Tractor Back – North Walls Rising

Thursday evening we finally got our green JD4700 tractor back. On September 12th it had broken in half. Literally. This is the second time this happened. It was actually a different pieces of the casing that cracked this time but the effect was the same – two halves of a tractor. The sound of a tractor cracking in half is not pleasant. Nor is the immediate grinding of gears that follows. Turn it off.

I purchased a John Deere tractor because they are “Made in USA” and the dealer had told me it would be easy to get parts. Wrong. The casing is made in Japan. At the time ours broke in September there were none available in all of North America. They had to order one from Japan!!! Freakin’ slow boat no less! *sigh* When they say “Made in America” they mean they put it in the box here. Or maybe they put together a few parts that had all been shipped here from over seas. But the parts come from all around the world. I was not happy.

So we waited, for over two months, to get our tractor back. During that time we rented a yellow JD210 tractor you may have noticed in some of the photos here on my blog. The dealer said it is more powerful than ours. It is not. Maybe the horsepower rating is higher but it lacks power. Ours is able to lift much heavier things. The JD210 had difficulty with even small round hay bales (800 lbs). Additionally I have the wheels on our tractor set out to the full 8′ width, heavy duty spiked chains and fluid filled tires. That extra width and 2400 lbs(?) of weight (chains + fluid) make our tractor far stabler. This is important on our hilly land. Several times I almost flipped the JD210. In retrospect it makes us very pleased that we bought the JD4700 and not the JD210 all those years ago and that we got the chains, fluid fill and wider wheel base against the dealer’s advice. All those things turned out to be good choices. The irony is we had no real way of comparing or knowing since we had never had a tractor before. We just got lucky. Using the JD210 for two months made me really appreciate ours. It is good to be back on our tractor.

So why did it crack? I was told that the first time it was a flaw in the manufacturing – that was within the first year and covered under warranty. John Deere, unlike Fuji does honor their warranty and stand behind their products.

The second time the tractor broke in half, about five years after the first time, I had picked up a rock and then accidentally dropped it, directly in front of the tractor where I couldn’t see it, and then driven forward not realizing the rock was there. Ugh. At first the tractor had seemed fine. I could see that the steering tie bar was bent a little from rolling over the rock. There were some scrapes under the tractor on the casing, steering cylinder and front axle but I thought maybe I had gotten lucky and it was okay. A few minutes later I was gently scooping up some dirt and *CRACK* that sound I oh so didn’t want to hear happened. :(

I have a JD49 backhoe mounted on the back of the tractor. A few people have suggested that is the cause of the problem. I don’t think so.

Nothing about either time the casing broke seems related to the backhoe. Rather the first time there was a visible flaw in the manufacturing of the transmission casing along the top and it broke there from the weak spot.

Five years later the new casing broke but in a completely different spot on the bottom after I rolled over a large rock that I had unknowingly dropped in front of the tractor.

The first time the casing literally split in half and I could see into the gears. The second time the casing merely cracked. I can see ways JD could build a better tractor but the backhoe isn’t the issue. It is remotely possible the extra weight of the backhoe has an deleterious effect however it is over the pivot of the axle and the backhoe is mounted on the frame, not the 3pt hitch. I-beams front to back would make the tractor stronger and be worth having from a strength point of view but would they then reduce the tractor’s flexibility?

Of course none of this excuses John Deere for not keeping stock in this country, for manufacturing it in Japan and selling it as an American Product and for using the slow boat to get the casing here.

The good news in all this is that our insurance company, Peerless, seems to be covering it ($4,000?) so that all we’re paying is the $250 deductible. They even covered the cost of the rental tractor. The JD210 was better than nothing and I was glad to have it. I generally have a low opinion of insurance agencies but maybe I’ll have to adjust that a bit. I would like to revise my opinion upward. Truth be told, USAA insurance has also treated us well on the one claim we made so maybe I shouldn’t be so pessimistic about it.

But on to more interesting things like progress on our tiny cottage…

Some people have commented that 252 square feet is too small to live in. We’ll see – that’s for sure! In the winter in our existing colonial era farm house we reduce our living space down to the bare minimum closing off much of the house to avoid the effort of heating it. But even then we still have 1,012 sq-ft. We also live in a very open plan and are used to being in close quarter. Lastly, we spend much of our time outdoors so it isn’t like were being locked up 24/7 in a 252 sq-ft room.

Holly used to live in a house that is almost the same size as what we are building. The above house where she lived in Maine was 12′ by 20′, I think, based on the photo. It had a finished basement giving it additional space. Of course, that was 20 years ago before we met and had three kids. But she’s a trooper! She says she looks forward to the challenge of minimalism. It is a chance to figure out what ‘stuff’ is really necessary.

It is also to be realized that we’re not losing the existing house. We’ll continue to keep things down in the old house – consider it our our library and storage unit. That takes a bit of the pressure off of moving into a tiny cottage.

Another big difference is our farm ‘house’ also has a lot of other functions beyond being our home. We store animal feed in it, wood in the cellar, have a workshop and a lot of junk. The tiny cottage is very focused on its functionality. It tries to be only one thing, our indoor living space.

Lastly there is an interesting little coincidence of numbers. For almost two decades I had a 800 phone number with 252 in it. Our house number is 252. The square footage of the tiny cottage is 252. I wonder where else that number pops up in our lives??? :) Of such things a conspiracy is made!

Today we finished up the bond beams for the top of the partition walls. In this picture Holly’s cutting foam to make the form to go along the to
p of the lower portion of the partition wall like at right. Usually we score foam and snap it. But in this case she is cutting out a complex shape so she is using a spatula, a.k.a. paint scraper, and a rubber mallet to cut the foam. The technique works well.

You’ll notice that at the end of the partition I used a half block cube to build a pillar. I wanted something that would give the wall a little more stability since this wall gets a lot of traffic. An arch will go up and over the center of the room to the matching west wall. In addition to being functional this pillar gives the wall a pleasing appearance.

Here Ben is packing cement around the rebar in the bond beam over a lower partition wall. It is important to work the cement to get a good bond with the blocks and with the rebar. Void spaces would weaken the wall. Usually we use a spatula for this process of scooping in the cement and then the small float to smooth but in this case Ben is using the float to do the scooping as well. That saves tools to be washed later – smart thinking, Ben!

When mortaring blocks I dunk them into a bucket of water to wet them. This keeps the concrete blocks from sucking the moisture out of the fresh mortar so it can cure better. If the water is lost then it won’t be available to chemically react with the cement. Cement should not dry but rather cure.

In the background Will is applying mortar to the wetted wall so I can lay up the first row of concrete blocks on top of the bond beam.

Uh-oh! I’m getting fancy here. I cut the outer wall block so that one of the partition blocks above the wainscot can lock into the outer wall to strengthen the wall. The partition wall also is bound to the slab at the bottom and will be bound to a beam at the top that crosses the house. The purpose of all that is to make it so the hundreds of pounds of masonry can never fall on anyone. In this picture the block is slid over too far. In the final wall that piece of rebar will be more towards the center of the core so it is better encapsulated.

Will is holding one of the big IBM windows in place along the wall so we can see what it will look like in the house. We’ll have six of these in our tiny cottage – three across the front, two on the west and one on the east. Light is something our little home will not be lacking! The place he is holding this window will actually get an open-able double hung window to allow for egress and ventilation. He’s demoing it there because we wanted to compare it with the section of block wall along the north that we had just completed. Three more courses and we’ll be above the window. The cottage is taking shape.

Behind Will on the floor you can see a staircase of cement blocks. These we used to get high enough to pour the roughly 30 buckets of concrete down the cores of the wall rising up on the north. Will and I dry stacked four courses of the wall this morning. Lifting blocks up above six foot high pieces of rebar, over and over, is a wonderful workout as is carrying all those blocks in to the house. I had the delivery person deposit them in the best places I could to minimize how much we would carry them but still they must be moved to make walls.

The north wall will now cure for a bit before we add any more height to that wall. In the mean time there are plenty of other sections to work on. Tomorrow we’ll be defining the window and door pillars along the east, west and south upper walls.

40째F/31째F Sunny

About Walter Jeffries

Tinker, Tailor...
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21 Responses to Tractor Back – North Walls Rising

  1. The Fool says:

    That JD sounds cursed! I’d be careful around that beast.

    Your project sounds great. You’d be surprised how comfortable you can be in a small living environ. I live in an old log cabin that is small by most people’s standards. You can always add on latter if you find the need.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I’m actually very impressed with your whole homestead. Had to ask though: whats with the block home in the cold country? you had the foresight to build the chickens winter housing from straw so why not continue that way with the house? Just curious, not attempting to offend in any way.

  3. Tim, It is precisely because I’ve seen what happens with straw / hay in our climate that I would never build a straw bale house. Straws great for the first winter when it is frozen but then rots and molds come summer. Even covered in adobe or concrete this would happen although perhaps more slowly. I want to build the house just once.

    I chose the concrete and stone because with that I can build a durable house that will store heat for months. The finished tiny cottage will be about 100,000 lbs of thermal mass. This is already within a insulated envelope. The large solar gain is stored during the day and keeps the cottage warm and night even in our cold winters.

    This past winter, starting out with cold mass at the end of December, only single pane windows and minimal roof insulation the house almost kept itself warm even when it was extremely windy and -20째F outdoors. This large thermal mass is also keeping it from overheating now that it is summer (we just past the Summer Solstice).

    Once the cottage is finished and it has soaked up the summer’s heat it will do even better. Another factor for improvement is that this coming winter we’ll be living in the tiny cottage so our cooking, body heat and appliances will also warm the structure. All this makes for a very efficient home that will take little to no extra energy to heat.

    Ergo, the concrete block, granite, etc for thermal mass here in the cold north country.



  4. Mark says:

    I saw the cracked case, I was warned about the same thing when mounting a three point backhoe on my kubota. The weight of the backhoe attachment along with carrying a load in the front bucket over hills and bumps will eventually crack that case again. I am currently working on a set of subframe type connectors to bridge the rear case to the front loader mounts. I could send you pics if you are interested, nothing fancy just some angle iron fabricated to fit.

  5. Mark, I would be interested. -WalterJ

  6. Anonymous says:

    Am very impressed with yo project and i would like to have one like that! my husband and i want to start a farm, we live in africa in a country called Uganda. The weather is just lovely and no winters ofcourse, tropical weather with lots of sun. I must admit am not a good at farming so am really at a loss coz he ‘demanded’ that i produce a pig pen plan, a master plan for the farm (mixed farming with a plantation and animal husbandry. Y such a heavy task for me, coz am an engineer. so thats y am on the net and ofcourse u came up on ma search.
    I must admit i need alot of help in this planning as well as appreciate farming coz i guess its alot of hardwork.
    Cant wait to hear from u and ofcourse i hope u had a splendid Valentyn
    15th feb 2008

  7. Hi Olive,

    I’m not sure if I can give you a master plan. Everything should get adapted to your local situation. Here we have short cool summers and long, dark cold winters. The opposite of your climate. The trick is to meet the needs of the animals. So, with that in mind, the pigs need:

    1) shade from hot sun

    2) shelter from cold wet rain

    3) bedding (in our climate)

    4) wind block (big thing in our climate) but also some wind helps to stir the air and cool them in warm weather.

    5) water to drink.

    6) mud to roll in is something they greatly enjoy.

    7) a rotation of pasture – move them from one patch of pasture to another so they don’t pack the soil or over browse it.

    8) additional food if the pasture isn’t enough.

    9) companions – pigs are social and grow faster if they have someone to compete with for food.

    10) protection from predators

    Based on your local disease issues you may want to also vaccinate and worm. In our cold climate this is less of an issue but I would expect you’ll need to do that in your tropical climate.

    To keep the pigs in and predators out you need some form of barrier around the area. We use electric fencing, pallets, stone walls, logs, cliffs, etc. What ever works. Pigs train very well to electric fences.

    We also have dogs that are trained to guard and herd the pigs. Depending on your predator issues you may want some type of protection like that. It takes a pack to handle large predators like bear and cougars. I imagine you have far larger predators in your area…

    See these specific posts:

    Keeping a Pig for Meat

    Pigs on Pasture

    How Much Land per Pig

    and try this search as well as looking at the favorite articles in the right sidebar of my blog.



  8. Anonymous says:

    You are amazing Walter, thank u so much for your info, and i believe i do deserve a break from work even if its not the offical break tym, eh?
    Am definitely gonna pass on the info to Bob (ma hubby) and i hope he visits the blog! u r quite a well of info it wud definitely be hard to explain it all without him thinkg am not working at all, haha!

    Kakati, i was wondering – (kakati means ‘the spoken now’, cant blame a gal for tryg to teach u a new language, one word a day!!) anyway was wondering if u hav any info on biogas production using animal waste, its quite a fuel saver!!


  9. Olive, I have read about the manure to biogas process but don’t know much about it. I think it takes a lot of manure. In our case the value of the manure for fertilizer to our poor mountain soil outweighs the value as gas. I’m also a bit hesitant about gas for explosive reasons. Too exciting. :)

  10. Anonymous says:

    Walter thanks again for your input. i thout you use it on yo farm but its ok. Here in Uganda ‘the Pearl of Africa’ thats wat they call us, the soil are quite fertile so manure is just an addition to the soils but definitely more beneficial as a gas producer coz gas is very xpensiv. the problem is organising equipment and machinery for biogas production is no piece of cake, so i thout u might know something cheaper and friendly. anyway i’ll dig up something from around here and see how far it takes me.

    Kakati, about that new language….. its called LUGANDA. mmmhh word for today “siiba bulungi” means have a splendid day!!

    Luv to your family and keep on keeping on!


  11. Jed Eichel in Wisconsin says:

    Cheers to your 252! My wife, kid, and I have been living in a 165 (with sleeping loft) for two years now in northern Wisconsin. There are challenges and benefits. We can't seem to work our way through a cord of wood during a winter that sees -30F! We are adding a 10×12 room on the back for us parents to hide in. I build for a living, and I have to say, this is way more fun than a ten year house project would be. Way to go guys, it takes a kind of bravery to do what you are doing.

  12. Paula says:

    Do you know about The Tiny House Blog? They feature homes like this. It looks cozy and well thought out. I hope it all turned out the way you planned.

  13. Hi Paula,

    It has been wonderful living in our tiny cottage. I am aware that small houses are becoming of interest. We built ours small for the simple reason that it was something we could achieve in the short time before winter set in hard and it kept the costs down to something manageable (<$7,000). We've been in the cottage now for several years and all love it. My wife was just saying the other day how happy she is to be in this house and not in our old draft farm house as winter creeps up once again. We have a new Big Project that we're working on which will be constructed along similar lines using the techniques we have developed for building the cottage and other shelters.



  14. Amber says:

    That is one big butted beast. The green mamma!

  15. Karen Bruno says:

    I noted that you didn’t think straw would work for you. I am researching what materials to use for a house I will build and am curious regarding the straw issue. In Ireland and England they have built cob housing for hundreds of years. Why don’t you think that kind of house would have worked for you?

    Also, what do you do for electricity. If you have already answered this someone I apologize as I just stumbled upon your blog.



    • We have other fibers that last better and are stronger than straw. The straw is a nice quaint method, as is horsehair and other fibers – better than nothing. But this is concrete, not cob and we newer better fibers.

      For electric we have grid power – see this post where we moved it and upgraded it. Someday I would like to utilize the water power we have tumbling down the mountain.

  16. David says:

    Hi Walter! I have been looking over all the cottage construction posts again and trying to plan out what I’ll build someday. It is several years in the future but I hope to build something similar to your cottage on some land in Wisconsin. This post has the best picture I could find of floor plans for the cottage. Would you be able to give me a higher resolution version?

    • I’ve got it on my list to do an update at some point that shows the final floor layout and more detail. But first I have another building project to finish… :) The butcher shop. Winter, things slow down in winter, right?

      • David says:

        They’re supposed to… :) Looking forward to seeing your butcher shop up and running, and very glad that kickstarter allowed you all in this time.

  17. Walter, it’s just crazy. I find you all over the internet. My tractor had an axle break off last year. We are trying to build a super secure house. We also raise pastured pigs to some degree, hope to increase our pig raising over the next year. Much luck to you in all that you do and check out our website to see our journey!

  18. Lynn says:

    Could you put a higher resolution picture of the house layout up? Or one that can be clicked and get bigger? I’m quite interested in it.

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