What’s that noise? What’s that smell?
As anyone associated with farming knows, while it takes all five senses to run a farm most efficiently, some senses are used more than others. It sometimes takes an unusual sound or smell to make a farmer aware of potential problems.
For most of my farming jobs, I drove a tractor without any sort of enclosed cab, which made me especially alert to those out-of-place sounds and smells. From the squeal and screech of an unlubricated bearing to the smell of that same bearing overheating and failing, I quickly learned to pick up on those smaller problems before they became bigger ones.
For example, there was the smell of leaking oil or hydraulic fluid when a supply line was overstressed. I tightened a lot of hydraulic fittings when hauling large round bales that tested the limits of the loader’s lifting ability. During haying season, it seemed as if we were constantly taking a rubber hydraulic hose to the nearby John Deere dealer in Fennimore for repairs or replacement.
Changing the tractor’s engine oil involved several senses. The sense of touch came into play, as the oil plug neared its final turn out of the oil pan—because, if you didn’t hang onto it, you didn’t want to have to fish it out of the gallons of hot, used oil that would come gushing out of the tractor. The smell of that used oil wasn’t unpleasant, but getting hot oil on your hands didn’t feel good. And you didn’t want to hear the sound of oil draining as you refilled the tractor with fresh oil—because that meant you’d forgotten to put the drain plug back in.
When I first starting learning how to rake hay, Dad adjusted the settings on our five-bar side delivery hayrake for me. The goal was to make the rake pick up and aerate the flat, cut hay into a fluffy windrow without the rake teeth actually hitting the ground. After a few years, I learned to adjust the rake myself and was especially proud when all I heard was the soft swish of the hay being swept up into those nice, neat windrows. Not hearing the rake teeth hit the ground also meant that one of my maintenance tasks (replacing broken or bent rake teeth) was minimized.
A slightly earlier model of the John Deere side delivery hayrake that I first learned to rake hay with. (Photo courtesy of The Operation, Care, and Repair of Farm Machinery, Twenty-Fifth Edition.)
When using equipment with a power takeoff, the operator had to be alert to turn widely enough that no unpleasant sound of the power takeoff shaft’s knuckles binding could be heard. If you didn’t correct that problem by straightening out of the turn, you could break connectors—or even one (or more) of the knuckles. (At the local repair shop, I saw others’ shafts having a knuckle welded back on.)
The power take-off shaft articulated through pairs of cross-placed knuckles that would rattle and clatter if the operator turned too tightly in the field. (Photo courtesy of The Operation, Care, and Repair of Farm Machinery, Twenty-Fifth Edition.)
There was often a rhythm to the sounds of a piece of equipment. Mom was the primary operator of our John Deere square baler, and she was good at it. From the sound of the pickup teeth gathering the windrow, to the kachunk of the bale-chamber packing arm, to the slamming sound and subsequent click (as the hydraulic thrower tossed a completed bale into the wagon and returned its throwing pan to the ready position), there was a lot for which she had to listen.
When Mom started baling with our John Deere 4240 with its Sound-Gard cab in the late 1970s, she said she was worried that she wouldn’t hear the baler’s sounds clearly enough to know when something was wrong. But she quickly learned that, though the sound was a bit muffled (because the cab filtered out a lot of engine noise from the tractor), she could still hear the baler’s rhythmic sounds.
Rhythmic sounds also came into play as I unloaded those square bales at our barn or one of our sheds. With multiple chains to listen to, our hay elevators each had their own sounds. If those sounds got “off,” it was time to shut things down and either lubricate something—or repair or adjust it. The worst occurrence came if the chain on our smaller hay elevator came off its idling gear at the top of the elevator, some 20 or more feet in the air. As the smallest member of our haying crew, I had to climb up there with a couple of wrenches in hand, loosen two bolts to slide the gear down, put the chain back on, and then tighten those two bolts to get things going again. The little elevator’s tubular steel construction caused it to wiggle and bend the closer to the end I climbed. Needless to say, I was careful not to run that chain off, if I could help it.
Mind you, there were plenty of pleasant sounds and smells as well. We could listen to birdsong when we turned off the tractor for a few moments. And nothing beat the smell of new-mown hay. On the other hand, there were also the less-pleasant smells of manure or rotting vegetation. (Though, of course, constantly working around them tended to desensitize my nasal passages. Was it the same for you?)
What smells and sounds do you recall from your farm? Tell us in the comments below.