By Lochiel Edwards, for the Montana Grain Growers Association

Once again, winter in the Great Frozen North has passed; the sun rises to the left of East as it should. Yes, there will yet be days which feel like winter, but for Montana’s farmers there is a definitive indicator marking the end of their Paperwork Season, the end of Meeting Season, the end of long dark hours in the shop. Neither the calendar nor the weather can tell us when spring begins in the Northern Plains – both are fickle and deceptive. A day of greening grass and meadowlarks can easily be followed by a day of north wind and whiteout conditions. No, spring begins with the advent of the Rutting Season.

This Spring Rut is unmistakable. Most noticeable in younger farmers, who feel a drive to prove their virility, it can affect all ages. This behavior will begin one afternoon with one or two individuals, and within a couple days has spread to the entire species. You can observe them with their machinery, stepping into that first field – tentatively at first, then more boldly, smelling the soil and testing their footing.

Quickly losing their caution, they fling themselves into that age-old dance to plow, spray, and seed every possible square inch. This is where the Spring Rut manifests itself. When circling the waterholes, if the inside tire of the sprayer, cultivator, or drill is not leaving a rut in the mud, well then you have not proven yourself worthy of propagation.

Of course, Darwinian behavior serves no purpose to the species unless there are dire consequences. The apex of outcomes is the “almost stuck” with drive wheels spinning, mud on the hitch, and a healthy shot of adrenaline in the veins. But really, if you’ve never been truly “stuck,” then you’re just not trying.

My first Rut was with a caterpillar in 1964. I’d had some experience on that crawler the previous couple years, but ’62 and ’63 were pretty dry springs on Lonesome Prairie, and in those years there was very little Rut. 1964 gave me a chance to get my feet wet, so to speak, and I learned early that the proper time to disengage the clutch is BEFORE the hitch pin is subterranean. My uncle Ethan was the best catskinner I have ever known, but he must have been an adrenaline junkie because he buried that cat regularly.

Extrication methods vary by tractor/sprayer type and distance from dry land. Not many farmers still run steel tracks, but those who have are familiar with feeding old fence posts or chunks of railroad tie under the spinning tracks to gain footing. This is not very effective for rubber tracks and tires, and has become a lost art. Centuries from now, puzzled archaeologists will wonder what type of structure we were building when they discover that tangled mass of fence posts under the surface.

In general, there are three degrees of “stuck.” The worst is a tragic progression of events brought about by the driver’s refusal to accept reality. These days, with drones, YouTube, and a camera in every pocket, these epic fails are likely to make you an unwilling star of the internet. I’ve seen photos of a Big Bud buried in mud to the bottom of the cab. This sort of Rutting behavior likely requires professionals to mitigate, with large cranes or earthmoving equipment. Avoid this at all cost.

The moderate version involves tractor paralysis, but with patience and the right tools, this can be solved. Tools needed include a second tractor, preferably larger than the mired one, enough cable, chain, or rope to reach dry land, and a partner with experience and a cool head. A more uncomfortable subcategory here is the involvement of a neighbor’s tractor, which makes your mistake a public discussion.

Experienced operators are more likely to cut their losses to the “this is merely annoying” version, which consists of a split-second decision to disengage while you can still remove the hitch pin, walk the tractor out under its own power, and drag the implement to safety with the chain you had the foresight to bring with you. In the real world of mud, this rarely goes so smoothly.

The cost of your own Spring Rut will vary, depending on how long the extrication process is, and what the spraying/seeding window is this spring. And please be careful – tow ropes are an accident waiting to happen.

May the Mallards take flight beneath your cultivator wing!

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