Thursday, September 10, 2020

Remembering the Farm: Grain Handling at Harvest

 Once the grain was in the hopper on the combine, the question became what to do with it. On our farm in the early 50s that was a problem. Dad had neither a truck nor an auger; he had two rubber tired wagons of questionable vintage that held maybe 50 bu and 75 bu. They did not have hoists so grain would have to be shoveled off into the bin, if you look at old wooden grain bins, you will usually see a window near the top.  That was to shovel the grain from the wagon into the bin.

Some background is required here. At that time, Dad farmed 640 acres, of which 320 were deeded and cultivated, while 320 were rented. The rented land had 80 cultivated acres. There was a total of 400 cultivated acres of which 100 acres were summerfallow. Crop rotation was usually 100 acres summerfallow wheat, 100 acres stubble wheat and 100 acres barley or oats grown on stubble after the two wheat crops. Being generous that would mean 5,000 to 6,000 bushels of grain to harvest and store.

A bushel is a unit of volume. A bushel of wheat weighs 60 lbs, of barley 48 lbs and of oats 34 lbs. They all occupy the same space as in an Imperial bushel is 0.78 cubic feet and an American bushel is 0.80 cubic feet. A wooden grain bin 12’x14’x8’ would hold roughly 1,000 Imperial bushels. It would need to be cross braced inside about 1/3 up with wire or rods to prevent the pressure of the grain from forcing out the walls. I have no idea what the farm had for storage in the very early 50s but I know several wooden rectangular bins were added over a few years.

Typical rectangular wooden granaries, usually on wooden floors, sometimes with foundations other times just skids

The grain would be hauled to the local elevator (Saskatchewan Wheat Pool) beginning in the fall and through out the winter and following spring as quotas opened up and if there was room in the elevator. With luck the bins would be empty in time to hold the harvest. Cleaning them for fall meant sweeping out the bird droppings and any rotten grain that stayed in the corners. I hated that job. We never heard of Hantavirus in those days. My brother remembers cutting the ends out of tin cans and nailing them over mouse holes in the walls and floors

A 15’ diameter round bin would also hold about 1,000 bu with the advantage of not needing inside bracing, just strapping around the outside. It was filled through a hole in the centre of the roof with an auger. Round wooden bins painted red with black or green roofs were quite popular by the end of the 60s and you still see them abandoned, out in the middle of a field or rotting away in a row of round and rectangular bins. The disadvantage was you had to buy them as most lacked the skill to build them themselves. And had to have an auger long enough to reach.

Typical round wooden bins, usually with wooden floors set on skids

Back to the combine. The simplest solution was to clean off a place and pile the grain on the ground, hauling it home after harvest. Usually, he would make a circle with snow fence and line it with tarpaper to reduce the amount of grain in contact with the ground. Dad borrowed a short auger from our neighbour and filled the wagon, hooked the auger behind it, and drove it home slowly. The auger went into the little window and he would shovel the grain to the back of the wagon and then distribute it in the bin as required. Sometimes he got tired of hauling the auger home and would just shovel off the load. Next time he would take the auger.

In 1955, my Grandfather Johnson sold out and Dad bought his 49 Mercury 1 ton truck with a grain box and hoist. Life changed dramatically and that truck was our go-to work horse for 15 years (until he bought the Ford Louisville about 1971). About the same time as he bought the 1949 Mercury, he bought a new Versatile 28’ 6” auger with a (very dependable) Wisconsin gas engine. Grain handling became much easier. He had a hired man in the fall to drive the truck until I was big enough. The hired man drove it on the road; I had to drive it cross country which was simple as our land was all connected.

Three or four combine hopper dumps would fill the truck and you hoped that Dad wouldn’t have to wait too long for it to get back. I checked the hopper capacity of the new big combines 400 bu and up. No wonder farmers buy semis to haul from the combine.

Dad purchased another 320 cultivated acres and 160 of native grass and later broke up the remaining 80 acres of grass on the one quarter and  That gave him five quarters of cultivated land of which he summerfallowed one quarter each year. This all added to his need for grain storage.

This is pretty much how it stayed until the early 1970s. My youngest brother filled in some details as I was long gone by then. Dad bought a steel bin (3,000 bu?) in 1972 and put it on a concrete base. He bought several after that but on wooden floors with skids under them. At the estate sale in September 2002, the farm kept three bins including the one on concrete. In 2013 my two brothers, two renters and “two other guys” set the two bins on hopper bottoms as the wooden floors were starting to rot.

Setting the steel bin on the hopper bottom

Note the ability to insert a grain aerator fan into the hopper. Depending on the situation grain aeration can be used dry it, keep it from heating or bring the moisture level up to the legal maximum to market.

Dad finishing his last harvest 2001. The yellow truck was to jumpstart the auger engine. Dad only farmed the home quarter the last few years and rented the rest out. The other auger in the picture was also Dad’s and was sold at the estate sale.

Temporary storage belonging to one of the renters. The auger was purchased at the estate sale. The family continues to own the land and rent it out

Saturday, September 5, 2020

Remembering the Farm: Harvesting with Clipper Combines

 My first memory of harvest on our farm was possibly 1950 when I was coming 4 years old. Dad had the crop custom combined by a neighbour who had a self-propelled combine. Dad was not happy with him because he went too fast and threw too much grain out the back.

The next year Dad bought a new Massey Harris Clipper combine, with a 6 foot cutter bar, a canvas table to feed the crop to the cylinder, and a five foot cylinder. (For non-farm people – the cylinder turns at high speed and rub bars on the cylinder beat the grain out of the heads by running very close to the concave. Grain, chaff and straw exit the cylinder/concave to the straw walkers, and sieves, where a fan and sieves separate the grain, weed seeds and chaff, sending the grain to the hopper, and the chaff, weed seeds and straw out the back).

The Clipper pull-type combine was manufactured from 1938 to 1958 and was one of the most popular pull-type combines that Massey-Harris produced.

The Massey Clipper had one major fault in that it could thresh a heavy stand but there was no way to adjust the fan speed and sieves to prevent grain loss out the back unless you went slow. Dad pulled it with an Oliver 77 which had a live PTO to drive the combine but had no inboard hydraulics, so adjustments were by lever, manually. It had one other major fault which I will get to later in the post.

Dad made a simple straw buncher which was pulled behind the combine to catch the straw, chaff, and any grain for winter feed for the cows. When the buncher would get full, Dad would manually lift it to clear the contents.

I do not remember how long we used the Massy (it sat in the yard for years as Dad was always “going to do something with it”. But sometime before 1960, I think, he bought a John Deere 12A Clipper. Much the same rig as the Massey but did a much better job of separating the grain from the chaff and putting it in the hopper, instead of the straw buncher (which carried on with the new machine). By this time, we had an Oliver 88 tractor with in-board hydraulic so no more manual levers, except for the straw buncher.

By selling over 116,000 units between 1939 and 1952, the John Deere 12A became the company’s most popular PTO-driven model ever.

However, the John Deere Clipper came with its own headaches. The canvass on the Massey could be tightened by straps and buckles. That wasn’t fancy enough for John Deere. The canvass bolted together and was tightened or loosened by adjusting the rollers on the combine. Except in hot weather the canvass got slightly more slack than the adjustment could tighten. A slightly slack canvass tends to stall and plug. A crowbar carried on the tractor was useful in prying the canvass to get it moving again. There were many times when both Dad and I (I was running the combine myself by then) were sorely tempted to throw the crowbar into the machine and as Hamlet put it “and by opposing end them”.

The pictures and videos show the combines straight cutting, i.e. cutting standing crop straight into the combine. In Saskatchewan at the time, swathing was the norm. Standing grain would be cut into a swath which lay on top of the stubble to dry and to let the green spots mature. A pickup would be mounted on the cutter bar and would pick up the swath and the canvas would feed it into the cylinder.

The pickup on the Massey consisted of spring loaded teeth that went round and round under the swath, feeding it onto the table. It also picked up rocks, flipping them up onto the swath. The distance between the rub bars and the concave was very small and needless to say, rocks were deleterious to its health. Little rocks were sometimes caught in a tray in front of the cylinder but something half the size of your fist would bring everything to a grinding halt. Rub bars would be removed and straightened, sometimes the concave needed to be removed and beaten back into shape.  Any combine that used that type of pickup had the same problem. There were several custom pickup builders in those days and the one on the John Deere Clipper was vastly superior. I cannot recall the name of it to save my life.

We were still using the John Deere Clipper when I left home in 1965 to go to University. Dad eventually traded it to a First Nations farmer from North Battleford area for a red and while cow with a heifer calf at foot. Best deal he ever made. She was an awesome cow and by the time Dad sold the cattle, she had several daughters and granddaughters in the herd.

If you are a JD history fan, this link will give you all the diagrams, and instructions for the 12A:


Sunday, August 30, 2020

Covid-19 Situation in Ukraine

Ukraine health officials have registered another 2,096 new cases of COVID-19 as of the morning of Sunday, August 30.

Most of the new cases were reported in Kharkiv (198), L’viv (188), Odessa (173), and Ivano-Frankivsk (171) regions and the city of Kyiv. The total number of cases reported since the pandemic outbreak stands at 119,074. Of these cases, 56,734 patients have recovered, and 2,527 fatalities have been reportedSome 701 servicemen are now isolated (including self-isolation). 7,743 children and 11,084 healthcare workers have contracted the coronavirus (COVID-19) since the start of the pandemic.

In total, 42,828 tests were conducted in the country in the past day. In particular, there were 22,469 tests done with the use of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) method and 20,359 with the application of the enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) method.

On 11 March, a quarantine was enforced, with education institutions being closed down. On 13 March, Ukraine saw its first coronavirus death, cut off international travel and sealed its borders for foreigners. Internal public transport has ceased as well. Public transport in Kyiv is restricted to essential categories of employees – medics, bank employees, supermarket workers, etc. Non-essential shopping, as well as all restaurants and recreation, have been shut down, and public gatherings with more than 10 participating prohibited, religious gatherings included. On 26 March, an emergency situation was introduced. On 1 April, stricter quarantine measures were introduced,

Ukraine began relaxing in stages beginning May 22. Numbers of cases began to rise and on August 1, restrictions were introduced on a micro regional basis which will continue until November. (lots of good charts here)

Since Aug. 3, new rules for Ukraine’s COVID-19 quarantine have come into force: communities, rather than entire regions, are now divided into green, yellow, orange and red levels of severity of the spread of COVID-19. The authorities in districts, cities, and towns will have to tighten or relax quarantine restrictions in accordance with the new categories. The levels are based on four indicators that are reviewed every five days.

To contain the spread of the virus, Ukraine closed its borders to foreign citizens for a month on Aug. 28. The ban will last until Sep. 28.

Daily Testing and Confirmed Cases to August 29th

Confirmed cases by oblast (we are in Dnipropetrovs'ka Oblast)

Rolling 7 day averages for confirmed cases, recoveries and deaths

The data does not look positive since relaxing of restrictions. Most other countries are seeing the same thing. Clamping down with new restrictions for high incidence oblasts has resulted in the usual protests, especially in Kharkiv. I assume that this is fed by the usual trolls from the outside and multiplied by useful idiots inside the country. 

How much one can believe of the statistics is also questionable. Dnipropetrovs'ka Oblast shows low levels of infections yet Tanya says there are 20 active cases in Zhovti Vody, 10 in hospital. This is a former Soviet country with generations steeped in hiding bad news from their bosses and from the world in general. Some of that may be lingering on. I do not know.

Tanya mostly goes to town when she needs to and always wears a mask and gloves, going only to shops she must. When I have gone with her, I wear a mask and use hand sanitizer and wash my hands when I get home. My observation is that most people on the street do not wear a mask and in the supermarket, most people wear them, about half incorrectly.

I'm glad we live in a village on the edge of Zhovti Vody. Isolation is much simpler. Family, three neighbours and our taxi driver are all I come into contact with. 

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Mortality is the Inevitable Lot of Humankind

 A friend of mine commented on Facebook that some days they are burdened with grief for the world. I can understand that feeling. If you have been paying attention to what is going on around you, whether at home or abroad, and care at all about other people, you will be hard pressed not to feel the same.

Another friend commented to me that a song had reminded them of a car trip with three friends, all the same age and all of whom were now deceased. I said, “Now don’t you start because I have been thinking about death a great deal lately”. The news is filled with reports of death from Covid-19, state sponsored violence, street violence, starvation, disease, assassination, murder, and the list goes on and on.

It is normal to worry about other people’s death: relatives, loved ones and friends and I suppose we all think about our own death from time to time. Fortunately, our own death is usually viewed as in some distant misty future so not to be worried about. I am of an age and have been for quite some time, that my own mortality has become very real to me. That is natural as one gets older and a near-death experience three years ago, simply made it more real.

People fear death for two reasons (being dead, not the dying which is totally different). It takes away from us the possible pleasures of life. Very few people are anxious to give that up and ‘good health is the slowest possible way to die’. We do not know what happens to us after death. Do we simply cease to exist? Are we recycled? Religions that promote life after death in a better place are a quite popular way of dealing with the unknown.

I am in no hurry to die. While I could be hurled into the abyss any moment by the moving sidewalk of life, I prefer to think of it as 30 years away and need to plan accordingly. One chap said he preferred to die at 107, shot to death by a jealous husband. I do wish him luck. As to being dead, that doesn’t phase me a bit. I was not before I was born and did not worry, and I will not be after I am gone, so I will not worry about that.

Life is finite. The Psalmist said, “As for man, his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth. For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more”. Shakespeare describes it as, “Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more…”. Nabokov is even more blunt, “Common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness”.

The fact that life is indeed finite is a good thing, really. It gives some shape to our life, knowing with have a finite time to live it, we make the best of it we can. I cannot imagine a worse punishment than living forever. Or even with a healthy body and mind, living for 800 years like the Bible says the Patriarchs of old did. Any time between now and 100 is good for me.

The Bible talks about living forever in happiness, singing praises to God, walking on Golden Streets, living in crystal palaces, etc., for all eternity They need to work on their marketing.

The idea of grass appeals to me as someone whose life has been dedicated to the people who raise grass and cattle. Grass is finite yet eternal. Think of grass as far as you can see in every direction. Constantly changing yet ever the same. Individual blades of grass grow and die and more grow in their place. Trees grow in the low spots, rivers and streams run through it. Lightening storms and fires, insects and microorganisms all have their role in the maintenance of the grasslands, as do ruminants which graze it down and don’t come back until it has regrown. Carnivores and herbivores live their life cycles. Clouds scud over head, rains and snow fall, the seasons come and go, the wind constantly stirs the grass. Ever changing yet ever unchanged over the eons. Is this where dogs go when they die?

As luck would have it, I ran into a wonderful article two days ago, referenced below, which confirmed many of my thoughts and greatly clarified others. I recommend it highly.

How not to fear your death.

Without death, life would be nothing but a dire repetition, pointless and endless. Immeasurably long lives would eventually deflate into the most banal tedium. Millennia upon millennia upon millennia would have to be lived out and, even then, there would be an eternity to go. Eventually the most sublime and wondrous experiences possible would become punishing in their drab familiarity. Fortunately, this isn’t a possibility that need concern us too much. But confronting the alternative to death brings home the point – no matter how terrifying it might be, the fact of death makes life more brilliant and precious. The time we have together in this place is fleeting: let’s spend it well.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

The Halifax Explosion 1917

The explosion in Beirut should have reminded Canadians of our own tragedy, the great Halifax explosion which occurred December 6th, 1917. Wikipedia has a good detailed article which I will attempt to abstract and illustrate with maps from several sources

Halifax was a major stopping off point between Europe and New York. The harbour was relatively safe as submarine nets protected it at night and were lowered to allow ships in and out in daylight. The inner harbour, Bedford Basin, was the main anchorage where merchant convoys were put together. The Narrows separated Bedford Basin from Halifax Harbour. 

Ships navigating the narrows were to keep to the right with the oncoming ship to their left. Speed was limited to 5 knots or 9.3 kmph. Ship traffic was very high and rules were sometimes ignored in the name of speed. The Harbour Master informed the authorities that he could no longer guarantee the safety of ships in the harbour.

Map of Halifax Harbour, the Narrows and Bedford Basin

The SS Imo was a Norwegian ship headed for New York to take on relief supplies for Belgium. Anchored in the Bedford Basin, she did not finish loading coal until after the submarine nets had been raised on December 5th and was stuck there until morning. The SS Mont Blanc was a French ship taking explosives from New York to France via Halifax. She carried 2,925 tonnes of explosives—including 62 tonnes of guncotton, 246 tonnes of benzol, a highly flammable liquid, 250 tonnes of TNT, and 2,367 tonnes of picric acid. She arrived too late to enter the harbour December 5th. No one was aware of the load she carried and though she asked for special protection, it was not given. 

Why the collision occurred

When the Imo was given permission in the morning to leave Bedford Basin, she set out fast to make up time but was forced to her left by oncoming boats. The incoming Mont Blanc, moving slowly signalled the Imo to move over but was initially refused. The Mont Blanc swerved hard left to avoid a collision just as the Imo also swerved right. The two ships collided and sparked ignited the spilled benzol. Firefighters rushed to control the flames, not knowing of the danger and 20 minutes after the collision at 9:05 am, the Mont Blanc exploded.

The area totally destroyed by the explosion

The explosion killed at least 1950 people and injured another 9,000. Thousands of people had stopped to watch the ship burning in the harbour. The explosion destroyed the north end of Halifax, left 6,000 completely homeless and 25,000 with insufficient shelter in damaged homes. A raging blizzard the next day helped put out the fires but hampered rescue efforts. 

Help came by train from all over Nova Scotia and elsewhere. Damages were estimated at $31million and about $30 million was raised from a number of sources including $750,000 from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

One story I read some time ago, not mentioned in the Wiki article, was of a telegraph operator who stayed at his station frantically trying to reach the night passenger train from St John which would be pulling into Halifax at this time. He managed to stop the train just short of the damage zone but lost his life in the explosion.

Halifax was rebuilt and international rules about identifying dangerous cargo were strengthened. In 2000, my late wife and I visited Halifax and saw some of the markers commemorating the explosion, a rather sobering experience.

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Ammonium Nitrate - nitrogen fertilizer and deadly explosive

 Ammonium nitrate has the chemical formula NH₄NO₃. Produced as small porous pellets, or “prills”, it’s one of the world’s most widely used fertilisers, referred to by its NPK formula of 34- 0-0. It is made by combining ammonia gas with liquid nitric acid, which itself is made from ammonia.

It's use as a fertilizer in Canada is declining as urea (46-0-0) and anhydrous ammonia (84-0-0) are more economical and so more popular.

Ammonium nitrate is also the main component in many types of mining explosives, where it’s mixed with fuel oil and detonated by an explosive charge. I first heard of ammonium nitrate as an explosive when I was living in Ontario in the early 1970s. Highway construction in many parts of the province requires a great deal of blasting of solid rock to create a road bed in the Canadian Shield.

Highway construction crews used big trucks with compartments of ammonium nitrate and diesel fuel. Holes were drilled in the rock to be blasted, then the ammonium nitrate and diesel fuel were pumped into the holes, mixed while pumping. Large anti-blast mats made of tires were dragged over the spot and the explosive mixture detonated. 

Ammonium nitrate is classified as dangerous goods and all aspects of its use are tightly regulated because it can be used in the making of bombs. Two tonnes of Ammonium nitrate mixed with diesel fuel were used by Timothy McVeigh in the Oklahoma city bombing in 1995 which killed 168 people, injured at least 600 others and destroyed or damaged 324 building and 86 cars within a 16 block radius.  

The amount of ammonium nitrate which exploded in Beirut was over 10 times that, making the blast the equivalent of several hundred tonnes of TNT.

Ammonium nitrate does not burn on its own. Instead, it acts as a source of oxygen that can accelerate the combustion (burning) of other materials. In order for an accidental explosion to occur several things have to go wrong.

For combustion to occur, oxygen must be present. Ammonium nitrate prills provide a much more concentrated supply of oxygen than the air around us. This is why it is effective in mining explosives, where it’s mixed with oil and other fuels.

At high enough temperatures, however, ammonium nitrate can violently decompose on its own. This process creates gases including nitrogen oxides and water vapour. It is this rapid release of gases that causes an explosion.

Ammonium nitrate decomposition can be set off if an explosion occurs where it’s stored, if there is an intense fire nearby. The latter is what happened in the 2015 Tianjin explosion, which killed 173 people after flammable chemicals and ammonium nitrate were stored together at a chemicals factory in eastern China.

The following is a true story. The names have been redacted to protect the guilty. About 30 years ago, long before Oklahoma made it impossible to buy this stuff across the counter, a friend of mine decided he needed a dugout in a coulee a good distance east of his farm site to water his cattle when the grazed there. He had heard of using ammonium nitrate and diesel fuel as an explosive. With that very limited knowledge (not that it had ever stopped him before) he bought a 25 kg bag of 34-0-0 and with a can of diesel fuel went down into the coulee. He set the bag where he wanted the dugout, poured the diesel into it, added a dynamite cap and 30 minutes of fuse, then covered it with mud.  He then retreated about 750 meters (1/2 mile) away on the highway where he could watch the action.

And action he got. Far more than he bargained on. The explosion rattled windows in the town a few km away, as well as in his own yard. His truck was showered with stones and dirt. The RCMP showed up in minutes and chewed him a new one. But he was happy. He had a dugout, and learned something new while having fun.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Kizhi Island - an outdoor architecture museum

The Hagia Sophia post sparked Diane Henders' memory of a History of Architecture class she once took. That would be a most interesting class as it must have covered many of the architectural wonders of the world, of which several must have been in Russia and Ukraine.

I have visited two outdoor museums of historical architecture in Ukraine, the Pyrohiv Museum of Folk Architecture and Life of Ukraine near Kyiv, and the Pereyaslav National Historic-Ethnographic Reserve at Pereyaslav Khmelnitsky. These are easily visited from Kyiv and need at least a very long day to see everything. 

Click to enlarge
One outdoor museum I would live to visit that is NOT easily accessible is Kizhi Island 6 km by 1 km, in the middle of Lake Onega in Karelia. One travels by plane or train to Petrozavodsk a city of 260,000 on the shore of Lake Onega, which is worth a visit all on its own. From there a hydrofoil takes you 68 km to Kizhi Island, the home of more than 80 historical wooden structures.

The island was settled since at least the 1400s but only one small settlement remains. In the 18th century two large churches and a bell tower were built. They are now known as Kizhi Pogost and are a UNESCO Heritage site.

In the 1950s many wooden structures from Karelia were moved to the Island for preservation. Someday, I should like to visit.

Kizhi churches.jpg
Kizhi Island churches

Kizhi Island P7110088 2200.jpg
Kizhi Island Settlement

Kizhi 06-2017 img12 StMichael Chapel.jpg
Chapel of the Archangel Michael