t reach these levers from the tractor seat.

Then it soon became evident that given the untiring power of the tractor, a lot more grass could be “laid down ”in a morning with the tractor as there was now no need to “spell the ‘osses”. This was not always a good thing as the “making” of the hay still depended on the old fashioned follow-up methods, a lot of hand raking, forking and so on. There were not many balers in evidence at that time. Also, the horse-mower cutter-bar was driven from its land wheels, and its speed geared to suit the steady plod of a horse under load. When “yoked” to a tractor, the temptation was to go that little bit faster which soon took its toll on the mower’s working parts.

It also became apparent that with the extra horsepower available, a wider cut was possible with the tractor. So cutter bar widths crept up to from 4 feet-6 inches to five feet over the next few years, and a trailer mower designed specially for tractor use evolved, complete with “self-lift box” for the cutter bar, operated by the tug of a cord from the tractor seat. Progress was on its way. The mower’s wider cut then created problems with the machines that followed, as they had all been designed to follow the narrow cutter bars of horse-drawn machines and could not be altered.

These follow–up machines were all equipped with shafts for the horse, so for a few years the horse was retained to do all the haymaking jobs other than mowing. These jobs consisted of of swath turning, windrowing, tedding and raking, as well as sweeping the windrows to form “pikes”. Apart from denoting a freshwater fish or a medieval weapon, a “pike” to a Dale’s farmer was invariably a pile of hay built up to protect it form the weather until leading and stacking day arrived. Then as many neighbours, as possible would be summoned to assist in the arduous task of leading and stacking the hay in convenient places for feeding to stock in the winter. The hay would go into barns in the corner of the Dale’s meadows, or a stack would be built outside in the field and later thatched to protect it from the weather.

Those farmers who had invested in the Allis B tractor could now be described as “advanced” in the area of mowing, as the Allis-Chalmers Company had developed an ingenious mid-mounted mower cutter-bar to fit these tractors. It fitted below the belly of the tractor between front and rear wheels and required an add-on belt pulley unit fitted to drive the wooden “pitman” or connecting rod.

Shortly after this, another revolution arrived – hydraulics. A small hydraulic pump and ram were fitted to lift the cutter bar, and suddenly some more hard work was eliminated. It was now sheer joy to sit and mow grass with the operation in your full view, without the need to constantly “kink” your neck to look behind. Alas! One problem solved but another created. It was now possible to cut even more grass at one go, which then had to be worked by horse machines to make into good hay.

Other popular mowers were developed and were mainly rear-mounted such as the International B23, and of course for those fortunate enough to have secured a revolutionary Ferguson tractor, there was the Ferguson mower which was designed to only fit the amazing little grey Fergie. As the Ferguson sales pitch confirmed “when you buy a Ferguson, you don’t just buy a tractor, you buy a system.” This was a clever way of not saying that when you buy a Ferguson we’ve got you hooked!

Another mid-mounted mower that we had the agency for was the “Featherstone” made by the Featherstone Mower Company. This became quite popular because this firm took the other approach and produced mowers for most of the popular tractors that were around at the time. The cutter bars were the same for all, but they made up mounting frames to suit Ferguson, David Brown or Fordson Major, and others as required.

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