Tractors Can Get Stuck, Too

The worst-case scenario creates a cascade of woes.

| November 2019

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Fields like this don’t reveal wet spots. Note how quickly the tractor got stuck (the front wheels didn’t make one complete revolution).

Like most Farm Collector readers, I have been reading farming publications almost forever. What interesting things to read about! There is one subject, however, that I can’t ever remember reading about: Getting tractors stuck. That isn’t too surprising, given that tractors are designed to pull things. The idea of having one of those powerful machines stuck and immobile is almost hard to fathom. In fact, when something is stuck, it is a tractor that is summoned to correct the situation.

Fortunately, farm tractors are used conservatively and are not subject to situations where their abilities are compromised. In the past several decades, it is probably safe to say that the majority of tractors have been “shedded” whenever possible and are only out in the weather when needed for farm work. All experienced farmers know their operations and if there is a place that traction is marginal, those places are avoided. After all, a stuck tractor is about the most pathetic situation that can be faced. If what you usually use to pull things needs pulling, what do you do?

There are places, however, where Mother Nature doesn’t make her variations in soil conditions readily identifiable. A piece of land easily tilled at a given point in one year may be unworkable up to a month later in the next. The problem for a tractor driver is determining “is or isn’t it” dry enough to cross. Cutting out wet spots leaves the field only partially worked, a conundrum for today’s GPS. That is especially true in the wide-open spaces of Western America where dry land farming is practiced or where center pivot irrigation is utilized.



Some pieces of ground are obviously problematic. Low-lying land can be expected to be wetter than the land surrounding it. What is really exasperating are the many places that look “just fine” when, all of a sudden, the tractor driver discovers too late that they aren’t. Instantaneous action is needed to change direction as well as raise the implement out of the ground. Unfortunately, neither action usually makes much difference and before a couple shocked breaths can be taken, the tractor is mired and immobile.

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Since it was such a large tractor, the White remained stuck for several days before three tractors near its size could be brought to the site (a couple were borrowed from neighbors). When hooked together, the three managed to drag it out.

Two simple rules govern decision-making process

The foregoing is based on the personal experience of driving wheel tractors for decades. Two-wheel drive tractors are not much more apt to get stuck than four-wheel drive models. Maybe that is because they are used more conservatively. After four-wheel drive arrived, we found that it just meant we were twice as stuck.

Large articulated tractors proved to be marginally better at getting out of a bad spot because turning them meant that half of the drive tires could be directed a different way than how you entered the wet spot. Occasionally, if you held your breath and got the implement picked up quickly enough, you might wallow out.

When doing early spring work, we followed two rules. First, whenever there was question as to how wet a piece of ground was, we got out and walked it. It is amazing how a person’s pounds-per-square-inch on each foot proved to be a fairly accurate measure of the surface of the questionable ground. Using the boot heel to break the surface added another test. If either caused some question, the piece should be avoided.

Second, when the drive wheels made one complete revolution and the tractor and implement didn’t move forward, do not keep trying to get out. All that does is make the severity of the situation worse!

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Since it was such a large tractor, the White remained stuck for several days before three tractors near its size could be brought to the site (a couple were borrowed from neighbors). When hooked together, the three managed to drag it out.

The mess that keeps giving

A large, powerful tractor bogged down to the axles or high-centered its whole length, while still hooked to an implement, creates a major problem. Usually the driver has to walk a significant distance unless assistance is readily available nearby. What other farm tractor can be used to pull things out? It has to be almost as large as the stuck tractor because smaller tractors can’t get the job done. 

Sometimes the solution is in several large tractors hooked together. But how does the tow tractor get close enough to hook on? One doesn’t want to lose that one in the mud, too. If it is to be pulled out backward, the implement needs to be unhooked (and how do you pull the pin when it is down somewhere in the mud?) and hydraulic connections disconnected. Both jobs are sometimes done while you are knee-deep in the mud.

If extraction is successful, the tractor and its implement have to be reunited, a prospect that is sometimes much more difficult than under normal conditions. Then a more thorough examination of the ground around the bogged-down spot must be made so work can proceed. Long-term results include dried mud on the tractor and implement. A large hole remains that will need to be filled in later in the summer when things finally dry out. About the only positive thing about getting stuck is that one learns where to seriously check out that ground next spring.



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Photographs of stuck farm tractors are rarely seen, for three very good reasons: Cameras were not always readily available, total concentration is needed to face the crisis so the problem can be corrected as soon as possible, and it is embarrassing for others to see the mired tractor. This large articulated White tractor and its implement are pretty deeply planted. Note a similar tractor working nearby with no difficulty.

Big enough to bury a cow

This author spent his formative years driving a D4 Caterpillar crawler because crawlers with wide tracks can traverse a lot of marginal ground that wheel tractors wouldn’t dare get close to. Sad to say, as a kid I managed to get a Cat crawler stuck doing late spring work.

I was sent out to work up previously avoided wet spots pulling a “Graham Home” plow (the inventor’s name was spelled “Hoeme”) that had many shanks that dug deeply into the soil. An old-fashioned model, it was raised out by levers. It had no hydraulic lift. When the crawler’s wide tracks began to lose traction, I stopped and tried to raise the implement out of the ground.

In good conditions, it took a big heavy man pulling on the levers to raise the plow. I found that a little skinny kid like me didn’t have a prayer of raising the diggers out of the mud. My limited experience taught me that if I could disconnect from the implement, the crawler would probably walk out. Unfortunately, there was so much pressure on the hitch pin that it couldn’t be removed.

Panic-stricken, I thought if I kept trying, maybe I could get out. Big mistake! In just a short time, the Cat was buried so deep that my boss couldn’t believe it. Pulling it out later took so much work and was so difficult, I was afraid it would have to be left there until the ground dried. Believe it or not, what remained after it was pulled out was a cavern so deep that a neighbor who happened to come by, trying to dispose of a dead cow, just threw it in the hole. Forever after, when the event came up, my employer told others that he considered just leaving the Caterpillar there and maybe it would take root and little Cats would grow.

Take it from me: No employer should ever send a young kid out to work up places that previously had been avoided because they were too wet with the only advice being, “Be careful not to get stuck.” That scenario is ripe for disaster. FC


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My comment at the time was that son Tyler and Ryan Barns “were doing their usual stupid thing, getting Ryan’s pickup stuck in a farmer’s field.”

Appearance of Farm Fields Can be Deceptive

Lest someone think determining what piece of ground is safe to cross with a tractor is an easy task, these photos of our son Tyler and friend who regularly went squirrel hunting in the spring show otherwise. Farmers encouraged hunting ground squirrels, since the critters regularly damaged crops.

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Planks were placed under the pickup’s wheels. We used all the chain and cable we had so we could stay on fairly solid ground, making it possible for the World War II-era Dodge 4x4 to pull the truck out.

A visual scan of the piece of farm land they were crossing reveals nothing to indicate that this spot was bad. It certainly didn’t look any different than the land surrounding it, nor different than the solid ground nearby where we placed the retrieval vehicle. Due to youthful enthusiasm, they often got stuck and sometimes had to walk several miles to get dad and his old 1942 Dodge 4x4 Army truck to pull them out.

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The mud stuck to our feet like glue. The farmer would not be pleased by the ruts left.

Maybe because it was heavy and sat high on its axles, the Dodge had a phenomenal ability to drag stuck things, even those stuck as bad as this, back to solid ground. The captions listed here are what I wrote on the back of the photos when they were put in an album.

– Clell G. Ballard


A retired high school history teacher, Clell G. Ballard has worked on farms since he was in grade school, including 53 summers spent working on his uncle’s dryland hay and grain ranch. He also is a dealer of World War II-era military vehicles and parts. Contact him at (208) 764-2313 (and bear in mind the time difference with Mountain Time) or by email at cballard@northrim.net.

 



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