Mound levelers help hayfields
For years, Meadow, South Dakota, rancher Dan Nelson put up with the pocket gopher mounds in his hayfields. But the ground grew rougher with each passing year, slowing down haying equipment.
“The pocket gophers got so bad, we started looking for ways to deal with them,” Nelson says. Poisoning and trapping were possible control options, but these didn’t seem workable on the larger scale needed on his 1,200 acres of 20- to 30-year-old alfalfa-grass hay stands.
Pocket gophers are especially attracted to alfalfa, and they burrow underground to feed on plant roots. Their burrowing unearths mounds of soil that can be large and make the ground rough and hard on haying equipment.
Rotating fields out of alfalfa and into an annual crop is one way of discouraging their activity. “But I don’t want to rotate the ground out of alfalfa,” Nelson says. “We can get so dry here in western South Dakota, it might be years before we get a stand of alfalfa established again. I’m pretty careful about breaking up alfalfa. Instead, I look for ways to extend the life of the stand.”
Nelson found that option when he stumbled across the Haukaas Leveling Shovels manufactured by Haukaas Manufacturing Limited (now Haukaas Industries Limited), of Mortlach, Saskatchewan. While several designs of land-leveling implements are available, the leveling shovels offer a lower-cost option because they’re designed to bolt onto cultivators with either 43° or 50° shanks.
In 2017, Nelson fitted the 16-inch Haukaas shovels on a used 42-foot toolbar chisel plow with 12-inch shank spacings. A drag chain is attached to each of the shovels fastened to the rear row of toolbar shanks. The chain helps to spread soil as the mounds are broken apart by the shovels. At a cost of $90 apiece for the leveling shovels, Nelson retrofitted the 42-shank toolbar for $3,780.
“Three years ago we went over all 1,200 acres of our hay ground with the leveling shovels, and we did it again last year,” he says. “So we’re doing it about every other year early in the spring, and the ground is sure smoother than it was before.”
He runs the shovels about ¾ inch above the ground, so the only time a shovel comes in contact with the ground is when it hits and smooths out a pocket gopher mound. He travels about 5 to 6 mph.
While the leveling shovels work on first- and second-year mounds, a single pass with the shovels set just above the ground surface is less effective in smoothing mounds that have become fully grassed over.
To make the leveling shovels more readily available to other forage producers, Nelson and his wife, Colleen, have become U.S. dealers for the Haukaas Leveling Shovels. The Nelsons include the shovels in their standard inventory of steel panels and other metal fencing supplies for livestock that they sell through their side business – Nelson Panels.
“We’ve gotten orders for these leveling shovels from all over the United States,” Nelson says. “So it seems that pocket gophers are causing serious problems in a lot of places.”
Near Weyburn, Saskatchewan, bison producer Lorne Klein annually levels pocket gopher mounds in hayfields with a home-modified implement. He removed the original shanks from a 40-foot Leon rod weeder and replaced them with deep-tillage cultivator shanks. He bolted 4-foot-long salvaged grader blades to the back side of the cultivator shanks using grade-8 bolts.
Klein extended the rod-weeder frame in order to mount a second set of four “land leveler” wheels behind the grader blades. The wheels can be adjusted manually to control the blade height. He reinforced the underside of the frame and the hitch to compensate for the increased stress on the frame.
During operation, Klein travels at around 5 mph with the leveling blade lifted just off the ground, and he raises the original front wheels to reduce contact with hills. The power requirement is 80 to 120 hp., depending on the pressure applied to the blades.
“I like to level the mounds as close to haying as possible but before plants get about 6 inches tall,” he says. “About the middle of May is a good time here in Saskatchewan.”
After using his modified land leveler for eight years on as many as 320 acres of hayfields, Klein would change the implement’s design if doing it again. “I wouldn’t extend the frame in order to put four wheels on the back,” he says. “Instead, I would build a frame in front of each of the four original front wheels and bolt a part of a grader blade as wide as the tire in front of each wheel. The blades would clear a path for each of the four tires.”
Before retiring from his position as rangeland specialist for Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture, Klein compiled a list featuring commercially manufactured and producer-modified equipment for leveling mounds.
Evaluating a Machine
Issues to consider when evaluating a land-leveling machine, he says, are initial cost, as well as labor and material costs of modifications, maintenance costs, effectiveness, durability, horsepower requirements, acre capacity, ease of transport, flotation, and the tendency for lifting or rolling out stones.
Some designs of leveling implements have the wheels located in front of the blades, which can be a drawback.
“When hydraulic pressure is applied to the wheels to carry the blades slightly above the soil surface, leveling may not be ideal because the blades will be lifted when the wheels travel over mounds,” he says. “A walking beam axle reduces this lifting effect. Alternatively, the wheels can be raised so the full weight of the frame rests on the leveling blades. This increases the leveling ability, but it also increases the horsepower requirement and the tendency to pull out stones.”
A commercially available model he finds particularly effective is the Ag Shield Land Roller fitted with a land-leveling blade. Any rocks lifted by the hydraulically controlled blade are pushed back into the ground by the roller. “These units are very sturdy and capable of leveling large badger mounds,” he says. The Canadian manufacturer – Ag Shield Manufacturing – has U.S. dealers.
Another commercially available leveling implement is the Jiffy 350 Hayland Float, manufactured by Westward Products Limited in Olds, Alberta.
The producer-modified land levelers that Klein looked at included a Noble Blade Cultivator with original shovels removed and replaced by 6-inch angle irons.
Another model was a light-duty cultivator with original shanks removed and a vertical-frame extension added. A 6×6-inch angle iron was welded to the vertical frame at about a 45° to the direction of travel. “This design is similar to the commercially manufactured hay floats,” Klein says.
A particularly simple home-built leveling implement he looked at comprised two 24-foot I-beams (8×24 inches) connected with cables and offset by about 15°. “The front beam angles back to one side, while the back beam angles to the other side,” Klein says. “Rocks are generally windrowed to either side. The power requirement is about 70 hp.
“Leveling hay ground every spring can be an acceptable compromise in dealing with pocket gopher mounds,” he says. “It can really extend the life of a hayfield.”