Every jolt jerked my head and neck, and pulled at my shoulders. After the first 30 minutes, I began checking for cracked molars and loose fillings. Two hours into it, I could feel the tendons straining in my lower arms from pushing, pulling and twisting the skid steer controls. The high furrows and steep ditches of the alfalfa field alternately pitched me forward and bumped me back, keeping me to 4-5mph. (Yes, skid steers have seat belts.) I finally shut the engine and climbed out of the cab after 3-1/2 hours, my ears ringing, face dusty, hands grimy, and body thankful for my, ummm, sturdy vestments.
It’s impossible to overstate the body-shaking ride of a skid steer – a must-have piece of farm machinery that provides the metal muscle needed to drill 12-inch wide fence post holes, lift 1,000-lb hay bales, push over small trees, and haul hundreds of pounds of soil, sand and snow.
I call my New Holland skid steer my Ferrari because it’s highly valued and consumes fuel. Outside of that, the vehicles are as different as night and day. The Ferrari is known for its sleek design, smooth ride, powerful engine and amazing speed. In contrast, the skid steer is squat, all engine, moves at about 5 miles per hour, has specialized attachments for different jobs, is as aerodynamic as a brick, and has the suspension of a skateboard. No, that’s wrong. A skid steer has the suspension of a cast iron sink.
The differences between the surfaces they ride on are just as stark. Think about it: you’re commuting into Minneapolis on I-94 or 35W and you’re doing 55+mph (not in a Ferrari, necessarily, but maybe a nice Impala or Prius). If you don’t hit a March pothole or climb the curb on St. Paul’s River Road, you rarely think about bottoming out your car or bouncing your head against the roof liner. You do what you always do – you drive the speed limit while listening to the radio (MPR, of course).
Hitting 20 mph and singing along with Dessa isn’t an option in the skid steer. A cultivated field is not a highway, and the growl of the diesel drowns out everything. (BTW, I love Call of Your Ghost, from her latest CD, Parts of Speech.)
Although a corn or bean field looks wonderfully smooth from the window of a fast-moving car, appearances are deceiving. Whether shaped with hand tools or a diesel tractor, an alfalfa crop happens when deep furrows are seeded, the plants grow, the mature plants are mowed down, raked over, and the dried plants rolled into tight bales of hay. What this means is that a field is a washboard of foot-high hills and valleys, uneven lumps of dried soil and foot-catching clumps of grass. To try running, or even quickly walking, across a farm field is to risk breaking an ankle or wrenching a knee.
Imagine riding your bike on a railroad bed, one where you hit a squared off wooden cross beam every two feet or so, and where the space between the ties is filled with rough rock. Now, imagine doing that at 10 mph for a couple of hours straight.
Ah, you get the picture. Bone jarring. Body jostling. The skid steer ride. Three hours of it.
Well, it was after a full afternoon of criss-crossing the fields – Dave on the tractor, me on the skid steer – that we got 59 bales of hay off the alfalfa field and onto a nearby storage area. That was the total harvest, and it equals about 1/3 of what we’ll need to feed our beef cattle this winter. We don’t feed grain or corn to our Buelingo herd – a pretty breed of cattle developed right here in the Upper Midwest. Dave and I are committed to 100% grass-fed because it keeps the cows healthier and produces high quality, flavorful meat for our family, and for customers in the Twin Cities, west central Wisconsin, and points farther afield. We’re about sustainable farming and local food. It means rotating our herd through grassy fields in the summer, and putting up hay for the snowy season.
Alfalfa fields are often cropped two and three times a season. The second growth is already six inches high, and the forecast is for five days of sunshine. (I can hardly believe it.) If the heat stays with us and we get enough rain, I’m thinking I’ll be back in the skid steer in five weeks. And, yes, I’ll be wearing all I can to keep body and mind together.
(Raising grass-fed cattle on Bull Brook Keep is not like a stroll through the Bronx Zoo.Visit us and see for yourself.)
At top: July 2, 2013 – Bull Brook Keep, Clear Lake, WI