Innovations help set posts in frozen earth

Innovations help set posts in frozen earth

When the ground is frozen and it’s impossible to dig holes or drive wood posts with a tractor-mounted post pounder, what’s the solution?

Some people have put old tires at each spot that needs to be thawed, burning the tires at night to have the ground thawed underneath them by morning. Burning tires is now illegal in most states, since fumes from the smoke are toxic and nasty-smelling. It’s also difficult to control the fire if unexpected wind comes along; the fire could spread to dry grass, buildings, etc.

Michael Thomas, a rancher near Salmon, Idaho, who does custom fencing, says a quicker and safer way to thaw ground for digging post holes is to use a metal “oven” to contain the fire over each post hole spot.

Last winter he rebuilt some old pens near a calving barn and had to thaw 2-foot-deep frost. Chipping through frozen ground was taking several hours per post hole.

“We created ovens for thawing the ground, using old metal protein supplement tubs. Half barrels would also work. We used a cutting torch to make vent holes 1 inch by ½ inch along the bottom edge, to draw air to keep the fire going, and cut a 5-inch diameter hole in the center top of each oven for the smoke to come out,” Thomas says.

“We cleared grass away from each post spot and built a small fire over each prospective hole. There was plenty of firewood handy, with post and pole end scraps from our corral building project,” he says.

Ovens warm ground safely

The ovens safely contained the fires, which were fairly close to the barn. “A small mesh screen over each smoke hole, weighted down with rocks, kept any sparks or embers from coming out,” Thomas says.

He built fires under several ovens and let them burn while working on other parts of the corral. “The frost was completely gone under the ovens in a few hours. Where the frost was really deep, I scooped out embers after the fire burned down, dug down through the thawed dirt, put the ember/coals back in, and added more wood to continue thawing the ground underneath,” he says.

After finishing work for the day, new fires were started in the evening. “The fire would eventually go out after the wood was burned up, with a few coals keeping the ground warm longer, and it was thawed for morning digging.”

Pilot post begins work

Another strategy for frozen ground if you are using a post pounder to set wood posts, is to use a metal “post” to create a pilot hole. Rod Swanson, a rancher near Tendoy, Idaho, created this innovation. He says it can be driven through rocky ground if it’s not solid bedrock, pushing aside the rocks, or will penetrate frozen ground, whereas a wood post would be forced out of line or just shatter.

He made a 7-foot-tall pilot post to create holes for wood posts. “It is only 3 inches in diameter and creates a hole to start the wooden post into. The pilot post is sturdy enough that you can drive it into just about anything but solid rock. The pointed bottom part is solid steel 3 feet long, and the rest of the post is hollow, like well casing,” Swanson says. This makes it a little lighter to carry around, but it’s still heavy.

“The top has a thick metal cap for the post pounder to hit. If the ground is very rocky or frozen, you need to hold the pilot post in place with a bar as the pounder hits it, since it sometimes moves out of line as it is being driven,” he says.

“You can drive that pilot post down as far as you can and then pull it out with the tractor loader. Then you insert your wood post into the pilot hole and drive it in — forcing it into the slightly smaller hole — and the wood post will be very stable and secure,” explains Swanson.

Smith Thomas is from Salmon, Idaho.

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FENCING CHALLENGE: Michael Thomas, Lemhi County, Idaho, rancher, rebuilt old pens during winter and had to come up with a way to thaw the ground without risk of fire spreading through the tall dry grass.

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MICHAEL THOMAS

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POST POUNDER: Rod Swanson with the tractor-mounted post pounder he uses for driving posts

This article published in the January, 2015 edition of WESTERN FARMER-STOCKMAN.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2015.

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