Tuesday, February 14, 2017

An Equipment Overview: The First Year

Ralph here. The first year here has flown by, we are starting spring work. I thought it would be an ideal time to let you know how we have made out with the decision to get a walk-behind tractor.

Grillo 110  Walk-behind Tractor with the Berta Reversible Rotary Plow

I am lazy by nature. I don't like exercise and work. I am 67 (68 in July). I wanted a 4 wheel, riding tractor. But, as I get older, I need to be more active. I believe in "use it or lose it".

My Mother had a small fabric shop back home. A woman came in one day. Her husband came in with her. My Father was in the shop. He and my Father got to talking. They figured out that forty some years before, they used to work together. My Father asked him what he was doing now. He said he was doing nothing but watching TV. He had just retired and did nothing but watch TV. My Father told him that if that was all he was doing, he would be dead in six months. Two months later, his obituary was in the paper.

My earliest memories of Dad's Father, he was in his early 70's. He had two or three horses at all times. He had two to five cows he milked twice a day. He had three to six hogs. He had chickens. He used the horses to grow almost all the food for the animals, for himself and my Grandmother, and a lot of the food we ate. She lived to be 88 and he lived to be 93.

My Mother's Grandmother fell off the back porch and broke her hip in 17 places. She was on the way out to her garden and to feed her chickens. She lived to be 95.

My Mother's Father went into the woods every spring to hunt down "an old she coon" (raccoon). He would steal one of her cubs(pups, or whatever they are called). He would raise it all summer long. In the late fall, nature would call and it would go back into the woods and the wild life, Next spring, he would steal himm another one. At 88, he said he just couldn't do it any more. He lived to be 95.

My Mother's Mother had three gardens and an orchard. She had about ten years worth of food canned. At about 90, they were able to talk her into giving up one of her gardens. She refused to give up the other two gardens or the orchard. She lived to be 95.

My point is: The one guy sat down and died. The others remained active and lived a long, healthy life. There is no guarantee that we will live to see tomorrow. But if we don't do our part to remain active, we WILL shorten our time. We "use it or lose it".

For me, this is the background for my philosophy. To help me to overcome my lazy nature, I decided to get a two-wheeled tractor, A four-wheeled tractor would mean sitting around. Two Wheeled tractor means walking and straining to lift and turn and guide and... For health reasons, I needed to go with the two-wheeled tractor. When I say "health reasons", I mean future health. I mean the ability to walk, to do things, to be active. to have good (or better) health. To have less pain. To be able to move better. I wanted the four-wheeled tractor, but the two-wheeled tractor was a better choice for me. I may not be here tomorrow; but, if I am, I feel I will be in better health and more mobile this way.

And don't let that two-wheeled tractor description put you off. Think of a larger tiller. Yes, you have to work a little more and lift more, but it isn't that bad. Depending on the implement, some of it is almost two finger work. Some of the heavier implements is harder work. Yes, harder, but not that bad. I am 67 and I am talking of running the Grillo for three to four or five hours at a time. It isn't that bad.

 Grillo in use with the power harow

Our place is 15 acres. It is rolling. We have an east garden. It is the kitchen garden. It is about 60' by 90'. We have an herb garden to the west side of the house. It is about 30' by 65'. We have a west garden beyond that. It is for spring and fall cool weather crops. It is about 100' by 150'. It is half spring use, half fall use. Beyond that, at the bottom of the property, is a small flatter spot. It is about 75' by 100'. We may try some wheat and/or oats there. In behind the barn is the south garden. It is about 110' by 200'. It is the summer garden for hot weather crops.

Some of our farm

This sounds like a lot, but this is only for two, maybe three, years use. It is to build up our knowledge of the crops and the area. Then these same areas will still be used, just on a smaller scale and with rotational use. Instead of 75' by 150' for a spring garden, it may be 75' by 30' for a five year rotation. Or 75' by 40' for a four year rotation. Same size, just smaller with rotational use. We are new to this area and climate. We need to learn the cycles here. Also, we need to learn what crops grow best here. And we need to learn what varieties we like best. Hence, the two or three years of experimenting. Last year was a wash out, too much rain, then too dry.

That gives you an idea of our philosophy and layout. Now on to the equipment. We had decided on two-wheeled tractor, but which one. BCS and Grillo are the two main choices. BCS had a five year warranty and the Grillo had a two year warranty when we got ours. I think Grillo has upped theirs now. But, the Grillo had a 35% heavier transmission/drivetrain. Because of that, we went with the Grillo. I was looking at longevity of use. The BCS is just fine. It is just that I preferred the heavier gearbox.

Diesel or gas? I went with the diesel because the engine generally lasts longer. It also gets better fuel economy. It is 11 HP. Depending on what you are doing and the load and the RPM's, you can get 7 to 8 hours on a tank of fuel. Heavier loads at higher RPM's equals lower fuel economy. I generally fuel up when I stop for lunch. Regardless. The diesel is more expensive. Earth Tools has the prices online. If you use it a lot, the diesel will pay for itself.
Size: We had to decide BCS or Grillo. Then we could work on size. The sizes are available in each. There isn't much difference. I talked with Joel (the owner). He asked what I would be using it for. I told him. He said that the 131 I wanted was overkill. He said the 110 was basically the same, just a lighter package and a $1000 cheaper and a better fit for what we wanted. (I think Fiona said 107. The 110 replaced the 107.The 131 was more of a commercial tractor and had fewer implements - the diesel was not available for it.) We got the 110. Joel talked himself out of a $1000. He did the same on implements. He cut himself out of about $3000 on our order. So, BCS or Grillo, I recommend Earth Tools for their honesty. I wanted a heavier and bigger tractor because we would be using it a lot and for heavier tasks. I feel bigger can handle the work without working as hard. Therefore, it will last longer. The diesel was part of the package because of the fuel economy and being able to take the harder work at lower RPM's.
Now, on to implements.

Rotary plow. More versatile, but slower. Basically, for turning the soil. Rocks up to fist size, no problem. Beyond that, no experience. Bottom plow was a concern. I was afraid the tractor would not have enough traction to pull the plow through the clay soils. Also, you would still need to work the turned soil. Not so with the rotary plow. You can plant directly into the turned soil. It does a good job of covering the weeds and leaving you with a loose surface for planting. It can be used for making raised beds or rows (for us: sweet potato rows to plant sweet potato slips into). The rotary plow only does a ten to twelve inch width cut. But then you're done. No tiller or anything really needed. It goes down to about ten or twelve inches. It mixes everything together and spreads it over previous passes. Hence, it raises the center of the field a little. This leaves a small trench around the sides. Next year, go the other way and fill it back in.

Berta Rotary Plow

Berta Reversible Rotary Plow [we have this one]

Tiller: For row and bed workup. The tractor has about a 26" to 28" tread path width. The tiller we got is 30". It covers the tread marks. Drawback: Rows need to be further apart to get between growing crops. We had to make the rows about four to five foot apart. That gave us 2.5 feet plus for the tiller and a foot on each side for tomato, corn, potato, etc. plant roots and vine growth. This is not problem for us. We have the room. Others may not have that luxury.

 Grillo Tiller

Power harrow: This is 90 degrees out from a tiller. A tiller goes top over bottom over top, etc. A power harrow goes around. Front to right to back to left to front, etc.  It is like putting your finger down in the soil and making circles. Around and around in circles. It doesn't turn the soil, it stirs the soil. It doesn't disrupt the soil structure. Drawback: It doesn't bury weeds well like a tiller does. It is used to break the soil surface and disrupt the weed roots during the growing season. It can go down about five inches, but it is used between the rows to only break up the top inch or two. Not very deep. You don't hurt your crop roots as badly, it stunts/kills your weeds, and and it loosens up your soil surface to reduce runoff without disturbing the soil. It has an expanded metal roller in back. Advantage: Broadcast your seeds. Set the power harrow tines to a half inch to an inch. Run down the row or across the field. It will stir the top of the soil and mix in the seeds. The roller will firm (not pack) the soil. I did this with cover crop last fall. Yes, I lost some seed due to too deep soil coverage (or no coverage), but I still had good germination results. I am happy with the results. In preparation for the coming garden, I wanted to break up the garden soil to help it dry out and to kill the cover crop. I used the power harrow. I was pleasantly surprised at how well it worked. I could have planted into it right then. I did the east garden and herb garden. Cover crop seems to have been killed and the soils seems to be drying better and has less compaction from winter rains. I was skeptical of the power harrow's usefulness. I have been quite pleasantly surprised. NOTE: This item is heavy, about 200 pounds. I bought 50 pounds of counterweights for the front of the Grillo to counter it. Along with the engine, the counterweights help a lot. But, it is still heavy. I am guessing 40 to 50 pounds of lift on the handlebars. It isn't bad. It is workable. But, it is still a workout. Longer rows reduce the need to lift. In the row, it is a breeze. There is hardly any work. The work is on the turns. Again, 30" width to cover the tread marks. But, OH! am I glad I have it! It is really a great help in so many unexpected ways.

Cultivator: Cheap implement. Somewhat like the power harrow. It is for breaking up the soil surface. It has no moving parts. You just drag it along behind the Grillo To break up the soil surface.


Mulch layer: Basically no moving parts. Cheap. Joel has these in two, three, and four foot widths. I don't think they are interchangeable as far as the black plastic mulch. You buy mulch for your set width only. I have two foot because I don't intend to do wide rows/beds. I have the drip irrigation attachment for it so I can lay drip irrigation under the black plastic mulch. My idea is to use it for tomato, cabbage, broccoli, etc. plants and such. It covers the edge of the plastic to hold it down. It reduces moisture evaporation so the plants don't get moisture swings as badly. And it cuts weed competition near the plants.
Plastic Mulch Layer

Flail mower: A neighbor mows the fields for hay, but he can't mow everything. It just isn't economical or safe. Some paddocks just aren't big enough to turn a big tractor in. The flail mower and the drum mower (later) work just fine in these areas. We had some weeds near the garden that were six feet tall with some Johnson Grass in it going seven to eight feet tall. It was fairly thick. The flail mower is fairly heavy, but well balanced. It is about a twenty pound lift. I'm not sure of that weight measurement. I just know that it didn't make much of an impression. I'm just trying to give you an idea. I did have to gear down to first gear and higher RPM's, but it pushed the weeds over and cut them off. A flail mower is a mulching type mower. It cut the weeds up fairly small. The mower has a baffle in it to hold the material in it so it cuts it up finer. The baffle is not required. I removed it. There was so much material in the mower, that it was bogging down. There was no room for the blades to turn. This did not cause a problem. Instead of one to two inch debris, I was getting two to three inch debris, maybe four inch. This from six foot weeds. It was still great for mulch debris. It broke down quickly. Even after removing the baffle, it still would bog down once in a while. I would have to stop and back up and go over it again. When I backed up, it spread it backwards a little and then I could go over it easily. It really wasn't much of a problem. If you aren't interested in quick decomposition, the drum mower will lay it down on the ground. It may then take two or three months to decompose (think windrow). The flail mower decomposes a lot quicker. This can be raked up for garden mulch.

Flail Mowing extreme weed growth
Drum mower: The drum mower has two counter-rotating disks with blades on them. They ride on the ground and cut at about two inch height - not adjustable. At the front, they rotate toward each other. As they cut the grass, they pull it toward the center and lay it down out the back into a windrow. The tractor runs over it (it goes under the center of the tractor). Left laying, it will rot back into the field. Thick windrow means it will take time to rot. We let it lay and dry out. Then we will rake four to six windrows into one windrow. This we will fork (by hand) into our pickup or trailer and take to the barn.It is very nice loose hay. As cut hay, it can be used to mulch in the orchard or garden or... Our poultry keep the yard "cut" down pretty well. About every three or four weeks, we take the drum mower or flail mower to the yard. They both do a great job. There isn't enough of a windrow to worry about with the drum mower. The poultry keep it down, but there is always some higher escapees. These get cut.
 Zanon Disc Mower

Molon Rake: This is five foot (60 inch). It can be used for raking or spreading (tedding). It has a height adjustment. I guess you could take it down to the bottom adjustment and spread soil with it. It actually gets down into the dirt on low settings. After using the drum mower, we use the rake to take two to four windrows from the left side and two to four windrows from the right to a center monster windrow. Actually, the left and right are just pushed into each other. Then we use the pickup or trailer to take it to the barn. If the hay is thick, we might only be able to move two rows because there is so much hay (per side, four total). The flail mower chops everything into small pieces. If you want to use this for garden mulch, run the rake drown to soil level and rake it up. You can de-thatch at the same time. The Grillo is just a pusher on this implement. The rake has two tires up front. There is a steering handle that comes back over the top. This handle is used to steer, not the Grillo. It takes about two minutes to get used to, but it isn't bad. It is the most "fun" to work with. We both like running it.

Molon Rake

Caeb baler: We do NOT have this. $10,000. It makes beautiful 50 pound round bales. Joel sells several of them yearly. Beautiful bales. So "cute". Female thing. Fiona says we don't have this YET.

 Caeb Round Baler

My office is on the east side of the house and the east garden is visible out the window. Where I broke it up with the power harrow, it looks so good and inviting. I want to get out there and plant so badly. It is still hard to believe how good of a job the power harrow does. I will use it to till/cultivate the rest of the cover crops and gardens.

The East garden, with the neighbors barn in the background.

We hope this helps you to understand our process and reasoning. Your path is determined by your needs and desires and situation. We hope this helps you in your decision process. This is not a cheap path. But it is cheaper than a four-wheel tractor. And healthier. And our best to you and to your future.

May God guide you in your process.

Ralph and Fiona


  1. I really like the looks of that round baler - not because it's cute, but because, being a single farmer, lifting a 50# round bale is actually possible by hand. Sounds like you put a lot of thought and research into your equipment - always a good thing. And I so agree with 'use it or lose it'. My dad is 94 and still goes out every day, snow or not, to rake up piles of leaves and branches. He has outlived almost everyone in his family. On my mom's side, they live well into their 90s. I intend to keep moving until I drop.

    1. We really like those bales. They would unroll between plant rows for mulch. Nice to handle and very suited to small livestock. But the cost of the baler is prohibitive.

  2. It's very generous of you to have put these reviews together- I appreciate it so much!! Our philosophies and set ups are very similar, and this helps confirm for me that a two wheel system will best suit us. One question I have is why you went with the drum mower for hay instead of a sickle option?
    Thanks again!

    1. The sickle bar mower is more susceptible to sand and sanding effects from where rain has splashed soils up onto the bottom of the plants. Cutter sections can be damaged if you hit rocks. The cutter surfaces are open and more dangerous. The hay cut with the sickle bar lays flat and will need raking.
      The disc or drum mower is several hundred dollars cheaper. It requires less maintenance. After research we felt it suited our farm better. It cuts hay beautifully and is lighter weight to operate.

  3. Have to agree that these reviews are really, really helpful. Too many reviews are along the lines of "Just got my ___ the other day and it's great!" It's how it's going a year later that really tells a products worth!

    Really wondered about that rotary plow, and whether it would do the soil more like a tiller than a turn plow. Our old Beast had a turn plow and we found it did a better job of dealing with weeds than our neighbors 4-wheel John Deere with tiller attachment. I do have a separate TroyBilt sickle mower that I love (easier on the back than Dan's hand scythe, although it's still something of a bear to handle).

    Once again, great review and great philosophy.