Thursday, August 16, 2007

Farm Report: Secrets of the 3-point hitch

(First of an occasional update on a cabin-building project up in the hills)

Up in the Blue Ridge about 15 miles north of the N.C.-Virginia line where we’re building a log cabin, we’re learning all sorts of things we never knew we’d need to know.
We’ve learned how to use a barbed wire stretcher to get fence wire taut and level.
We’ve absorbed the intricacies of the Peavey, a contraption used to buck logs around and hold them off the ground for chainsawing into firewood.
We’ve discovered the hellish demands of the spud bar, a heavy digging tool that will chop through roots and pry rocks out of a posthole.
And we’re plumbing the mysteries of the three-point hitch.
We’ve pulled boats and trailers for years with an ordinary bumper hitch. But when you’ve got to mow acres of sedgegrass, thorny locust and greenbrier stalks that can grow to an inch thick in one season, you’re going to need a bush hog.
It’s a big, mean rotary mower mounted under a heavy-duty steel deck. And because you’ve often got to back a bush hog into a patch of jungle or pick up the mowing deck to lower it onto a nasty clump, a trailer hitch won’t do the job.
You’ve got to have a three-point hitch.
It not only tows farm machinery such as plows, bush hogs, hay mowers and rakes, but also allows the operator to adjust their height above the earth’s surface, or back it into a tight spot between the trees.
These hitches were developed by an Irishman in 1926. Harry Ferguson, who had been an early aviator, was asked by the British government to develop a system to prevent tractor accidents caused by plows hanging up on subterranean rocks. The plow would halt but the tractor would attempt to keep going – and with the large rear wheels’ axle serving as a fulcrum, the tractor would rear up and flip over backward, killing or maiming the driver.
Ferguson came up with the three-point hitch, a sort of A-frame shaped connection whose two lower bars would provide stability and whose top bar would apply forward pressure, keeping a tractor from flipping back when a plow hung up on a rock. He also developed the hydraulic lifters that allowed the driver to pick up the plow or bush hog it was towing. That made turning or getting to and from the fields a lot easier.
Henry Ford and Ferguson made a handshake deal to put the hitch into production on Fordson tractors in the late 1930s, but Henry Ford II welshed on the deal in 1947. Ferguson later won $9.5 million in a lawsuit against Ford, and merged his own company with Massey-Harris. For years they produced Massey Ferguson Tractors. Massey Ferguson hats have a sort of cult following because of their MF logo.
What we’ve learned about the three-point hitch is that it often requires delicate adjustments – with a six-pound sledge, a 2x4 lever and a choice selection of Anglo-Saxonisms – to persuade the thing to come together in the right three spots. You have to hold your mouth just right to get the power take off shaft mated. And there’s an array of hitch pins and hitch clips to hold the thing together.
But I can tell you this: If you’ve got a thicket of greenbrier and locust growing along the edge of a field and into the treeline, there’s only one good way to get at it: back that bush hog in there, drop the blade into the middle of it and let the tractor do the work.
Besides, after hooking up a three-point hitch, I’m pretty much worn out.


Jack Betts said...

Here's a thoughtful note from a reader with some safety information, followed by my reply:
Mr. Betts,

A very good summary about the three point hitch. You might realize this, or
you might not, so I will mention it. Attaching things to the three point
hitch can still cause the fulcrum action you describe at the beginning of
your article, especially when items are lifted above the height of the rear
axle. Sometimes people will hook chains to the three point (or the
implement hooked to it) to pull logs, etc, and think that they are doing it
safely. It can be just as dangerous. Hook only to the drawbar for such

I worked for AGCO, which bought Massey Ferguson in 1993 -- MF was my
specialty for a few years. I do not know your experience with tractors, but
I don't want to see anyone get hurt or die because of a lack of experience
or understanding as to how parts of the tractor work.

Signed by a reader from Alexis, NC

PS -- The PTO is probably the most dangerous aspect of the tractor . I did
4-H demonstrations to prove this when I was a kid.

Here's my reply:
Thanks for your note. Mind if I post this on the blog? It might help others. My experience is limited to weekends on small tractors over the past 20 years -- and old 18 horse gasoline tractor that died in the 1990s, then a 21 horse Bohlens that went out of production, and now an 18 horse 2005 New Holland that to me seems a little underpowered for our hills but works all day. I'm probably still in the just-scratching-the-surface category of tractor knowledge, which may be, as you point out, in the category of a little knowledge is dangerous.


Michael said...

Great story about the three point hitch. Not a lot of people know about those pesky things! but I sure do. My uncle still has a Massey Ferguson tractor as well and my dad taught me how to hook up a three point hitch! Hope you are doing well.

Mike Houser

Anonymous said...


From sailboats to bush hogs - who knew we had so much in common!
Now you know the real meaning of instant gratification...

Once you master the PTO, you can move up to the manure spreader!

Great blog,


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