Farming is a mix of tradition and innovation, and the machinery you’ll find on farms reflects that mix. That machinery is also a tangible record of how the machinery industry and farming practices have evolved over the decades.
“As far as I’m concerned, it’s an exciting time to be farming,” says Ray Donald. “It’s exciting to see how far you can push the nutrients and what they will produce with the technologies that we have today.”
Ray Donald has been farming for 50 years near Moosomin, in south-eastern Saskatchewan. His grandfather came to Canada in 1909, and Saskatchewan before 1920. He worked for other farmers before becoming a landowner himself in 1936. Ray’s father took over the farm after the Second World War.
“My dad bought the land from his dad, and I bought the land from my dad,” says Ray.
Today Ray farms with his son, Steven. They grow wheat, canola, soybeans and oats. They also raise beef cattle. Steven has 20 years of farming experience under his belt. He’s a journeyman mechanic and a dealer for Outback Guidance, an ag GPS company. Ray and Steven’s good humour comes through over the phone — throughout the interview, they both chuckle quite frequently.
Meanwhile, on a farm near Turtle Lake, in northwest Saskatchewan, Wilfred Hamm has been farming since his father died in the late 1940s. Wilfred was still in school at that time, but the family faced some tough choices. Wilfred’s three older brothers had a genetic disorder that left them handicapped. He also had several younger siblings still in school. Wilfred and his mother decided that he would quit school to focus on the farm.
“When Dad died, he didn’t have a rubber-tired or field tractor,” says Wilfred. In fact, they were still farming with horses.
“It’s pretty hard to switch from horses to tractors and understand them both.” Wilfred learned to operate machinery by working for a neighbour, who was very good to the Hamm family. They would swap labour. For example, Wilfred would harrow for the neighbour, and the neighbour would do Wilfred’s seeding.
“When I had their tractor, working here, I realized how much better it was than the horses,” says Wilfred. He still has the first tractor he bought, a Farmall A.
Wilfred raised beef cattle, sold lumber off the farm and ran a trap line in the boreal forest. His younger brother, Roy, ranched with him for several years. Together the Hamm family was also able to care for Wilfred’s older brothers, Leander, Tony and Edward. All three lived in their own house in the same yard as Wilfred and his wife, Darlene. They led meaningful lives and contributed to the farm with the family’s support. Today Wilfred ranches with his son, Paul, and runs his trap line.
If you had visited Ray Donald’s farm in the 1970s, the vital equipment for getting work done would have been the front-end loader.
“And it’s still there today,” Ray says.
Ray’s dad used a 70 horsepower 770 Case as his main chore tractor. Today Steven and Ray rely on a 2009 Massey for their chores and use the old Case to run the auger.
One of Wilfred’s go-to machines has been the Degelman rock picker. “We used to wear out quite a few pairs of gloves. Sometimes you couldn’t even afford gloves and our fingers would be all worn right to the bone from picking rocks.”
As a cattle producer, Wilfred needs to have a good supply of hay and grass. After a number of years, he’ll rejuvenate a field by underseeding grain to grass. But first he needs to break up that field. And 30 years ago the 16-foot John Deere 100 deep tillage machine was crucial to getting that done.
“They were quite a coarse machine. They didn’t make a good seed bed but they sure tore up the ground,” he says.
Wilfred still relies on some older equipment on the ranch. For example, he has a John Deere 2130 with a front-end loader. It’s handy for work around the yard, and he also uses it with the haybine.
He also has a John Deere press drill with an attachment for seeding grass. Darlene estimates that they bought the press drill at least 35 years ago.
“We’re going to use it this spring if we can make it hold together,” Wilfred says.
But Wilfred’s main chore tractor these days is a 140 horsepower New Holland T6175, which they bought in 2014. And back in 2011, Darlene traded in her wheelbarrow for a 30 horsepower New Holland, which she uses for tasks such as working up her large garden and cleaning her chicken coop. Darlene’s tractor also pulls the lawn mower when it’s time to cut the grass in their family’s yards.
What’s the vital machinery on the Donald farm?
“If you don’t have a good seeder, then you really don’t need a good combine,” says Steven. The Seed Hawk air seeder with independent openers and section control is part of the evolution of the Donald farm.
“It’s like night and day from what we used to do to what we do today,” Steven says, adding that they used to seed with old discers.
Ray and Steven’s machinery line-up is quite diverse. Along with the Seed Hawk, they run a Case IH Patriot sprayer, which is also key to the farm operation. They pull their air seeder with a Versatile tractor. They also run a New Holland combine and a Case combine.
In case you had any doubt, Steven confirms he’s not partial to any one machinery brand. He says that as farmers, “the only time we can control our losses is when we’re purchasing something.” So his game plan is to always buy the best deal.
Pros and cons of new technology
The evolution of farm machinery is all about convenience, says Steven. The old Case doesn’t have suspension, and the hydraulics are only 10 gallons per minutes.
“Whereas this new tractor, it’s got 30 gallons a minute,” says Steven. The 2009 Massey also has front wheel assist, electronic shift, suspension in the cab, plus air conditioning and heater.
The Hamms appreciate the hydrostatic control in their New Holland tractors. If Wilfred is carrying a bale and he needs to raise it, he just needs to pull a lever, he says. The little New Holland is also convenient to use — the operator can use the foot feed to change directions and speeds.
The enclosed cabs are also a huge plus on inclement days, although Wilfred still likes to drive an open-cab John Deere early in the morning during haying season. It feels good to be in the wide open, he says.
There’s also no denying the usefulness of technology such as autosteer and GPS. The faster speed is crucial, given how many acres producers have to cover these days. When Wilfred’s father died, he had broken 21 acres. Today Wilfred has about 800 acres of hay, owns eight quarters, and leases another six. And Steven and Ray seed about 3,000 acres each year.
The old machinery has its advantages, though. With mechanical issues, you can see the problem, says Steven. But with electrical issues “you can fight for days” trying to find an intermittent problem, he says. If the GPS goes down, many farmers won’t seed, although they can override the GPS if they want to, he adds.
All the computer technology on modern machinery makes it impossible for farmers to troubleshoot many problems. Wilfred is a confident welder, and had no problem changing spark plugs or grinding new valves as needed.
His brother, Roy, was an even more skilled mechanic, the kind of guy who spent his winters overhauling machinery and trucks for something to do. If Wilfred couldn’t fix it, Roy probably could. But these days, if something is wrong with Wilfred’s new tractor, the dealership needs to send out a technician to hook it up to a computer.
Steven can still work on mechanical issues. He is also trained regularly on the GPS side of things, and because he installs Outback GPS, he has some knowledge of the electronic side of things. But he doesn’t have a dealer’s licence, so he can’t acquire the software to diagnose electronic problems.
Still, despite the massive changes in farm machinery over the decades, there are some constants. They all need fuel, Wilfred says.
Both the old Case and the new Massey have power shift transmissions, says Steven. Although infinitely variable transmissions are on the market, they’re not something everyone can use, he says. He thinks the power shift transmissions are around to stay.
“You need those gear ranges,” says Steve.
The other constant is that even as companies improve emissions, an engine is an engine, Steven says. It’s hard to re-invent the wheel, he adds.
“The guy who invented the first engine was a very smart man.”