Surplus Taper & Propped Up

Back in the day, when I was a child, we would make hay while the sun shined. After dark too. When the barns were stacked full we began stacking the “surplus” small square bales outside in large square haystacks. The stacks would reach the size of a building and we even tapered the top few layers like a roof line, setting each successive higher layer in from the edge by one half the width of a bale until we narrowed it to only one bale wide along the “ridge”. One neighbor would cover that with a “thatch” of loose hay but on our farm we would end the construct there.

No matter what place and order we would arrange the bales during the projects on the way up as soon as we were done stacking the stacks, settling due to gravity would ensue. Seldom was that settling on an even keel. One side would always settle more and the stacks would start to lean. Then Dad would have us nail a couple boards angled together onto the top of long poles to form a “T”. Those long poles were wedged between the sides of the stack leaning over and the ground below by digging a small divot and setting a short board stake diagonally into the divot to keep the bottom of the poles from sinking into the ground. It took what was once a pretty stack and made it almost an embarrassment. At least for those of us who stacked it.

Sometimes the propping up would work. Most times it failed and the stacks would topple over to be re-stacked beside the original footprint in a new more sustainable manner. Never as pretty as the original stack but sufficient to keep most of the weathering to a minimum. We always started feeding the outside stacked hay first. Even though the stacks were usually the “windbreak” along side the outside of the north fence line of the cattle feedlot. Fed from the top down the wind was still stopped until the piles were nearly gone by spring. The winter snow seldom seeped into the stack like the summer and autumn rains so having the tapered top gone did little damage if the snow was scooped off before the monthly thaws. But the hay was still slowly deteriorating. Eventually we would work through the surplus and move on to the still yummy hay in the barn.

Currently we are smack dab in the middle of our February thaw. I no longer have cattle and Dad is no longer with us but the weather and the warming sun have conjured up that memory. I thought I would share it with you. Take it for what it’s worth, if anything. Given the title, I’m curious as to what pops up when I type that title into You Tube’s search engine to add video.



Need To Know

“Come on you two birds, you need to know how to do this.” Dad was walking through the basement heading outside. We had been cutting firewood in the basement using an old two man handsaw on a homemade (Dad made) sawbuck. We finished cutting the log and headed outside with the curiosity quickening our steps. Dad was out in the garage getting an ax. We’d already learned how to chop through a tree using an ax. What was Dad talking about? I was maybe nine or ten, my older brother was two years older. We already knew everything, didn’t we? Dad headed out to the runway through the corn crib and gated up the north end. We were sent to get more gates.

Dad sent us down to lock up some first litter gilts in the huge chicken coop down the hill that Dad was using for a hog house. Then he came down and let them all out but one. We herded the one sow up into the alleyway of the crib and gated the south end. It was a lot easier than I thought, when Dad started us up the hill I thought he was crazy letting the critter out of the “hog house”. Once corralled in the crib Dad grabbed the ax and started walking the gilt around the alley. The ax was one of the single bladed type with a “hammer head” on the other side of the blade. Gradually the gilt excepted the new shadow and started to relax and eat some corn on the floor.

Dad stood there a minute letting it eat and then the hammer came down. Hard! He caught the critter clean between the eyes and down that hog went, it’s knees buckling. Before my brother and I could finish exchanging wide eyed glances he yanked the knife out of his pocket. After grabbing it’s snout and holding it’s head up, throat taut Dad’s face contorted into some kind of mad, maniacal expression as he plunged it into the stunned animals left side neck right below the ear. Then with a kind of grinding wiggling motion that knife went clean across to the other ear. The blood gushed. Dad released the snout and stood back straightening up. My brother and I exchanged another glance that relayed the thought, “You don’t fuck around with Dad!” We hung it up to bleed out and Dad started skinning off the hide.

By evening the hog had been gutted, sawed in half down the spine using a neighbor’s bone saw and carted into the basement for further processing. The fat was taken into town to be rendered into lard and the meat was cut up into the common cuts of pork on a long table we’d moved to the basement specifically for the project. Some was ground into sausage using a hand cranked grinder clamped to the edge of the table. We ate pork quite a lot after that. We learned some valuable lessons that winter, the most valuable being; Stay out of Dad’s reach. My older brother, who still to this day works in a pork processing plant, I claim was ruined for life.


Just in case you need to know.


Carrying Water

Dad started farming in the 1940’s. I’m not sure what year. I think it was after the war. Grandpa had told him he could rent a farm if he could figure out how to farm it. He began on a farm not a mile away as the crow flies. It was one hundred twenty acres that an older brother of mine has been farming since the 1970’s. Dad started out farming using an old International Harvester McCormick F-20  with a cracked head on the motor. He used to go out to the field carrying a cream can full of water because the cracked head would slowly leak the water out. He said that the cream can full of water would last until noon when he would come in for a meal and more water. The same thing in the afternoon only then it was a light lunch. His was a three can a day operation. He claimed the tractor wouldn’t let him get hungry. It was always thirsty.

I have been shipping out corn using an old International Harvester 1066 hydro that I bought cheap. The reason being it had a motor that had a hole broken through it where a rod bearing’s failure caused the connecting rod to smash through the side of the block. I had an old IH 915 combine with the same size motor. I switched out the tractor motor for the combine motor. That was three years ago. About every seven thousand bushels or so I need to add two gallons of antifreeze/water. That’s about four or five hours of motor run time. I think I’m losing as much water as Dad’s old F-20. It took me thirty years of farming but I’ve finally caught up to the old man in something. As long as it’s carrying water to an old worn out tractor.

I started out farming in 1984 with a little brother for a partner. We were told Dad would rent us the farm if we could figure out how to farm it. We were allowed to use Dad’s old IH model “M” tractor that he’d kept back from the machinery sale he held after he’d quit farming in “76. I was only fourteen back in 1976 and my little brother was only ten. Needless to say we never knew what we were doing. Neither one of us had a clue. We were going to both work in town while we would sow the whole farm down and raise cattle. We never planned to make farming our livelihood. We had both Dad’s blessing and encouragement.  An older brother talked us out of it. He said Dad’s advice would bankrupt us. He said this was called the corn belt for a reason. He said cattle belonged out west where the grass was. So our plans changed before we ever got started.

The fact that we were able to tool up to grain production (Dad had everything we needed to raise cattle and hay) and pay off the machinery in one year during what is now called the greatest farm crises of all time is something we were both proud of. I had even made enough extra money to buy my first tractor, an IH 856 diesel. When I suggested we go for it and try to farm a thousand acres my little brother balked. He had only promised Dad he would give it two years. After one he wanted out. He kept his word though and gave it another year. He’s worked and lived in town ever since. And that older brother who told me we would go broke? He sold out and started hiring the farming done for him. The government paid him to sow down the farm he’d paid too much for and twenty years later when the feds were done with that program he was rich. If government cheese is rich.

We all have to live with our conscience. I don’t even like being in the USDA’s production program. Getting a farm from them would ruin me. I’d be racked with guilt. Dad said his dad said anyone that needs the government to buy them a farm has no business owning one. Back in the day he had figured out how to get the government to pay for a farm using the federal government’s old land bank program. Grandpa would have no part of it. I think I would have liked Grandpa. When I think about it if giving away farms worked everybody would still be on the farm that there great grandfathers homesteaded. Most of them folks are back in town. The railroads that were given the right of ways have mostly all gone broke too. I don’t think you can give away anything without ruining the one your giving it to. Our egos demand that we earn it.



Dad’s Tree

He’d said that when he died he wanted to be buried under it. The reason being he had already ‘died’ under it one hot afternoon back in ’56. He had just finished cultivating the field and had parked under it to look out over the valley. The whole farm actually. And a good part of a few more. There’s a reason the hawks and eagles like to perch up there. It was an exceptionally hot windy day and I can conjure up my own memories of how nice the breeze feels up on that hill in the shade of that pine. I have done it too many times to count. It’s one of the main reasons I keep the headlands sown down to grass so it’s always easily accessible. It stops erosion dead in it’s tracks too. If that five acres is the difference between making it and not I’m cutting the deck far too thin to win.

I call it Dad’s tree. When I’m talking to those brothers and sisters that know the tale they know which tree I’m talking about. The summer of 1956 western Iowa suffered a severe drouth. That afternoon after Dad had stopped to cool himself under the shade of the pine tree up on the hill north of the building site by close to a quarter mile he said the corn below him on the bottom by the creek pasture turned white before his very eyes. He said he saw his own life as a farmer slipping away with it. As corn dies from lack of moisture it tries to save itself by rolling it’s leaves up tight to preserve the moisture in the corn plant. The waxy hairy underside of the leaves is a shade or two lighter in appearance than the shiny deep green leaf top. As it further withers away and dies the plant will lose all of it’s green tint gradually turning white. Once it’s white even a rain can’t bring it all the way back to where it would have been.

He dug the hill out between the upper barn and the house to form one wall of a pit silo and he hung a few strands of snow fence on poles to form the other wall. Then he neighbored with everybody on the road to cut the shriveled crop into corn silage. He bought some drouthy cattle and put them in the cattle yard to feed them the silage. After a couple weeks they seemed to be doing worse and becoming lethargic so he asked his father to come out to the farm and have a look at the cattle and give him some advice. Grandpa took one look at the silage and told Dad he was starving the cattle, there was no corn grain in the corn silage. Fortunately Dad had some of the season before’s corn crop still in ear corn form in the crib. Once Dad had added some of that to the ration the cattle turned around at the same time the cattle market turned around and Dad said he made more money than if he’d had a good corn crop.

Dad didn’t get his wish as to where he was buried. No one but me thought much of the idea and I’ve never followed through with my threat to move his body there secretly some night. But he did get to die with the old tree. The pine trees all gradually died and when Dad’s tree was dead Dad didn’t make it much further. It was like the Pines were acknowledging the old man’s passing by jumping on the band wagon as it went by. Or was that the dead wagon. As he withered they withered. They still stand almost as grand as the years before they died. His memory still stands as grand as ever as long as I’m here to recall it. I was able to sneak a small dead branch from Dad’s tree about six to twelve inches long into Dad’s coffin on top of his chest so in essence he was buried beneath it if only a part. If he never knows it will never matter. I have a gut feeling someday he will know and I hope he appreciates the gesture for what it was.

Sleep easy Old Man. I will man the trees.



Hey Trader Mac

Hey Trader Mac,
I remember my first auction. Up in the hills north of Council Bluffs where I bought incidentally an end gate seeder. Dad and I went to the sale. We had just purchased an aluminum scoop shovel at the Minden hardware store for around $35. They were selling one for only a few bucks off of the flatbed full of shop stuff at this really old timer’s farm sale. If you can call them mountains farms. I asked Dad if we should buy another one cheap and he said, “I prefer to buy hand tools new.” I’ve never figured that one out. When they came to the seeder he nudged me in the shoulder and said, “Your up. You’d better get in there.” That’s the first time I remember that rush. (You never forget your first) That’s the last sale he went to with me. Willy and I attended the rest until we were tooled up. The rush was something I thought would fade after a few auctions. It never has.

Years later Dad sent me to buy a farm for him when he was staying down in Texas for the winters. You would think the effect would be quantitatively stronger given he never told me what to pay. It was. I wasn’t going to even bid since it was damn near where I thought he would pass on the price. The auctioneer (whom I suspect Dad had talked to) wasn’t able to get any more bids and he turned to me and said, “Well Phil, are we going to let them have it for that?” I was flabbergasted. I didn’t know what to say. It was a very small crowd and I didn’t know either of the two gentlemen that were bidding. I didn’t know what to do so I bid. One of the other men bid. So I bid again. The auctioneer cried a while but the man bid again. Now Dad may not of told me what to bid directly but he kind of let me know in a code. The only problem was this other gentleman was sitting on the bid that I thought was the upper limit according to dad’s code. The ball was in my court and everyone was looking at me. I closed my eyes, I hung my head, I bid ten dollars an acre more just in case Dad wanted it for “around that price”. I couldn’t face Dad if the farm went to someone else at Dad’s price.

Talk about a rush! That one was about a half million dollar rush. The most I had ever bid for anything. Maybe the most I ever will. That bid was the one that took it. It turns out I wasn’t the only one bidding for their dad. The only difference was that man’s dad had given him a solid upper limit and Dad had only said, “Whatever it brings you’re the one who will be paying for it. The rent is going to be a 4% return on my money. How much rent are you paying for Vic’s?” (That was the code) I quickly went home and gave Dad a call and told him that “the lightning had struck” and he now owned another farm. When I told him the price he seemed to chuckle a little. I asked him if that was alright he said it was and that he and Mom had better get packed and headed back up to Iowa.

I hadn’t slept for the three weeks since he had told me what he wanted me to do. I didn’t sleep for a few more weeks until he had convinced me that I hadn’t bankrupted him. He told me later that I was the first son he had sent to buy a farm that hadn’t bought it out from under him. Not to change the subject but this reply is getting too long to simply hide it “under the fold” in a comments section. I’ll go ahead and post it here as a reply but I’m also going to make it a new post where everybody can see it. Thanks for jarring (Or is it unjarring) my memory. When I spoke of the rush on that post (I’ll have to go back to find out which one) I had forgotten when this all started. Not to mention that six week “rush” from bidding for Dad. Now when I’m senile I can come back here and remember it again. If I remember where this is. Or who I am.

If I see you there and see you then, and you recognize me, tell me who the hell I am.