Farm Industry News Blog

Phoning it in

Sometimes it's better not to answer your phone.

Let's have a little Q & A session. Do you have a cell phone? Do you have a cell phone with a good connection? Better yet, do you have a cell phone that keeps you well-connected? There's a huge difference between the two. A cell phone with a good connection just means you're not in some valley, or a million miles from a tower. Anyone can have a phone like that. Now, if you have a phone that keeps you well-connected to the right people, that's a totally different deal.

An important call came in a few weeks ago. It was midday on a Friday. The caller was Tim, a guy I've known for a long time. Tim sounded more than a little anxious when he asked what I was doing, and quickly followed it up with a request for a huge favor. It seems Tim had a traffic issue. He was moving an animal in his livestock trailer. It wasn't just a short trip down the road to a pasture, or a slightly longer trip to an auction market. Nope, Tim's critter was a potential genetic celebrity. He'd be hitting the road for a distant location where he would be housed for a while. During his stay, a collection agent would periodically work with him and extract some product that would then be packaged in little swizzle-stick-like containers and shared with/sold to progressive members of the bovine industry.

Tim has his own trailer to haul livestock. He'd gotten it a few years ago and it was used when he bought it. The trailer was made by the same company that made my trailer. Here's the key part of the previous paragraph that explains why I got involved. He'd be hitting the road....

Tim got his celebrity-in-waiting bull on the trailer and headed out for the big guy's new temporary home. Less than a mile into the trip, he hadn't turned on the radio yet, and he still had his window rolled down. That's when he heard it. "It" would be the sound of his trailer floor divorcing itself from his trailer frame! Tim's cargo was about to literally hit the road! I'll do some visual math and engineering for you here. If the front of your floor and the rear of your floor remain somewhat attached to the frame of your trailer while the aluminum planks making up the base of the floor remain assembled, you have pretty much made yourself one of those flexible rope bridges with a damsel in distress partway across and Snidely Whiplash with a big ol' knife on the other side. Instead of having a nice level floor with lots of sturdy support underneath where a marble wouldn't even roll, your trailer floor has now taken on a scalloped appearance. Add some water and you'll have whitecaps in no time!

I'll do some more math for you. Heading down the road with a potentially high-value animal aboard is not the moment when you want your vehicle infrastructure to give out on you. There really isn't a perfect time, but Friday around noon when you have a 5:00 deadline a few hours away is quite a ways down the list. What could happen is that the floor completely disintegrates and more or less becomes a trap door. Over an open pit, that could work, but this wasn't every episode of "Gilligan's Island." This was the episode where the high-dollar animal falls through the floor and then becomes a really, really low-dollar animal in a matter of seconds. Make as many visits as you want, but you probably won't find many bull studs where they wheel out the collection candidates/amputees on a gurney or in a wheelchair for the task at hand. The bulls need to be mobile. That means four good legs, fully intact and functional.

So what do you do in that situation if you're Tim? Whip out your phone, dial up Guy No. 2 and pop the question: "Hey, whatchyaupto? Got a HUGE favor to ask!"

I got out of my tractor and jumped in the big screamin' diesel. Then I backed it up and hooked onto the livestock trailer. That's when all the wheels really started turning. I wonder if there will be a flat tire. Should I take a bottle jack with me? A floor jack? A spare tire? Wrenches? Maybe I should take the Ranch Hand so I'd have air compressor capabilities! Perhaps we'll have to do some Jaws of Life work to extract the crash victim. I guess I never really asked Tim just how bad everything was at the scene, and I'm guessing a return call will go straight to voice mail while he's on the line with multiple other people.

I made my way to what I figured was the scene of the crime. Tim was nowhere to be seen. I drove around a bit more than I wanted and never saw any sign of him. He's not the kind of guy who'd play a practical joke on me like that, so I went back to his place. That's where I found his truck and trailer with the bull inside. Surprisingly, the floor really didn't look as bad as I thought it would. Although, we were hauling a bull here. Try to do the same thing with freshly-weaned pigs in a floor with some waviness to it like that and you'll find yourself with some serious accounting and inventory issues by the time you get to your destination.

Then it got more interesting. This would require a few things to go right, in order to find success. If we took my truck and trailer and parked them on a level spot in Tim's yard, we could then transfer the bull from his trailer to mine. We'd lock the bull in the front half of my trailer. Then I'd unhook my trailer from my truck and Tim would unhook his trailer carcass from his truck and hook onto my trailer. This would work for one reason: relatively long tandem axle trailers and teeter-totters. If we unhooked Tim's truck first and then put it on my trailer, there would be nothing holding the front end of his trailer (and animal) to the ground. As soon as the bull went from the front end of the trailer to the back end, he'd more or less be walking downhill suddenly. You know what he'd do then? Turn around and go back! That would make the trailer hit the ground with a big bang. Nothing excites an animal like some racket and some involuntary teeter-totter work!

Once you get that big guy hustling from one end of the teeter-totter to the other, you're in the never-ending Lather-Rinse-Repeat death spiral. And it won't end when you finally break the jack off the front end of your trailer on the final big bang. Nope, that's when the fun begins, because now you have a fat kid way out on the end of the teeter-totter and you can't lean hard enough on the other end to bring things back into equilibrium.

Don't ask me how I know all about one-man/critter teeter-totters, but just keep this in mind: If you move livestock around with a gooseneck trailer hooked to the fifth-wheel ball on your skid loader's pallet forks, the safety chains are not meant for decorations. Let's say, hypothetically, that your trailer comes loose. If you time it right, you can get the trailer to land on the ball again on its downward motion, but you probably can't do it a second and third time in that same fifteen-second window. Trust me. 

Fortunately, that's not how my skid loader experience worked out. I got lucky and made the connection mid-air. Lesson learned. Physics can be your friend, but don't push it. Pushing your luck is why we have lotteries and drink specials.

Tim got the trailer switch made and was ready to hit the road for his fast-approaching deadline. That's when we made yet another discovery. America is a big country full of rugged individualists. Creativity and nonconformity are good things some of the time. When it comes to equipment, though, a little standardization wouldn't hurt. The power cord for my livestock trailer was different than the outlet on Tim's truck. Not just switch-a-couple-wires different, either. Nope, I had a six-pin round plug that was about an inch in diameter. Tim's truck had a six-pin flat outlet that was about two inches in diameter. Skipping the part where you don't hook up the cord would work if we were just going between farms. This was a trip between multiple area codes, though. Oh, and some potential metro traffic, too, so you really can't run through those areas with no taillights, no brake lights and no electric brakes once the sun goes down!

But wait, I had an idea!

I whipped out my phone and looked up the number for an RV place I'd used a few years ago for some reason. They put me in touch with their trailer wiring specialist. Once I told him what I needed, and that I could be there shortly to get it, he gave me an answer I wasn't expecting. "Yep, got one of those on the shelf right here, ready to go. It's about eight bucks."

Convenient and cheap. My favorite combo.

Thinking ahead, I decided to have Tim meet me at the new gas station down the street from the RV place. It's a self-fueling station with blending pumps for ethanol and bio-diesel. With no doughnuts, pizza, pop and other junk food available, there's rarely a crowd in the place. I figured it would be a good place to do our little electrical adapter trial. Think about the alternative. I did. We'd pull into some giant, high-end RV lot with a livestock trailer hauling a beast with an attitude, plenty of testosterone, a heckuva set of lungs, and the willingness to use all of them in combination. My money says he's not going to keep quiet while we check out power cord connections to make sure our little Christmas-tree-of-a-trailer shines appropriately.

And how do I know that? Well, the last bull I bought from the Beef Teaching Farm at Iowa State University was one I picked up myself. He hopped in the trailer for the 170-mile trip from Ames to Cresco. And how do you make a trip like that, you ask? Properly fueled, that's how. That means diesel in the pickup and some Hickory Park BBQ in me!

Call it a cow town if you want, but they don't have a special parking section for livestock trailers at Hickory Park in Ames. I whipped in, pulled up just beyond the edge of the building to keep my walk to a minimum without parking in plain sight of the front door, ran inside and got my to-go order, and I was on the road again in less than three minutes. My cargo made his presence known while we were there, but it was brief. You see, to make good time in situations just like this, I keep Hickory Park on speed-dial on my phone!

There is no OFF position on the genius switch.

Guy No. 2

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The Farm Industry News Blog features commentary from Willie Vogt, Jodie Wehrspann, Kathy Huting, Lynn Grooms, Daryl Bridenbaugh and Jeff Ryan.

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