I live in the country. I have a farm. I’ve spent most of my career in high-tech: I’ve lived in the city, too. So I’m fluent in two languages: urban and rural.
I rarely post here about politics, since politics doesn’t get the cows milked. And this isn’t about politics anyway: it’s about mindset. I’m just using the election as an example.
Take a look at the 2016 presidential election map, showing the results by county:
The Urban/Rural Divide
What we’re looking at here is not a division between Republicans and Democrats, but between rural and urban. The urban areas mostly voted Democrat; the rural ares mostly voted Republican. What’s up with that?
Let’s do a cross-check. Here’s a map of population density by county:
Pretty close, right?
The City Mouse and the Country Mouse
For all the talk of diversity and cultural tolerance, the mutual incomprehension between America’s city and rural populations is awfully high, and generally unacknowledged.
A modest life with peace and quiet is better than a richly one with danger and strife.
Of course, the moral isn’t about the city vs. country per se, but it allowed “city mouse” and “country mouse” to become proverbial phrases.
A New Phenomenon?
While the social split between city mouse and country mouse has been around forever, the political split is new, at least at the national level. It actually became dominant during Bill and Hillary Clinton’s political careers.
Here’s the 1992 presidential map, where Bill Clinton won his first term:
Notice all the blue in the heartland states, especially along the Missisippi and Ohio river valleys. That’s missing in his wife’s 2016 results.
And here’s the 2008 Map, where Obama won his first term:
Even in victory, the Democratic Party had lost quite a bit of the heartland, becoming more and more “the party of the city mice.” The Big Tent is smaller than it used to be.
Speaking as someone who isn’t a member of either party and has no particular insight into the process, my concern is that any city-mouse, country-mouse division at the party level will lead to lousy policy decisions by whichever party is in power. Our policy decisions are bad enough already.
(I’m curious to see whether a Republican administration plus a Republican Congress shows a country-mouse bias. But I expect it’ll all be drowned in the bipartisan Washington D.C. “follow the money” strategy, which is more of a fat-cat thing.)
So here we are, with a city-mouse, country-mouse split in our country that’s masquerading as a division between two parties. And hardly anyone seems to comment on this.
I once had a San Francisco resident ask me if it was difficult for me to live “among all those ignorant country people.” He seemed to believe that, as soon as the sidewalk ends, you step right into a scene from Deliverance.
I’ve also met people who believe exactly the same thing about San Francisco! Go figure.
My answer to his question is, “No, not at all. In the places I’ve lived, people tend to be about equally ignorant. They’re just ignorant about different things. (They’re also about equally prejudiced.)”
What’s to be done? Well, my mind-control machine is on the fritz, so I don’t have a quick solution. But the Cubs won the World Series, so all things must be possible! So I leave you with the following two proverbs. Go spread the good word!
When you feel especially good or bad about a group of people you’ve never met, you’re probably wrong.
There are three basic definitions of free range (as it applies to chickens). One is correct; two are bogus.
The correct definition of free range is:
Free-range poultry are, for practical purposes, unfenced, and are encouraged to spend most of their time outdoors, weather permitting.
Free-range poultry are often not fenced at all. When they are, the fences need to be distant from the birds. True free-range flocks are generally fed and watered outside. This encourages (in fact, forces) the birds to spend time outdoors and keeps the houses cleaner and drier.
If the fences confine the birds to a smaller area than they would normally use, the practice isn’t free-range at all. It’s yarding. Yarding provides an entirely different set of management challenges from free range.
Bogus Definitions of Free Range
Bogus definition #1 calls poultry with any access to the outside “free range,” no matter how small or disgusting their outdoor yard is. A tiny concrete yard the size of a bedsheet for 10,000 chickens counts as “free range” by this definition, which is the one used in the US by the USDA. But let’s recognize that it has the saving grace of being obviously bogus.
Bogus definition #2 is the European Union’s definition of “free range,” which is what you’d get if you took the USDA definition and had a PR firm give it a facelift. EU-style “free range” works out as: “Let’s surround a high-density confinement operation with a lawn, and arrange to have just a handful of chickens strolling around the lawn, giving the impression of free-range-ness.”
2. How do I do Yarding Correctly?
Nothing’s wrong with yarding, if you do it right. Most people don’t, though. They haven’t done the arithmetic. It really just comes down to the fact that chickens create a lot of manure: far more than a reasonable-sized chicken yard can accommodate.
The Tyranny of Geometry
It all comes down to the amount of manure the land can handle, and the geometry of chicken yards. Up to a certain point, chicken manure is a fertilizer, encouraging plant growth. Beyond that point, it’s a poison, killing the plants. Once the plants are dead, parasites build up in the soil and nutrients from the manure leach into the subsoil or are washed downstream with every rain. So the trick lies in avoiding this overload.
How much land does it take?
In rough figures, a grass sod can metabolize up to four tons of chicken manure per year.
Twenty adult chickens produce about a ton of manure per year. Thus, an acre of grass sod can absorb up to the output of 80 chickens.
An acre has 43,560 square feet, so your lovely grass yard needs to be at least 545 square feet per chicken, or a square 23 feet on a side. And that’s just for one chicken!
Few people can devote such acreage to a fenced chicken yard. Instead, they use a much smaller yard. The manure load in the small yard kills all the grass, and after that it’s all mud and manure.
The reason farmers went to 100% confinement for commercial chicken flocks was that mud yards are unhealthy. But you can dodge the bullets and have a healthy yard with the henyard system.
The Henyard System
In the Fifties, Geoffrey Sykes pioneered this system in his book, The Henyard, which uses a small yard and large amounts of straw or other absorbent litter to (a) prevent mud and (b) soak up the manure. Once a year or so, the old litter is removed and spread on a garden or a field where the nutrients are needed, and new litter is added.
This is the best and most responsible yarding system. It’s quite simple, too. The only thing that people get wrong is that it takes a lot more litter than they expected. Once you realize this, it’s clear sledding. Mud appears in the yard? Add a lot more straw. The straw is getting nasty? Add a lot more straw. When you do it right, the hens enjoy an active outdoor lifestyle, but their feet don’t get muddy, the eggs are clean, and you don’t start losing hens to parasites after 2-3 years, the way you do with mud yards.
Sykes recommended smaller yards, just 5-7 square feet per hen, with 2 square feet per hen indoors. His system used about a ton of straw per year per 50 hens.
Chickens like shade in warm weather and like to be out of the wind in cold weather, so Sykes recommended a windbreak all around the yard: a board fence, straw bales, whatever. This encourages the chickens to spend more time outdoors.
3. How Can I do Free Range Appropriately?
We’ve already established that 80 hens per acre is about the limit of a well-established grass sod. But you need a safety margin, so let’s settle on 50 hens per acre as the the upper limit. Maybe quite a bit less, depending on your soil and management. Otherwise, you’ll kill off the grass and pollute the area with runoff, and end up with “mud-yard free range” that harbors little but parasites.
Let’s start by listing some pertinent facts:
Fifty hens per acre is about 800 square feet per hen.
Hens also don’t like to travel long distances. They’ll spend most of their time within 50 yards of the henhouses.
Hens travel between henhouse, feed, and water, so you can spread them out by feeding and watering them outdoors, with the feeders, waterers, and houses at some distance from each other.
Hens scratch the ground with their feet, eventually destroying any plants near their houses. Most of the manure is inevitably dropped near the houses as well.
Evening out the manure load and giving the turf a chance to recover pretty much requires that you use portable chicken houses.
Predators are the biggest threat to your chickens. It is much easier to protect chickens kept in confinement or in small, tightly fenced yards. See my Simple Electric Fences for Chickens FAQ to learn how to keep your flock safe.
On the other hand, disease, parasites, and cannibalism are much less troublesome on free range.
Free range is pretty much synonymous with portable houses. I use small portable hen houses, which I move with a tractor once the ground around the houses becomes muddy. This is the traditional approach.
Other people are experimenting with larger houses, typically greenhouse structures build on skids. This is okay, too, though I’d stake down such lightweight houses very firmly if I were you. At the moment the trend tends towards tight confinement within electric poultry netting combined with very frequent house moves (every 1-3 days). I predict that this will slowly evolve into the use of a much larger perimeter fence and less frequent house moves. The labor savings are greater this way, but you have to be willing to let the grass under the house die from being scratched to pieces by the hens. With low stocking density, a few bare patches here and there make little difference. By using outdoor feeding and moving the feeders around every time they go empty, you can shift the chickens’ traffic patterns somewhat, forcing them to use the pasture more evenly.
Real free-range egg farming is much more labor-intensive than confinement or mud-yard free range, so it’s not worth doing commercially unless you can get high prices.
One reason you can get away with infrequent house moves is that the manure in a litterless chicken house becomes drier and less obnoxious the longer the house sits in one place. I’m not exactly sure why this is, but it’s true. The first few days a house is in a new spot, the manure on the floor is wet and nasty. If the house has been in one place for a month, the manure is quite dry and there is no smell. Moving the houses too frequently maximizes the wetness and smell.
On clay soil, the mud problem makes it important to keep a solid turf at all times. Permanent pasture is the simplest way of achieving this, though a crop rotation with grasses or clover as one phase will also work. On sandy or gravely soils, cultivating the soil does not lead to an instant mud problem, so keeping the chickens among growing crops is a viable alternative.
Chickens love shade. It keeps them cool, out of the wind, and protects them from hawks and owls. Corn, kale, and sunflowers, planted with wide spacing between the rows and often with a ground cover of grass or clover in addition, are traditional chicken crops. When the crops ripen, the plants are knocked over and the chickens thresh out the grain or eat the leaves themselves. The chickens must be kept off the crop fields when the crops are young, but once the crops are big enough to withstand scratching, the chickens can be turned loose among them. This is the method preferred by Milo Hastings in The Dollar Hen.
Hedges and structures like board fences can also provide the shade and windbreaks that will help the chickens to spend most of the day outdoors. Careful placement of feeders and waterers to encourage ranging is also useful. This can be overdone—in really hot, sunny weather, the chickens may prefer being thirsty to covering a long distance in the hot sun, sometimes with disastrous results. At the very least, the chickens shouldn’t be forced to go indoors for feed and water. Feeders and waterers should be scattered at convenient intervals across the range.
Running hens among trees is also a possibility. Hens will roost in the trees, which is a nuisance and causes the egg yield to fall precipitously in bad weather, since food energy must be diverted to keeping warm. This is not a problem with modern broilers, which do not fly. The appropriateness of running chickens among fruit trees depends on the type of fruit. Tree crops that are allowed to fall to the ground before being gathered are a bad choice unless having your chickens eat them is part of your plan. In many countries, paranoia about bacteria levels will prevent you from running poultry among the trees.
Eggs from chickens who spend a lot of time outdoors and eat plenty of fresh green plants taste better and have darker yolks than those of confinement hens, and the meat is also more flavorful and better-textured. This superiority forms a solid basis for attracting quality-oriented customers who are willing to pay premium prices for premium products. Range can also reduce feed consumption somewhat and allows a simplified diet, though less than people often suppose. Click here for an old-time description of this.
4. How Can I Make Money From Free-Range Eggs?
I don’t know any free-range egg millionaires, but the business can be moderately profitable if you’re careful.
Ninety years ago, a flock of 2,000 free-range hens was considered a manageable size for a farm where eggs were the primary product (that is, where the other crops grown were incidental and mostly fed to the chickens); flocks up to around 1,000 hens were kept on diversified farms. Such farmers simply collected the eggs and delivered them as-is to wholesalers. Washing and grading eggs, delivering them to stores, and selling them at farmers’ markets can easily take more than half the total time involved with the egg business, meaning that your flock has to be smaller.
In the pastured broiler business, it is much the same. Butchering, packaging, and delivering the broilers is usually more time-consuming than raising them.
To keep an operation profitable, it’s very important to recognize that you can’t participate in the commodity market. Your costs are far higher than a commodity egg farmer’s. (You’ll find some armchair experts who’ll deny this, but not any actual farmers.) This means producing the best product you possibly can and marketing it to the most discriminating consumers you can find, at the highest prices you can get. It’s essential to receive high prices, or you will go broke.
For a much more far-reaching treatment of free-range egg farming, you should buy a copy of The Dollar Hen, which I have republished under my Norton Creek Press label. Admittedly, it was written over 100 years ago, but I still learn something new every time I open that book.
Additional information about both yarding and free range can be found in James Dryden’s classic Poultry Breeding and Management, which I have also republished.
If you are interested in free-range or pastured broilers, you need to buy a copy of Joel Salatin’s Pastured Poultry Profits.
How can you save money on chicken feed? Here are a few time-tested methods.
Can My Chickens Find All Their Feed Themselves?
Not really. In the old days, farms and kitchens were so wasteful, with so much grain spilled by the horses and milk cows, and so much garbage thrown out the back door (or, in town, the front door), that flocks of skinny chickens could survive without further attention.
With an increase in our understanding of sanitation and nutrition, opportunities for self-feeding flocks are few and far between.
And because we know about nutrition now, my theme today is:
Start with a balanced chicken feed. Then supplement with other, lower-cost feedstuffs to keep the costs down.
The Two-Feeder “Grain-and-Mash” System
Here’s an old trick that not everyone knows about: If you feed your chickens out of two feeders, one full of grain and the other one full of chicken feed, you save money.
Why? Because chickens have a reasonably accurate appetite for calories, protein, and other things, and will mix and match the two feeds in a way that’s ideal for their needs of the moment. For example, a hen laying an egg a day needs a lot more protein than a hen that isn’t laying at all. The non-laying hen will not only eat less total food, but most of what little she eats will come out of the feeder of cheap grain, not the expensive balanced chicken feed.
And it works not only with grain, but with other inexpensive feeds, including some you can get for free.
How Much Can You Save?
This has been a standard feeding technique for 100 years, and has been studied six ways from Sunday.
Rules of Thumb:
Laying hens given access to a balanced 16% layer ration in one feeder and corn or wheat in another feeder will eat about 2/3 layer ration and 1/3 grain, and will do exactly as well as hens that eat nothing but the balanced ration.
If you use a 20% layer ration, the hens will eat 1/2 grain and 1/2 layer ration.
For example, I just looked up the price of Purina 16% Layena pellets at Tractor Supply: $13.00 for 50 lbs. A 20% feed, Purina Flock Raiser, is $17.99. Cracked corn from the same source is only $9.89.
So let’s run the numbers, and come up with an average price per 50 pounds if we try various combinations:
Flock Raiser alone: $17.99
Flock Raiser + grain: $13.94
Layena alone: $13.99
Layena + grain: $12.62
Grain alone: Don’t try it.
So you can save some money just by buying a different mix of feed at the feed store.
Does it Work?
It does! This has always rather annoyed poultry nutritionists, because their job is to find the right feed for the whole flock, as if all its hens were the same. And of course they aren’t. The key seems to be that only the high-producing hens need the full 16% protein, while the ones who aren’t laying much anyway don’t need all that protein—and don’t crave it.
This feed plus grain method best if the chickens are given clear choices: a high-protein feed and a high-energy feed. The grain is the high-energy feed.
Traditionally, there are two kinds of layer ration: a 16% ration and a 20% ration. With the 20% ration, the hens will eat about half grain, half 20% ration. Such rations are formulated for use with supplemental grain, so they contain extra calcium and such.
For broilers, you simply use the same broiler ration as ever, but with supplemental grain in a second feeder. If you used to use a finisher ration, try using the starter or grower ration plus grain. The results will probably be the same as ever, but the cost will be less.
Corn and wheat are the grains of choice here. They can be tolerated by chickens of any age. Use whichever is cheapest. Baby chicks can’t handle oats or barley very well. Even quite young chicks (a week old or so) can handle whole wheat. They can handle whole corn once they’re about half-grown.
For baby chicks, go for whole wheat or cracked corn.
For older chickens, go for whole corn, whole wheat, whole oats, or whole barley.
Whole Grains are Best
As soon as you crack or grind grain, it starts to spoil. Whole grains are best for this reason. You can keep whole grain for a year or more without trouble, while you should use up other chicken feed within a month or so.
This means that, if you have a place to store it, you can buy whole grain by the pickup load, the tote, or the ton even when you’re buying other feed a few couple of sacks at a time.
Should I Mix Feeds?
Always feed in separate feeders: chicken feed in one feeder, grain in another, oystershell in a third. Why? Because every time you mix two things together, the chickens waste the one they want least, tossing it aside to get at the one they want more. By mixing feed, you’re wasting both your time and the feed.
The main reason to mix feed is to slip in ingredients that chickens don’t like, forcing them to eat stuff that’s unpalatable or even harmful. Don’t do that.
You Can Feed Almost Anything
The two-feeder system works great for grain products and similar feeds. You can feed the following as if they were grain:
Bakery byproducts: expired bread, waste flour, etc.
Potatoes (whole potatoes need to be at least slightly cooked to make the skins edible).
Expired high-carb foods of all kinds: pasta, cereal, pastries, chips—you name it.
Grain-based feed originally intended for other critters: oats, cob, birdseed.
In fact, you can feed just about anything, even feedstuffs with little resemblance to grain:
Other (non-medicated) feeds: cat food, dog food, pig feed, etc.
Fruits and vegetables.
Meat, dairy, fish (fresh or processed).
Imitation meat and dairy like milk replacer and tofu.
How to Feed “Mystery Feeds”
The main thing is to remember this:
If the chickens have access to a feeder full of chicken feed, they’re really good at avoiding other feeds that are bad for them. They will balance their own diets by eating a little of this and a little of that better than any but the best poultry nutritionists can.
Some tips about feeding random feedstuffs:
Don’t get invested. Offer it to the chickens, and if they spurn it, take it away again.
Don’t feed so much that it’s likely to go bad, or even stale.
Feed troughs are your friend here, since they can handle a wider variety of materials than other feeders. Feed pans are less good because the chickens will stand in them.
Feeds to Avoid
Still, be careful with the following:
Feeds that will rot before they can be eaten. Think twice before accepting a hundred pounds of fish on behalf of your chickens!
Feeds that will put an off-flavor in the eggs: Garlic and onions (in large quantities) have this reputation.
Feeds that are messy in some ghastly way. For example, if you set out a pan of pancake syrup and end up with sticky chickens, I’m not sure what your next move is!
Rotten or contaminated feed. Yes, chickens have “nutritional wisdom,” but don’t try to fool them with horrible awful stuff. You might succeed!
How About Three Feeders? Or Four?
A three-feeder system is even better, with oystershell in the third feeder. Hens have a definite calcium appetite. If they have to eat chicken feed for its oystershell content, even if they don’t want the calories, well, a hen’s gotta do what a hen’s gotta do. But they’ll go straight for the oystershell if they can, which means they’ll eat less chicken feed, and save you money.
To get the maximum feed savings, you need to find your local provider of low-priced grain. Usually there’s a local vendor who is selling it at a much lower price than the feed store. Here in the Corvallis area, we have Venell Feed and Corvallis Feed and Seed.
At one time, they were selling whole corn at $6.00 a sack, while at Kropf Feed (now CHS Nutrition) it was $10.20 a sack. This is typical. So you could save save over 40% on grain simply by going to a different store.
And that’s the price for individual sacks. There are more discounts where that came from, if you buy a ton of bagged feed at a time.
Can’t I Just Feed My Chickens Less?
You can, but there’s an old farming proverb:
You can’t starve profit into a cow.
It applies to chickens as well.
The fact is, you have no idea how much your chickens “should” be eating. You’re guessing. But your chickens have an accurate appetite. They know when they’re hungry and know when they’re full. You don’t. Leave it to them.
My free-range laying flock has 24/7 access to chicken feed and grain, plus all the pasture forage they want. Do they get fat? No, not at all.
In the 120 years since poultry scientists have kept track of such things, they’ve never had luck at increasing egg profitability by withholding feed from the hens. The winning strategy is always to give them all the feed they want.
So the rule of thumb is:
If you can’t afford your feed bill, reduce the size of your flock.
It’s different with broilers. If you keep them past butchering age, they’ll get really fat. But the solution here is “don’t do that.” It’s not a feed issue.
Learn More About Poultry Nutrition
The best thing about the two-feeder system is that you don’t have to be a poultry nutritionist. As long as you have that feeder of balanced chicken feed, your chickens will do fine.
But there’s plenty more to learn, and plenty more you can do once you’ve learned it. That’s why I’ve republished G. F. Heuser’s monumental Feeding Poultry under my Norton Creek Press label. It has everything. It even has a chapter on the nutritional value of green feed and free range.
Right on cue, our hot, dry August weather transitioned into cooler, cloudier weather with a little rain—just as you’d expect in Oregon.
Autumn and Chickens
This is ideal weather for chickens, who don’t much like hot sunny weather. The pasture plants are greening up a bit as well, which will help keep the egg yolks dark and yummy. (The nutritional and flavor benefits of free range are mostly from fresh green plants, not worms, as some suppose.)
It’s also a good time to brood baby chicks. I’m a big fan of fall brooding. Most hatcheries still have a pretty good selection in September. Later on, they’ll only have commercial breeds (partly because off-season orders mostly come from people with commercial flocks, partly because the other breeds aren’t laying enough eggs to fill an incubator). Chicks hatched in October will be feathered enough to handle winter weather when it hits hard in December.
An Ice-Free Summer
Our ice machine is irreparable, and we’re looking for a new one. Because we have very limited water (see my low-yield well page), we need an ice machine that turns every drop of water into ice (a “flaker”) instead of wasting more than half of it (a “cuber”). These are available off-the-shelf, but we’re looking for a good deal, since we only use it two days a week. In the meantime, we’re buying ice at the Blodgett Country Store.
We broke our own rules a while ago and acquired some chickens from another farm, and of course they came with a free case of scaley leg mites, and this is spreading through the flock. So now we get to go out in the middle of the night, grab hens one at a time, oil their legs to smother the mites, and repeat at weekly intervals for three weeks.
Sadly, this tedious old-fashioned technique is still the go-to method. The dewormer Ivermectin is probably more effective and far more convenient, but it’s not approved for poultry. In the interests of science, we may isolate a couple of affected roosters and give Ivermectin a try to see if it works better than the treatment the others are getting, using leg bands to remind us never to sell them for meat.
What we were supposed to do was to never, ever allow a chicken on the farm unless it was a day-old chick from a reputable hatchery or an older bird from Oregon State University’s flock.
Win a Free Copy of Genetics of the Fowl!
Genetics of the Fowl is everyone’s favorite chicken genetics book, much more readable than most genetics texts, and written for people who aren’t geneticists, but poultrykeepers. But it’s a big book, which makes it sorta pricey. So let’s give a couple of copies away this week!
To enter, use the following link to enter the giveaway. When you enter, you have a random chance of winning a copy of the book free, gratis, and for nothing. You don’t even pay for shipping. The link expires in a week, so do it now! (You need to have an Amazon account to enter, and it’s one entry per customer.)
Good luck! And may the odds be ever in your favor.
September Poultry Notes
September is one of the easiest months in the poultry calendar: less hot than August, less nasty than December. Many people (but not us) don’t brood baby chicks in the fall and have already butchered their broilers, so it’s just the hens until next year.
Start using artificial lights for consistent egg production. The traditional practice is to provide a day length of 14 hours between September 1 and March 31. A bare bulb, equivalent to 60 watts for every 100 square feet of floor space, is plenty.
Avoid overcrowding. All problems become worse with crowding. And they flare up faster with crowding, too.
Cull molting hens. (Hens that start molting this early probably won’t start laying until spring. It would be cheaper and better to make chicken and dumplings out of them and replace them with baby chicks.)
Remove soiled litter. (If using deep litter, shovel some of it out to make room for the additional litter you’ll add over the winter, but only if it looks like the litter will get so deep it will make things impractical. “More is better” with deep litter.)
List inspired by a similar one in Jull’s Successful Poultry Management, McGraw-Hill, 1943.
All of these are fine books (I only publish books I believe in). If you’re like most readers of this newsletter, you’ll enjoy starting with Fresh-Air Poultry Houses and Success With Baby Chicks. These cover the basics of healthy, odor-free, high-quality chicken housing and zero-mortality chick brooding, respectively, and get good reviews.
I started Norton Creek Press in 2003 to bring the “lost secrets of the poultry masters” into print—techniques from the Golden Age of poultrykeeping, which ran from roughly 1900 to 1960. I’ve been adding an eclectic mix of non-poultry books as well. These include everything from my science fiction novel, One Survivor, to the true story of a Victorian lady’s trip up the Nile in the 1870s, A Thousand Miles up the Nile. See my complete list of titles.
Recent Blog Posts
Here are the posts on my various blogs since last time. Most are updated and greatly expanded revisions of older posts:
What upgrades and old-time tricks should you consider for your old tractor? Is a 12V conversion a good idea? A roll bar? A comfy seat? Read on!
I bought my tractor a year after moving to my 37-acre farm in Western Oregon. I needed a tractor just to keep the pastures from turning into forest. In addition, I raise free-range hens in portable houses, and the houses need to be pulled to a new location from time to time.
My tractor is a 1957-vintage Ford 640. Like the more numerous “N” series tractors — 9N (1939 model) 2N (1942 model) and 8N (1948 model), it is a gasoline-powered four-cylinder utility tractor with a three-point hydraulic hitch and a PTO (power takeoff unit) on the back. It’s bigger than the N-series tractors, with about 35 HP. At the time I bought it, I thought it would be nice to have a tractor that was powerful enough to pull a ground-driven hay baler, though now I know enough people who have been injured by balers that I’ve lost interest.
I had never driven a tractor before, so maybe I should give you some tips:
Type of tractor to buy. I don’t know about you, but I would never consider a tractor without a three-point hitch. Not only is this the standard, but the hitch itself is a safety device that makes it hard for the tractor to rear up and flip over backwards when an implement snags on something. So I don’t think of a three-point hitch as an option.
Age of tractor. I like older equipment because it’s simple and easy to work on, not to mention cheaper. My tractor is over 50 years old, but parts are still available, and it’s still running strong. Its hugely overbuilt cast frame will last forever. But new tractors have their attractions, too. It might be a good idea to do the process backwards. First, discover who the best dealers and mechanics are in your area, and then buy the kind of tractor they like to work on. Pick a brand with some kind of track record, not the flavor-of-the-week tractor from a third-world country that’s only been importing into the U.S. for a few years. You don’t want to be stuck with a tractor for which parts are unobtainable.
1. Converting a 6 Volt Tractor to 12 Volts
Old tractors generally have six-volt, positive ground electrical systems. Yes, you can still get six-volt batteries, headlights, and other parts, even though it’s been more than forty years since the industry converted to the twelve-volt, negative ground standard.
If your tractor runs well on its original 6V, there’s no compelling reason to convert. Twelve volts mostly add convenience.
How much convenience? In daily operation, just a little. In some circumstances, a lot. A 6V tractor can’t be jump-started from a 12V vehicle, and that’s a pain. I’ve jump-started tractors many, many times, so maybe that’s enough reason in itself.
If you want more reasons, it’s getting harder to find a good battery charger that supports 6V batteries, and of course you have a far wider selection of accessories for 12V: everything from iPhone chargers to fancy lighting bars.
When to Convert
Like a lot of people, I converted to 12V when my tractor’s generator failed. The generator worked worse and worse, and when I took it apart, it was a wreck. A new generator and a 12V conversion kit weren’t that different in price.
So what’s in a conversion kit? Not a lot, because the electrical system in an old tractor is so simple. Mine included:
A Delco 12V alternator with pulley.
Alternator mounting bracket.
Series resistor for your old ignition coil.
What Isn’t in a 6V to 12V Conversion Kit?
Some things aren’t included, either because you simply continue to use the original equipment or because you’re expected to replace them on your own.
Electrical things to remove or replace as part of the upgrade:
Voltage regulator. If your tractor had a separate voltage regulator, you won’t be using it anymore. The alternator has one built in.
Fuses. Depending on what kind of 12V lights you upgrade to, you may need a bigger or smaller fuse.
Electrical things to keep using after the upgrade:
Doing the 6V to 12V Conversion
The “wiring harness” only has four or five wires in it. The kit includes a new one. This stuff ain’t rocket science. The whole process only took an hour or two.
There are so few parts in a tractor’s electrical system that it all went very smoothly. I accidentally wired the ammeter backwards and have never gotten around to fixing it.
A lot of the tractor’s original parts are kept—the original starter, starter solenoid, ammeter, ignition key, and (usually) ignition coil are retained. The generator and voltage regulator are removed and replaced with an alternator with a built-in voltage regulator. You need to replace the battery and the headlights.
My kit came with a resistor to use in series with the old ignition coil. A lot of 12V ignition coils also use an external resistor. In the end I replaced the unit with a 12V coil with an internal resistor just to simplify the wiring a little.
I noticed that the alternator doesn’t produce any output until the tractor gets up to around 1,200 RPM. This isn’t very important unless you idle it at low speeds for a very long time right after starting it. But once the alternator kicks in, you can lower the idle speed as low as you like, and the alternator keeps working.
This video shows the whole process on a Farmall tractor:
One problem that the 12V conversion didn’t help was the difficulty I had with my starter, which didn’t always engage. This was due to a damaged ring gear. It’s possible that running the original starter motor on 12V accelerated the process of ring-gear destruction, though I had been having trouble with it before the conversion, and it was probably a goner in any case.
When I had the ring gear replaced (an expensive process, since it’s quite inaccessible), I also replaced the starter motor with the 12V model. It probably wasn’t necessary, but it made me feel better.
By the way, if you like the idea of keeping your tractor in stock condition, you can replace 6V generators with 12V generators that look just the same. At least, you can do this with Fords. Ask your dealer. I have no interest in keeping my tractor looking original.
Some people do minimalist conversions without buying the kit, using a 12V alternator they picked up locally and making things fit one way or another. Here’s one example:
Generator System Not Charging? Polarize It
Before I converted to the new 12V alternator-based system, I had trouble with the generator not charging. Generators on these old tractors need to be reminded which polarity they’re supposed to be. If they stop charging, you remind them by “polarizing” them. More about polarizing your generator. And watch this video:
Adding Electronic Ignition for Tractors
I had a persistent problem with poor ignition on my tractor. Mostly this was caused by corrosion on the ignition points. My tractor is left out in the weather sometimes, and the distributor gets rained on. Although I’ve never seen water inside the distributor cap, it must get overly damp because the points corrode within a year or so.
I solved this problem by installing a Pertronix electronic ignition unit on my tractor. This took about fifteen minutes and was very easy. It’s a little unit that fits entirely inside the distributor housing, though there are two wires that are threaded through an existing hole (where the low-tension wire used to run) and go to the two low-voltage terminals on the spark coil. Here’s a video showing how it’s done:
Net result: No more points, no more corrosion, no more lack of starting! It’s also supposed to improve starting and low-end torque.
I also installed a Pertronix high-voltage spark coil. It didn’t make any obvious difference, though maybe it deserves a share of the credit for the tractor’s overall improvement.
2. Adding Tractor Implement Lights and Headlights
My Ford 640 tractor came with headlights at the factory, but they were long gone by the time I took possession of it. I soon learned why; headlights tend to get whacked by low branches and such, and eventually get damaged or even scraped off entirely! After a false start with fancy chromed headlights, I learned to buy inexpensive “implement lights” at the hardware store. These come with mounting hardware and have a hard rubber case which stands up okay to abuse.
Not that they last all that long: they don’t. But they’re easy to replace.
I also added taillights, which weren’t part of the tractor originally, but made me feel better. My tractor sometimes gets parked on the road as I open gates or such, and sometimes I work until it’s pretty dark. I’d hate to have a neighbor collide with my tractor because it was hard to see in the gloom. It’s hard on the paint.
I also put some self-adhesive plastic reflectors on it. These didn’t last long. Reflective tape works better.
You should probably put the lights on their own fuse to reduce the chances of blowing the main ignition fuse if a headlight wire shorts out. You can also put them on a completely separate circuit, so you can drain the battery when you forget to turn the lights off use the lights when the ignition is off.
3. Installing a Roll-Over Protection System (ROPS) On Your Tractor
I was pleased to discover that rollover protection systems (that is, roll bars) were readily available for my tractor. I had the mechanics from the Ford/New Holland dealership install the model they liked best. This is the sort of thing you want to buy on reputation, not price.
Tractors are dangerous. They have a high center of gravity. I have creeks and ditches and steep hills on my property, and it would be easy for my tractor to flip onto its side or even on its back.
The roll bar is very simple, but it’s not the sort of thing you’d want to cobble together on your own. It needs to be strong and strongly attached to the tractor frame. I had the local New Holland dealership install mine.
Pay attention to the safety instructions that come with the ROPS. For example, the roll bar came with strong warnings not to drill holes or weld to the roll bar, no matter how much you want to add fancy lights to it. You don’t want to mess with the roll bar for fear of weakening it.
One disadvantage of the roll bar is that it makes the tractor taller. It bangs against fairly high tree branches, for example. So it’s not an unmixed blessing. Still, I’m glad I have it.
The roll bar came with a seat belt. The instructions say to always wear the seat belt, since the roll bar can’t keep you from being pinned by the tractor if you don’t stay in the seat.
4. Saving Your Spine With a Comfy Tractor Seat
I got rid of the steel pan seat on my tractor pretty soon after buying it. It was killing me. I replaced it with a heavily padded seat with a fancy spring suspension. I bought it by mail order.
After installing it, I could spend twice as much time mowing without my back seizing up.
There are a lot of different makers of replacement tractor seats. I don’t think you should even consider simple cushions for the original pan seat, but go for a tractor seat with back support. I also think that seat arms help. A tractor seat should be adjustable and it should have some kind of spring suspension. Mine has an adjustment so it can accommodate drivers of different weights.
It’s not an unmixed blessing. It sits higher than the original seat and I can no longer reach the strange little brake-lock levers. Admittedly, I never used them even before I got the new seat.
5. Eh? What? Tractors and Hearing Protection
You should always wear hearing protection when operating a tractor. Tractors are very loud and have damaged the hearing of generations of farmers. You shouldn’t let it happen to you.
There are a lot of hearing protection products on the market. Earplugs are very inexpensive and work quite well. I like the earmuff-style protectors better, myself. I use 3M Model 1425 Low-Profile Ear Muffs because that’s what my hardware store carries.
There’s not much to say about hearing protection except that you should always use it. Every time you operate the tractor without it, you do some permanent damage to your hearing.
My biggest problem is finding hearing protectors when I need them. They tend to disappear when needed. My solution is to buy several more pairs than I really need, so I can always find one. (I do this with hammers and ballpoint pens, too.)
Combining Music or Audiobooks With Hearing Protection
Music helps make the chore time go faster. I like to listen to audiobooks when using my tractor, usually digital audiobooks from audible.com or the local library. I’ve been a subscriber to audible.com since 2001 and have been very happy with them.
You can buy hearing protection with built-in FM radio or headphones, but I roll my own. It turns out that some kinds of lightweight audio headphones, especially those from Panasonic, have removable earpieces that are just the right size to fit into earmuff-style hearing protectors such as the 3M #1425. It takes less than a minute to do the conversion, which can be undone just as quickly. It’s much cheaper than fancy hearing protection with built-in radios or headphones, and this is important to me because I frequently damage the cords or leave the headphones out in the rain or otherwise wreck them.
Similarly, I prefer simple tape players to fancy ones. I had a tape player fall out of my pocket once while I was mowing. A trip through a rotary mower didn’t do it a bit of good.
For a while I used Koss earbuds alone, since they were the stick-in-your-ear kind that did a good job of blocking outside noise. But real hearing protection is better.
See my audiobookspage for more tips on using audiobooks to make chore and drive time more pleasant.
6. Fixing the Cooling System
I’d had the tractor for years before I realized that it was abnormal for the temperature gage to stay at the “stone-cold” level unless I was working it very hard. Obviously, the thermostat was stuck open, and had been when I bought the tractor.
Replacing it was a bit of an adventure. The thermostat itself is an ordinary Ford thermostat, and while Napa didn’t have a gasket for my tractor, the guy at the store gave me some gasket material gratis, and I cut a new one, using the thermostat housing as a pattern. The problem was that the housing, gasket, and thermostat refused to stay aligned while put the assembly back into the engine. In the end, I glued it all together with silicone sealant, waited for it to try, and had no difficulty putting the now-monolithic unit back on the tractor.
I also replaced the radiator cap on spec. this turned out to be a mistake. As often happens with older machinery, one problem masks another. A working radiator cap meant that the cooling system could now build up some pressure. But the seals on the water pump were no longer capable of handling ordinary pressure. The right thing to do would be to replace the water pump, but leaving the radiator cap loose prevents any leakage. So far, the loss from water steaming off hasn’t been noticeable.
Replacing the thermostat was a good idea, though. The engine now gets up to temperature even at idle, and it runs better. The higher engine temperature means that the oil gets up to temperature, which will boil any water from the oil and extend the life of both the oil and the engine.
I once backed my Isuzu Trooper into the tractor and damaged the radiator. The radiator shop in town had no trouble repairing it very reasonably, which is worth knowing. New radiators are also available.
7. Field Repair: Mobile Repair for Tractors
I don’t have a trailer that can haul my tractor, so if it breaks in a way that I can’t repair, the mechanic has to come to me, or I have to arrange haulage by someone with a trailer. The local Ford/New Holland dealer will send a mechanic out to me, and I’ve been happy with them. But I prefer John’s Mobile Combine & Tractor Repair of Lebanon, Oregon, because John’s just as good as the dealer and charges less.
When my starter stopped working altogether, John appeared with his trailer and took my tractor away. Replacing the ring gear on the starter involves separating the front and rear halves of the tractor. The frame of the trailer is a big hollow casting with the transmission on the inside. The flywheel is also in there, and the ring gear is bolted to the flywheel. Most of the teeth were chipped an distorted, to the point where it became impossible to start the tractor.
This is not the kind of job you want to do outdoors during a rainy spring, so John took the tractor to his shop. It turned out that the clutch also needed rebuilding (which didn’t surprise me at all), so I got two overhauls that required separating the tractor done at the same time, which is just as well.
John also fixed up several little things as he noticed them, which I appreciate, since I tend to let little things ride, meaning to fix them and not actually doing it.
There are varius kinds of mobile repair out there. Some of my neighbors use mobile auto repair services. It’s very inconvenient to take cars into the shop when you live far from town, and often the mobile repair guys are cheaper anyway, especially if you have two or more vehicles that need some work. Some tire stores such as Les Schwab also offer mobile service, which can be important for tractors and other vehicles where the wheels are far too large to toss in the back of a car.
All these services end up charging you for mileage one way or another, but in many cases you come out way ahead, either because you saved so much of your own time and could get a lot more work done, or because their rates are so much lower than the dealer’s that you came out ahead that way.
Another service worth mentioning is mobile veterinarians, who don’t maintain an animal hospital at all, but work solely out of their trucks. They’re usually less expensive than standard vets, since they’re solo acts and don’t have employees or storefronts to maintain, and a lot of them work with both pets and farm animals. Maybe you’d find it convenient for them to come to you, even if we’re talking about a cat rather than a cow.
8. Marvel Mystery Oil For Your Old Tractor
I use Marvel Mystery Oil as a gas additive for my tractor. Marvel Mystery Oil is a penetrating oil that tends to dissolve rust. When added to the gas in a tractor with a steel gas tank, it leaves a thin coating of oil on everything, preventing additional rust, while tending to dissolve the rust that’s there. I have also had some trouble with rust in my carburetor, and it helps there, too.
I used to always have some red rust in the sediment bowl of my carburetor, but this has gradually vanished since I started using Marvel Mystery Oil in the gas.
Admittedly, I could also pay to have my gas tank sealed, or even replace the tank with a new one. But I won’t do this until I have to.
I doubt that Marvel Mystery Oil is of any particular use as an oil additive, since today’s oils are already pretty good, but in old tractors and cars, especially with steel gas tanks with some inside rust, Marvel Mystery Oil good stuff. I also use it as a general light lubricant and penetrating oil, though I’m told that as a rusty-part loosener, Kroil is better. I need to try it some day.
9. Periodic Maintenence For Your Tractor
I have the Ford user’s manual for my Ford 640 tractor and also the ITC manual. I think it’s very important to do all the periodic maintenence in the book. Old tractors totally lack the lifetime lubricated bearings and other modern conveniences, and as a result you’ll end up using a grease gun a lot.
I was amazed at how a tractor goes through fluids! The oil-bath air filter uses 1.5 pints of oil every time it’s changed, and it should be changed every 10 hours of operation (partly because the crud and water tends to sink to the bottom, so you can’t really tell if it’s clean or dirty). I don’t know of a conversion kit that would convert my tractor to a paper air filter. Too bad.
The engine oil is supposed to be changed every 50 hours. Possibly this is overkill, since modern oils are so much better, but tractors work in a very dirty environment and some of the dirt finds its way into the engine. Better safe than sorry. The original spec says to use single-grade 20W or 30W oil, but multi-grade oils are better. I’ve pretty much standardized on 15W40 diesel grade oils in all my vehicles (even though none are diesels!) because it’s more than adequate for everything I have, without being so fancy that it’s going to break my bank account. I don’t suppose you can go far wrong with 10W30 or 10W40 or 20W50, either.
The original cartridge filter spills about a quart of oil on the ground every time it’s removed. I have a conversion kit that allows it to use an ordinary spin-on cartridge. I got this from the local Ford/New Holland dealer. This will make filter changes less messy and will probably provide better filtration. Also, the original cartridges don’t have a bypass valve, so bad things could happen to your engine if the element got clogged. I’ll install it at the next oil change.
Don’t neglect the grease fittings, which should get a shot of grease every 10 hours of operation. The purpose of this is to keep crud from penetrating to the interior of the fittings. The first time I greased the fittings, water, rust, and very dirty grease came out of some of them! Keeping the fittings greased only takes a few minutes.
My tractor also has filters on the crankcase and head, which are supposed to be sloshed around in kerosene to clean them and then be lightly oiled. Bad things happen if these clog or if the crud on the outside works its way into the engine. I keep a coffee can about half full of kerosene for this purpose.
And don’t forget to check the dipsticks for the engine oil and hyraulic fluid!
All this work leaves your hands disgustingly dirty. I recommend Goop hand cleaner. They must have reformulated it, since I seem to remember it stinking to high heaven when I was a kid. It’s odorless now. It takes the grease right off, isn’t harsh, and even works great at removing stains from your clothes! I need to find a wall dispenser for it, since it’s hard to open the jar with greasy hands.
In addition to all that daily/10-hour maintainence, there are longer-term tasks such as occasionally draining and refilling the transmission and rear end. I was surprised to discover that my transmission had very clean oil in it, but the differential had dirty oil, and the drain plug came out with a slurry of very fine metal particles on it! Some previous owner had skipped a lot of routine oil changes.
I went through about four gallons of gear oil when changing those two sets of fluids. Gear oil isn’t very expensive, but the sheer volume was impressive.
Some Tractor Links
Ford/New Holland North America. Ford, in a fit of corporate insanity, sold its tractor division to New Holland, which in turn has become Case New Holland. It’s always sad when the mergers start, because the resulting zombie companies usually aren’t good for much. But New Holland has a surprising range of parts for ancient Ford tractors, and the guys at the local dealership are great, so maybe there’s life in the old boy yet.
Yesterday’s Tractor is an old-tractor site with everything. They have stuff for sale, classified ads, and online forums where you can post your tractor questions and get useful answers!