Portage River Farm

  (Pinckney, Michigan)
Notes on our struggles and successes on our family farm in rural Michigan.
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Snow Drifts And Cold Starts

Winter here in Michigan really wasn't measuring up to its reputation...until this week. January and the first week of February were so devoid of snow that I was beginning to think we were just going to ease into early spring without it. Two mornings ago, Freya and I emerged from the house in the pre-dawn hours beneath a sky sifting tons of tiny flakes. At work that day, I kept glancing out of the windows at the ceaseless curtain of white while co-workers talked excitedly about the predicted accumulation.

I arrived at our farm that evening to find the driveway under ten inches of snow with more falling. I knew that I would have to put off any snow removal activities until later because an old friend and member of our CSA was stopping by to help me with the smokestack for our maple syrup evaporator. Fred is an all-round handy guy, but his expertise as a professional chimney-sweep is very handy for just this sort of project.

As we worked, our conversation turned to discussing my tractor and my use of it for plowing the driveway. Fred asked if I employed a block heater to help get it started in the cold weather. I recounted my conversation with the tractor dealer who scoffed at the idea of a block heater but never did get around to telling me how to cold start the thing. Eventually I made an attempt at starting it up but quit due to fear of wearing the battery down. I ended up turning to YouTube videos of people cold-starting their tractors (it's amazing what you can find on there!) to see how it was done.

Some of the farmers in the videos sprayed Ether into the air intake. I went out and bought a can of it but have never tried it because the air intake on my Massey Ferguson 255 is buried inside the battery compartment and requires removing the grill to reach it. My only experience with ether involved a particularly foolish episode in my teenage years. I won't go into the details but let's just say it resulted in a VERY large fireball!

After having read accounts of farmers bending rods and shattering rings with ether, I put the can aside. Instead I simply crossed my fingers and held the starter in as the cranking got weaker and weaker. Luckily it kicked over and started before the battery was completely dead. That was back in December on the occasion of our last decent snowfall.

Now I sat in the seat of the tractor and counted the weeks since the tractor had been started. Even though I had replaced the battery in the late Fall, I knew that it was still likely to have lost some of its charge in all of those idle weeks. I opened the tractor tent flaps, set the tractor to neutral and pressed the starter. Rur..rur....rur......ruur.........ruuur...........ruuuur.... The battery just didn't have enough juice to get there.

Luckily I happened to be in the sort of mood that let me take this problem in stride rather than getting upset. I headed out to the hardware store, picked up a battery charger and snaked extension cords out through the snow. Once it was charging, I headed to bed with plans to get up early in the morning so I could get the plowing done before heading off to work.

At 5am I checked that the battery was fully charged, climbed onto the seat, pressed the button and got absolutely nothing in return. It was as if the starter button had been disconnected. I checked the battery again and then stood there trying to figure out what was happening. I tried shorting across the starter with a screwdriver only to find that there was no voltage reaching the starter motor at all. Beginning to suspect a wiring problem, I used a pair of jumper cables to connect the starter directly to the battery. The cables couldn't handle the large current draw, but I got enough of a response to confirm that on top of everything else, the tractor's starter cable had gone bad.

I drove off to work through snow that was now deep enough that it was higher than the front of the minivan. I snowplowed my way through but knew that there was no way that Janet's compact car would make it. Since school had been cancelled for the day, they simply stayed home and snowed-in until I could get home that evening.

I picked up a new battery cable at an auto parts store on my way home. The wind had been blowing all day and the snow on the driveway had drifted to a couple of feet deep in places. I barely got through. After dinner, Janet and I headed back out to the tractor. She held the light for me while I performed the minor surgical procedure of replacing the battery to starter cable. I climbed back up into the seat and the engine started with ease. It seems that the weakened electrical cable may have been the primary problem all along.

Janet gave me a smiling thumbs-up and headed back to the house. I donned my headlamp (I still haven't managed to repair the tractor lights) and drove off into the snowy darkness. The buildup of snow was impressive but no match for "Massie" when she's running well. I cleared the drive in no time and mounded up huge piles of snow with the loader. Upon parking her back in her tent, I headed into the house for an evening of planting onion seeds in flats and dreaming of warmer days to come.
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