'This is as steep and nasty as it gets,' driver warns


Capital Press

PRESCOTT, Wash. -- The rear end of the massive combine swung out, the whole machine slipped sideways and then backward a few feet as it lost traction on slick wheat stubble on the dry, steep slope.

T.J. Scott, the operator, didn't panic. He'd been in similar situations before. He already had the 18-ton combine in four-wheel-drive but engaged its differential locks to put power to both front tires and feathered his brakes to keep his wheels from spinning. The machine churned its way uphill.

Bill Groom, running a combine just ahead of Scott, had the same trouble on the slope, as did the third operator, Guy McCaw, who estimated the slope at 40-plus percent.

"See that," McCaw said after the first two turned and headed back down the slope. "Bill's back tires are coming off the ground. He had to brake to steer and his header is what's keeping him from flipping over."

The 40-foot-wide Draper header bore the weight of the combine, keeping it from tipping front-first.

This was the harvest of soft white winter wheat on Aug. 1 in the Skyrocket Hills a few miles northwest of Prescott. Local farmers say it's among the steepest wheatland anywhere and has claimed its share of lives and combines in decades gone by.

McCaw is 57 years old and has been harvesting wheat in the area for 46 years. He's a fourth-generation farmer. His father, Jack, 85, is semiretired.

Some of their land is on the edge of the Skyrockets, but this day McCaw's crew and that of a neighbor, Byron Seney, were custom cutting the former Shell property for Rich Remington.

"We're right in the meat of the Skyrockets. This is as steep and nasty as it gets," said McCaw's son, Jesse, 32, running a huge Case International 535 Quadtrac towing a 1,450-bushel John Deere wagon, which he used as a "bank-out wagon," hauling grain from the combines to trucks waiting on Piper Canyon Road.

The trucks took the grain some 25 miles to the port of Sheffler on the Snake River, where it was barged downriver to be sold through Northwest Grain Growers, a cooperative in Walla Walla.

In flat fields, bank-out wagons or trucks run alongside combines, taking wheat as it's cut and threshed. But the Skyrocket region is too steep for that. Trucks stay on the road and tractors and wagons stick to ridgetops and relatively flat areas, waiting for the combines to come and dump their harvest.

"We have to be careful where we go with the wagons," Jesse McCaw said. "We try to stay on ground under 20 percent."

He used the tractor's compression brakes to get his loads out and didn't completely fill his wagon.

The whole operation, he and his father explained, takes extra planning to not jeopardize men and equipment. The direction a slope is cut, where combines dump into wagons and wagon routes have to be thought out. Combine operators try to avoid leaving uncut corners on steep slopes. Going back for them has gotten drivers killed.

"There have been many combines tipped over," Jesse McCaw said. "When combines were smaller and underpowered, they flipped yearly in this area."

"This is by far the steepest ground we've cut," Guy McCaw said. "I've never rolled a combine. I have friends who have rolled a combine and made it out of it. These combines now are so wide and so well-balanced that you really have to screw up to tip one over.

"It's the first time we've ever cut this piece of ground. Therein lies another situation. Most of the time you know which way to cut a piece of ground. This being the very first time, we're kind of going by the seat of our pants. We know how to cut steep ground and we know how to lay out steep ground, but being it's the first time there's a little bit of mystery in it."

Fully leveling combines can compensate for a 36 percent slope, the younger McCaw said, adding that their machines only level to 28 percent. They operated at a slant most of the day.

"It's a little nerve-wracking, but considering the size of the machines they get around extremely well," Jesse McCaw said.

The experience and skill of the operators is a big factor in running a smooth operation, said his father.

"You have to have a lot of nerve, courage and skill to cut steeper parts," he said. "You can take a ride, just like a sled on snow."

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