2 Horsepower Suits Rancher Fine
January 14, 2013
The morning air was still and the screech of the snow was loud with every step. The jingle of chains on tugs, the clank of neckyokes and the soft rattle of the wheels over the frozen ground accompanied the team as they walked briskly toward the river bottom where the cows were waiting for their hay. Steam billowed from the horses' warm breath and hung over the cows like a low cloud as they watched the team approach.
Inside the cab of the forecart, though, the sun was warm and made it hard to believe it was hovering just above zero on the thermometer. Al Garr, rural Belle Fourche, SD, was enjoying every moment of his day as he pulled twines and rolled out the round bale, using the Bale Wrangler, a bale feeding system he designed and built, along with the forecart it was hitched to.
The team, Orville and Wilbur, also seemed to enjoy their day, with ears up they eagerly moved through the cows. After feeding the hay, the team headed toward the river at a brisk walk, again accompanied only by the muffled sounds that the forecart and harness made. Garr was relaxed and enjoying the scenery of the river bottom, watching for eagles, deer and other wildlife that live on the ranch.
The horses stood patiently, watching as Garr chopped ice and cleaned the drinking hole for the cows in the Belle Fourche River channel. The trip back to the ranch buildings was at a fast walk and the horses waited at each gate as Garr closed them. The next day's hay needed to be picked up from the hay corral and the horses listened closely for Garr's voice commands as they backed the forecart and Bale Wrangler in to the row of bales.
With the rig being jointed in the middle, it takes patience and skill to back it up, and the team must respond to Garr's directions totally. With soft commands of "gee", "haw" and "whoa", the brown geldings maneuvered the rig for Garr with few wasted steps. The hand control in the cab was used to make the arms grab and lift the bale, then it was more brisk walking as the team pulled the rig toward the ranch buildings, again waiting while Garr closed several gates.
When the horses finished backing the feeding rig into the lineup in the yard, they were unhitched, again with no hurried motion, and driven toward the barn to be unharnessed. After being stripped of bridles, harness and halters, they stood and waited in place for their daily treat and kind words from Al. He walked through the gate from the tack area and waited in the main part of the barn, then spoke to the horses and asked them to turn and walk through the gate, thereby being released from their daily duty.
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The respect and liking the horses have for Al has been a long process, as he has spent the past four years gaining their trust and gentling them after he bought them. Their early experiences in harness hadn't been good and they weren't the kind, gentle and reliable team they are now. Garr's patient and consistent handling has brought them to a level of trust that didn't seem possible when he got them.
The Percheron/Standardbred cross geldings are nine or ten years old. Garr says "They're the perfect size for me to use. They're able to pull anything I need to pull, can handle two rounds bales on the Bale Wrangler easily, and don't eat me out of house and home." The saddle horse-sized geldings have heavy bone and good feet and are stout made without being cumbersome. "They can really get out and cover the country if I want to get somewhere. They're really active," says Garr.
Garr has used teams for over 50 years, starting as a 10 or 11 year old kid. "I've always had the desire for it. When I started, both my Dad and Grandad helped me and told me what to do." He enjoys doing everything he can with horses, whether a saddle horse or team, and appreciates the reliability of the team.
"They always start. I don't have to plug them in and wait for them to warm up, they're just always ready to go," says Garr. Maintenance is hay and a little grain, plus sharp shoes in winter, which isn't too bad when compared to the price of fuel and parts on a tractor.
Garr uses the horses year round, sometimes driving them into town to run an errand or go to the cattle sale. They've been in a parade and given wagon rides at events in Belle Fourche. He uses them for fixing fence and putting out salt and even mowed and raked his hay for the barn with them in 2012. "We didn't have much hay anyway and I decided to use them to put up the little bit I did. I got some old equipment and fixed it up and it worked fine," says Garr, adding "Whatever I can figure out to do with them, I do it. I just enjoy them."
The hitch cart and Bale Wrangler were his creations, and after a lot of experimenting and tweaking, he turned over the manufacture of them to Prairie Industries south of Vale, SD in 2009. The Bale Wrangler he is currently using is his first one and only carries one bale. "I had a guy come and look at mine that carried two bales and he bought it, so I had to get this one back out again. It's fine for no more than I'm feeding right now," says Garr. " With the two bale system, I could feed 600 head in about the same time as if I was using a tractor. I'm not running that many head anymore, but I wouldn't go back to a tractor even if I was."
The two bale Bale Wrangler has a rack for the first bale loaded and the second bale is carried on the arms. It's able to be used with anything that can pull it, from a team to a tractor, without having to rely on any one vehicle to pull it. It requires a 2 5/16 ball to hitch it. The Bale Wrangler has an electric pump that powers the hydraulics which operate the arms. There's a battery and hydraulic reservoir right on the bale cart and it can use either the battery on the cart or the vehicle battery when hitched that way. A hydraulic controller with toggles is used to operate the arms and is small enough to fit in one's hand. With proper maintenance, Garr contends that the Bale Wrangler will last indefinitely no matter how hard it's used, "One of these could be passed from generation to generation on a ranch."
With Garr's use of the forecart, the hydraulic controller is run up through the back of the cart and rests on the seat next to him. Garr modified his hitch so that it is on a fifth wheel type plate so it doesn't put any weight on the horses necks when it's loaded. His forecart has brakes so he can ease the load for the horses on downhill pulls as well.
Garr also added a comfort cover to his forecart, which he salvaged from a utility vehicle. It now has a completely enclosed cab, with just a slot for the hydraulic controller and another slot for the lines to drive the team, so the forecart is a pretty cozy way to feed in the winter.
The interest in feeding with teams seems to be on the upswing again, with folks looking at the price of fuel and maintenance on tractors. Garr has some suggestions for someone who has no experience with teams, "Get a well-broke old team. Just like putting a kid on an old broke, reliable saddle horse, that old team will teach you a lot about working them." He adds, "A team is a lot to deal with. If you fall off of a horse, he might run off a ways and then stop. A team can really get in a wreck. They can tear up a lot of equipment, get hurt, and learn some terrible things really fast. That old team is a lot less likely to have a wreck to start with, no matter what you do." Garr also strongly recommends finding a mentor who can teach the basics of harnessing, hitching and handling a team.
"It's not for everybody. It's a lot like ranching in general, you've got to like it," says Garr. "I like horses. I enjoy them a lot and feel like I get to enjoy more of God's creation with a team." F