Welding on the Farm: Portability and Versatility Are Key Considerations
With 250 head of Holstein dairy cattle in the milking operation and 1,500 acres of corn, beans, alfalfa and wheat spread across 12 farms, Ron Brooks oversees a large farming enterprise where timely equipment fabrication and repairs can be critical to keep things running smoothly.
He recalls one recent night at Brooks Farms in Waupaca County, Wis., when a cow in the milking parlor stepped on a milking retracting arm, breaking it. Brooks had a replacement arm, but it wasn’t quite the same style as the old arm.
So Brooks unbolted the broken stainless steel piece and took it back to his shop, where he has a Millermatic® 212 Auto-Set™ MIG wire welder. It took him just a few minutes to switch spools on the machine so he could fix the retracting arm.
“In five minutes I had it switched over to weld stainless steel, I made two little welds and got it back to the milking parlor,” Brooks says. “We probably only lost 15 minutes of operating time. Being able to fix it so quickly meant avoiding a lengthy downtime.”
Whether it’s repairing a stainless steel piece in the milking parlor, fabricating an aluminum part for the farm’s light sport airplane or building a trailer with mild steel, Brooks needs welding and cutting equipment that helps get the job done easily and efficiently.
When repair and fabrication work can be done in the shop at Brooks Farms, Brooks has a few options. He can use his Millermatic 212 Auto-Set, which can weld aluminum, stainless steel and mild steel from 22 gauge to 3/8 inch thick in a single pass, or he can use his Bobcat™ 250 EFI engine-driven welder/generator with electronic fuel injection for Stick welding mild steel and thicker materials.
In field applications, Brooks also uses the Bobcat in emergency repair situations, when equipment can’t be brought back to the shop. The Bobcat can be put on the service truck, in the back of a pick-up truck or even on the back of a Gator utility vehicle so it can be taken to the site of the repair.
“It fits so nicely in just about everything,” Brooks said. “The portability is huge. I just love it.”
The generator capabilities of the Bobcat also came in handy during a power outage last winter, when the machine provided power for three days at the house of the Brooks Farms foreman. The machine’s EFI technology provided noticeable fuel efficiency in that situation, requiring gas fill-ups only twice a day to keep the generator running constantly.
Because some farm repair needs happen in more hard-to-reach locations or even in the bucket of a ladder truck in the air, Brooks also relies on a Maxstar® 150 welder, a lightweight machine that offers portable DC output TIG and Stick processes.
“That one is always on our service truck. It’s probably the handiest welder we have on the farm,” Brooks says. “It’s so small and portable. I can throw the shoulder strap over my shoulder and it’s a 12-pound welder. I can weld 1/4-inch steel almost anywhere I need to go with that.”
A Spectrum® 625 X-TREME™ plasma cutter is mostly used in the shop at Brooks Farms, but it’s also portable enough for Brooks to put it on the service truck for jobs around the farms when necessary.
“Portability is key for us. Portability and adaptability between machines, like having the same plugs and simple features like that,” Brooks says. “We also need to be able to weld on various metals. Aluminum seems to be creeping into more and more work for us.”
Farm and ranch applications
Many farmers and ranchers likely share challenges and needs similar to those at Brooks Farms, with portability, versatility and ease of use topping the list of desired qualities in a welder for these applications.
Fabrication and repair work often happen away from the shop, in the field at all hours of the day. Many farmers also must be self-reliant when emergency repairs spring up, especially if they live some distance from the nearest welding shop.
The good news is that welding technology advancements have made many machines more portable, versatile and convenient to use than ever. This helps farmers and ranchers complete fabrication and repairs themselves, so they can get back to work faster.
Also, many welding machines today are more intuitive in design, with features such as automatic process selection and easy-to-use operator interfaces. For example, the Miller-exclusive Multi-Voltage Plug (MVP™) allows operators to connect to common 115 V or 230 V power receptacles without the use of any tools, simply by choosing the plug that fits the receptacle and connecting it to the power cord. The power source automatically reconfigures to work with 230 V power or can easily change to 115 V power, offering maximum flexibility in the shop or the field.
“Having to be able to adapt from plugging into the wall in the shop to plugging into the service truck, I really like that feature,” Brooks says. “The ability to just switch plugs and use that Maxstar at 115 is huge.”
Consider your welding needs
Because different applications sometimes call for different welding processes, selecting the right one for a farm or ranch operation is an important first step.
The most common welding processes include Stick, MIG, Flux-Cored and TIG, each with benefits and limitations depending on the application. Another thing to keep in mind is that many machines are capable of performing multiple welding processes. Let’s look at some basics of each process:
- Stick welding uses an electric current flowing from a gap between the metal and the welding stick, known as an electrode. It has for many years been a popular method for farm and ranch welding needs, because it’s an economical welding method suited for windy, outdoor conditions, and it’s more forgiving when welding dirty or rusty metal. That means it’s a good option for repairs in the field for farm and ranch applications when welding steel or stainless steel. However, Stick welding is limited to metals no thinner than 18-gauge, requires frequent rod changing and emits significant spatter. It also can be more difficult to learn and use, particularly the ability to strike and maintain an arc. Stick welders are available in either AC, DC or AC/DC, with AC being the most economical.
- MIG welding uses a wire welding electrode on a spool that is fed automatically at a constant pre-selected speed. The arc, created by an electrical current between the base metal and the wire, melts the wire and joins it together with the base. MIG welding is a clean, easy process that can be used on thin and thicker plate steel, aluminum and stainless steel. It offers high welding speeds, reducing repair or fabrication time, but it may not be the most convenient for use in windy outdoor applications since it requires a shielding gas. As more farm and ranch applications require welding a variety of metals, including aluminum, MIG offers better control on thinner metals and can reduce the time spent on post-weld tasks such as cleanup since there is no slag. It can be a good process to use for fabrication tasks in the farm shop when welding steel, stainless steel and aluminum.
- Flux-Cored welding is a slight variation of MIG welding. It’s also a wire-feed process, but differs in that it does not require a shielding gas. It uses self-shielded flux-cored wire to shield the arc, which can make it a good choice for welding outdoors or in windy conditions. It offers high speed and portability benefits and is good for out-of-position welding, making it another good option for repair and fabrication needs in the field on steel and stainless steel.
- TIG welding uses a non-consumable tungsten electrode and a shielding gas that protects the welding area from contamination. TIG offers concentrated heat and precise control of the arc, which allows it to be used to weld very thin metals. TIG provides high quality, highly aesthetic welds for all weldable metals. However, it is a relatively slow process and it can be comparatively more difficult to master than other welding processes.
Taking the time to identify upfront the projects that will occupy the biggest percentage of welding activity will help determine the thickness and type of metal that likely will be welded most often. This ultimately helps in selecting the most suitable welder model.
In addition to the welder itself, other accessories and supplies will be needed to operate the welder. This includes gas and consumables and welding protection such as helmet, gloves and jacket.
What size welder is most appropriate?
One way of classifying the “size” of welding power sources is by how much amperage they can generate at a given duty cycle. Duty cycle refers to the number of minutes out of a 10-minute window that a welder can operate. For example, a Millermatic 212 Auto-Set MIG unit can deliver 160 amps of power at a 60 percent duty cycle, which means it can weld continuously at 160 amps for six minutes and then must cool down for the remaining four minutes to prevent overheating.
When considering appropriate machine size, remember that thin metals require less amperage and thicker metals require more amperage. For example, to MIG weld 18-gauge steel in a single pass takes roughly 70 amps, where welding 1/4-inch steel in a single pass requires approximately 180 amps. Multiple passes can be made to weld thicker materials, but this adds time to the process. Actual amperage used depends on the type of weld, welding position, diameter of electrode, type of shielding gas and other factors.
For light repair work on steel, stainless steel and aluminum — from sheet metal to material 3/16 inch thick — a 130 to 150 amp MIG unit with a 30 percent duty cycle can perform many of the welding jobs a farm or ranch requires. For heavier repair or fabrication, such as trailer hitches, axles or hardfacing, consider a 200 to 250 amp MIG unit with a 40 to 60 percent duty cycle, such as the Millermatic® 252, or consider a 175 to 250 amp Stick machine, like the Thunderbolt® XL 225/150 AC/DC model.
As Brooks experiences with fabrication and repair needs at Brooks Farms, the welding machine often must be taken to the site of the repair. That makes size, weight and the availability of power important considerations.
Some TIG/Stick welders weigh between 14 and 50 pounds, making them a more portable option for jobs away from the shop. Stick welding and Self-Shielded Flux-Cored welding also eliminate the need for gas, making them even more portable.
Power availability is another issue to keep in mind. Some welders can run on 115 V power, while other machines need 230 V power, so be sure to know what level of power is available.
For breakdowns and repairs far away from an electrical outlet, farmers and ranchers also have the option of engine-driven welder/generators, such as the Bobcat 250 used by Brooks. Not only do these machines provide their own welding power, they also provide auxiliary power to run tools and lights, and the EFI option results in lower fuel costs and longer runtimes. Engine-driven welder/generators can be kept in the bed of a pick-up truck or on the back of a service truck, so they can be taken to wherever repairs are needed.
Options for cutting metal
Many fabrication and repair jobs on the farm may also require the ability to cut metal. Two popular options for these applications are plasma arc and oxy-fuel cutting.
Plasma technology can be a more expensive investment up-front, but it works very well on thinner materials and can cut any electrically-conductive metal. It also offers the benefits of speed and precision. Preheating is not required with this method, and some of the smaller plasma machines — such as the Spectrum 625 X-TREME used at Brooks Farms — offer portability benefits for jobs in the field, though a power source is necessary.
Oxy-fuel can efficiently cut metals up to 24 inches thick, but this method can only cut ferrous (iron containing) steels, so it cannot be used on aluminum or stainless steel. Preheating is necessary with this method, which can be highly portable since it requires a gas container but no electrical power source. Oxy-fuel torches also offer versatility for numerous jobs, as they are capable of cutting, welding, brazing, soldering, heating and gouging.
When choosing a method for cutting metal, the most important questions to consider are what type of metal is most often cut and what thickness of metal is most often cut.
Many options for farm and ranch needs
Miller offers a range of welders and cutting tools developed with the farmer and rancher in mind in each process category. Operators can choose from the varying amperage and duty cycle options to achieve the most effective and economical operational results.
The Miller lineup of welders also incorporates several exclusive features, including the previously mentioned MVP option and Adaptive Hot Start™ technology, which eliminates worry about difficult-to-strike stick electrodes. The Millermatic 212 used by Brooks features Auto-Set, a control that automatically sets the welder to the proper parameters, so operators can simply set the wire diameter and material thickness and begin welding.
With the Maxstar 150 and Bobcat 250 for Stick and Flux-Cored welding, the Millermatic 212 Auto-Set for MIG and Flux-Cored welding, and the Spectrum 625 X-TREME for cutting jobs, Ron Brooks has the necessary tools to complete his welding, repair and fabrication needs, whether they are in the shop or in the field.
“There are always repairs to be done, so we want machines that offer a lot of versatility,” Brooks says.
For more information or to purchase any of the products mentioned in this article, visit the Miller Online Store.