January 2013


Once you determine what type of power you need, you will be able to narrow down the type of truck you need.  The intent of this post is to summarize yesterdays, and give you a reference to help you with your decision.  You really want to aim for a truck that will comfortably tow your average with cushion to spare (in case you overload), but is also capable of towing the max weight you can think of.  If you don’t plan to use the max often, then you don’t need much cushion on the high end.  In any case, just how much tow capacity exists depends greatly on the truck itself.

In the last post, I described several types of engines and engine sizes. A few listed included the 6.0L, 6.6L, 7.3L and so on.  The type of engine can easily be figured out simply by looking under the hood.  For the most part, just understand that higher capacity (big “L”), transmission torque, and engine horsepower, USUALLY leads to higher tow capacities.  A fun way to see this in action is to pay a visit to YouTube, and query “Ford or Chevy,” “Chevy or Dodge,” and “Dodge or Chevy.”  While I wouldn’t treat my own truck that way, it is one way to use the ignorance of others to learn (and enjoy the entertainment at the same time!).  While some are more efficient than others (diesel vs. gas), you must do your research on the particular type of engine you are considering–particularly if you buy a used truck.  Certain engines had known problems, and certain ones had specific problems during specific time periods.

Dealers and private owners alike may try to brag about “upgrades” done to a used vehicle, and tout all the benefits of these upgrades.  Be careful.  For example, common diesel upgrades we encountered were a larger air filter, “Edge” devices, or removing the muffler.  This allowed for more horse-power from the engine, and created a little more noise (for those who think that’s “cool”).  What we found out was that trying to alter the power of the motor would, over time, stress the motor beyond its most efficient capability, thereby shortening its life substantially.   My husband specifically looked for unmodified, stock engines.  On the other hand, an upgrade such as airbags on the rear springs can actually improve handling and decrease stress on your suspension.  When used properly, the air bags keep the truck and the load level, and improve the balance of the entire set-up.  They should definitely be considered a plus when towing.  Of course, if you neglect to deflate them when not towing, although it won’t hurt anything, they could cause an awfully rough ride around town!

Whatever truck you decide to buy, new or used, just be sure you investigate the specs of it.  I would recommend you request seeing the specs “in black and white” as opposed to taking someone’s word for it.  I have heard of more people who wound up NOT getting what they really needed because they believed so-and-so “expert” rather than doing the research and saving a lot of time, effort, money, and heartache to begin with.  Throughout our search, we have been quite chagrined to find that the seemingly biggest concerns buyers have are the leather seats, seat warmers, and navigational system in the cab, rather than the actual work the truck is capable of doing.  If you are buying this truck to impress the Jones’s, fine, but if you want a true work truck, you need to know those specs beyond a doubt.   Unless you just have money to burn, if you are trying to tow a 4,000 lb (fully loaded) aluminum two-horse trailer, then you could possibly get by with a 1500/F150 truck, rather than spending an extra $20,000 on a 3500/F-350, designed for hauling over 16,000 lbs.   The best way to find this out is to research the specific year model of the truck.

To give you an even clearer idea and to save you a little research, the following is a listing of the towing and payload specs of the latest model trucks (2013), as taken directly from their website.  Keep in mind that the specs given are for a basic truck, with the standard engines, and a regular cab.  Additional cab will either decrease the payload or require adjustments to the suspension, and upgrades to the engine (such as adding a high-output, or “HO,” diesel engine) would increase the tow capacity significantly.  I tried to find standard numbers for the purposes of this list, but you will have to check each rating personally.  Nonetheless, the numbers will give you a reference to help guide you.

Toyota Tundra

Chevy Silverado 1500
….F-150….

Dodge Ram 1500

Payload

1,885

1,940 3,120

1,493

Max Tow Capacity

10,400

8,900 9,800

9,150

Fifth-Wheel Tow

N/A

10,700* not shown not shown

 

Toyota Tundra

Chevy Silverado 2500 ….F-250….

Dodge Ram 2500

Payload

N/A

4,212 4,240

2,543

Max Tow Capacity

N/A

13,000 12,500

not shown

Fifth-Wheel Tow

N/A

17,800* 16,800 13,400

 

Toyota Tundra

Chevy Silverado 3500 ….F-350….

Dodge Ram 3500

Payload

N/A

7,222* 4,390

5,099

Max Tow Capacity

N/A

17,300* 15,000

not shown

Fifth-Wheel Tow

N/A

23,100* 23,200

13,950

* May require additional features that aren’t part of the standard model to increase to max capacity listed

If you wish to compare diesel engines, go to the site dieselhub.com.

I considered doing this post before the posts on specs, but it is too easy to be biased towards an engine rather than the necessary specs.  Thus I decided to hold off and reverse the order in the hopes I could help you make an unbiased choice.

So, you’ve settled on how much luxury you need, how much you plan to tow or load the truck with, and possibly figured out a range of specs you want to focus on.  The basic manufacturers of trucks designed for actual work are Toyota (Tundra), Chevrolet (Silverado series), Dodge (Ram series), and Ford (F series).  Each of these offers their trucks in gas engines and diesel engines, except the Tundra, which only comes in a gas engine at this time.  True work trucks, often labeled “HD” for Heavy-Duty,  are usually purchased due to their cheaper price tag and “get the job done” design.  The true workman of the trucks would have a diesel engine, however, this increases price by about $8,000 on average, so many buyers stick with gas if they don’t absolutely need the power.

The first thing you need to ask yourself is, “What EXACTLY do I need my truck to do?”  While anyone with money to burn can go out and spend $45,000 (or more) on a great, oversized, fancy work truck with a diesel engine that will pull or haul almost any typical farm or ranch load, I am assuming that if you are researching trucks, you are more likely trying to find just what you need and not desiring to spend any extra.  While deciding on the best engine doesn’t require quite the research as all the specs discussed previously, there are a few things you should be familiar with.

Gas engines have been around a while, and come with automatic and manual transmissions.  Gas engines have plenty of power for most standard jobs, and on average, we found gas engines could tow up to about 12,000 lbs pretty comfortably.  Gas is an easy fuel to come by, and these days it is much cheaper than diesel.  Gas engines are also much less expensive to repair and/or replace when that time comes–around 250,000 miles on average.  Furthermore, if you intend to use the truck for running errands around town, and only plan to tow on rare occasion, you would likely be better of with a gas engine.  Gas engines handle the shorter distances and frequent starts of the “around-town” truck better.

Diesel engines, on the other hand, provide some serious horse-power.  If you are looking to tow more than 12,000 lbs on a regular basis, you will want to consider a diesel.  While diesels also come with automatic and manual transmissions, most frequent-haulers prefer manual as the transmissions are simpler, more reliable under heavy strain, and cheaper to repair.  As a whole, diesel engines run more efficiently and more reliably than gas, which is why they are so popular with commercial haulers.  Diesels, as a general rule, are not expected to require extensive repair or replacement until they have around 500,000 miles (or much more) behind them, giving them the nickname “million mile engines.”  The downside is that when that repair/replace time does arrive, it is going to cost you seriously–about twice as much as for a gas engine.  These days, diesel is also quite a bit more expensive than gas in most states, which may cause your monthly upkeep expenditure on the truck to increase significantly.  In addition, a diesel engine is designed to run hot.  In other words, you do not want to use it to run errands around town if you can help it.  It is designed to pull, to work under heavy stress and strain, to drive long distances, and to run for long periods of time.  If you need to drive out to your hay field just to toss some bales into the bed, with a gas engine, it would be more efficient to turn the engine off while you load.  With a diesel, though, you would want to leave it running while you load those bales, and allow the engine to get hot as it sits.

Of course, you’ve probably figured out by now that the choice isn’t as cut and dry as “gas or diesel?”.  There are other considerations involved before you decide.  We found that, as a whole, gas engines were generally less risky when purchasing used vehicles.  For the most part, gas engines have been around forever, and only little changes and improvements have occurred throughout the years.  This fact has kept the engines pretty consistent.  Replacement parts and mechanics are more widely available and more affordable.  If you happen to be a Toyota fan, the gas-powered Tundra is your truck, with a newly introduced max. towing capacity of 10,400 lbs.

On the other hand, diesel engines have changed significantly over the years, different manufacturers have developed different parts that are then assembled by other manufacturers, and much of the diesel industry has been unionized, which has caused it’s own issues.  As you get into the research, it becomes clear that diesel engines vary with the year they were made, and the company that made them or their parts at the time.  We didn’t do much research prior to about 1997, but the following is a summary of what we found regarding the diesel engine after that time.  Please understand that these statements are generalizations based on our research of auto websites, and discussions with manufacturers, dealers, and owners.  There are exceptions in every case.

The first diesel issue we found was with Ford.  Mind you, my family has had a multi-generational boycott of Ford for several reasons, but seeing as how we found them to be more affordable and easier to come by, we were giving them as much consideration as any other brand.  Essentially, from about 1997-2003.5, Ford made an incredible 7.3L diesel engine that buyers absolutely loved.  It was considered THE engine to have, it was durable, reliable, long-lasting, and had minimal issues.  In 2003, however, new emissions standards caused a re-design of the engine.  At the same time, there was a labor dispute with the engine manufacturer that resulted in a bit of unplanned-for “tweaking” by the cylinder makers to the new 6.0L diesel that was introduced that year.  This resulted in an engine that had quite a few problems with the cylinders, and quickly resulted in an unpopular, and quite undeserved, reputation for Ford.  Once Ford discovered the source of the problem around 2006 (when the increasing miles caused the cylinders to fail), they quickly fixed it.  However, it still took several years to correct the majority of the bad engines out there (and some still aren’t fixed).  The stressors of the engine problems also caused many transmission issues around the same time.  That same year, an improved engine was introduced, which hasn’t had nearly the troubles.  Nonetheless, despite the steps Ford took to extend warranties and correct the bad engines, their reputation took a bit of a hit.  Since 2006, however, their engines have made a come-back, and their reputation for quality and reliability are improving.  Every mechanic and dealer we spoke with, though, agreed that the best Ford engine ever made was the 7.3L diesel.

Chevrolet hasn’t been without it’s problems either.  In 2001, Chevy introduced the 6.6L Duramax engine, but it quickly revealed an injector problem.  As a result, Chevy warrantied those engines to 200,000 miles for the injectors, and by 2004, had fixed the problem internally.  If you find a Duramax from 2001-2004, make sure the injectors have already been replaced, or you may be risking a costly repair.  We encountered a number of die-hard Chevy fans who wouldn’t own anything else.  The Chevy mechanics and dealers we spoke with also seemed to conclusively agree that the Duramax was an excellent diesel engine.

Dodge engines, overall, seemed to be a really good engine, whatever year they were made.  The year 2003.5-2004.5 was considered a great year, though, with an engine that could provide 325 horse-power and tow a significant amount. A big advantage of the Cummins diesel engine is that it doesn’t have glow plugs, like other diesel engines.  It has a grid heater that apparently is more reliable and less costly to replace.  In a cold climate (less than 20*), glow plugs seem to work more effectively, so a block heater would be a necessity for a Cummins.  Otherwise, though, most experts we talked with agreed that Dodges were just generally good, reliable, durable engines, that held up well under stress.  The downside of the Dodge, according to all the data we read, was that their tow capacities couldn’t touch the Chevy’s and Ford’s maximums–especially in the goose-neck department.  So, if you prefer a diesel, but only need to haul up to about 14,000 lbs, you’d possibly be very happy with a basic model Dodge 3500.  If you need to haul more weight than that, you may want to consider another truck, though.

As a quick note, whether you use gas or diesel, both use the same transmission.  The transmissions can have just as many issues as the engines, and often need repair/replacing around 200,000-300,000 miles, regardless of the engine it’s paired with.  It’s something to consider any time.  A transmission is heavily stressed under towing conditions, though, so if you are buying a used vehicle, the less towing it has done, the better chance it will last for more miles after you buy.

A great precaution we discovered when buying a used vehicle–especially one with higher miles–was to utilize the manufacturer’s internal database.  When you find a used vehicle you are interested in, you can take the VIN into the parts/service department of your local dealer for that make of truck and ask for a vehicle service history.  In about 60 seconds, they can print off a list of all recalls for that vehicle, and all services that were provided by manufacturer-authorized service stations.  It is possible that something was fixed that was not warrantied or by an independent mechanic, in which case, it wouldn’t be recorded.  However, most of the recall-related issues on the list would be covered under warranty, and therefore would likely be reported by a mechanic that did the repair, in order to get paid by the manufacturer.  That list was extremely handy for us, and was what eventually helped us find our truck in the end.

In Part 2, I covered most of the major weights and ratings you should be familiar with.  So where exactly do you find all these numbers?

Unfortunately, this is not always easy either, and may even require a bit of legwork.  If you are buying new, a dealer will happily tell you, “Oh, don’t worry, this truck can haul whatever you ask it to!”  After what we’ve learned through our experience, though, I would never settle for that.  For three reasons:  First, the safety issue I discussed previously.  I love my family too much, our animals are our livelihood, and I wouldn’t want to risk an accident causing harm to either.  Second, sure, the truck may pull any load you put on and ask it to, but that doesn’t mean your engine or transmission will hold out if you do it often.  Finally, if you happen to cross an inspection/weigh station that requires even personal trucks/trailer to be weighed, you could be risking a hefty fine if you are overloaded!

My first suggestion to find these weights is to look on the driver’s side door.  Usually, especially on more recent year models, there is a little white sticker affixed to the side of the door with several of the specs listed.  If so, you can easily get your most important specs from that.  You may also see specs like your axle weight ratings.  While these could be useful if you can’t find any others, I haven’t discussed them because we never really used them.  The other ratings give you as much info, if not more, in MOST cases.  If the label specs are limited, the vehicle’s owners’s manual may have the rest of the information you need.  Unfortunately, manuals are sometimes written somewhat generically, and may not be 100% reliable like the sticker on the door.

Our truck label offers the GVWR, the axle ratings, and the VIN (which I have blacked out here).

Our truck label offers the GVWR, the axle ratings, and the VIN (which I have blacked out here).

If you happen to be looking at older trucks, you may not have such easy access to the specs.  There are still several ways, though.  First, you can get the truck’s VIN number, go to the website “www.decodethis.com”, type in the VIN, click the “Equipment” tab, and read the specs there.  In MOST cases, we found this data to be quite accurate.  On occasion, however, it seemed the decoder was looking more at the “standard” for that vehicle model rather than the individually identifying numbers at the end of the VIN.  In these few cases, we had to search further.  Next, you can call the manufacturer directly.  Just google “Ford,” “Chevrolet,” “Toyota,” or “Dodge,” hunt down the customer service number, call and tell them you want the specs for an older model truck with VIN # (whatever).  It is likely that the person answering the phone will be clueless as to what those numbers actually mean (although we had several try very hard to explain them), but as long as they are reading the data direct from a manual or computer screen, the info should be fairly accurate.  Finally, you can also google the vehicle year, make, and model you are looking at, and read the reviews on it.  Chances are someone out there knows and has written about it.  You can find confirmation of their reviews on websites such as Kelley Blue Book, Edmunds, or NADA.  I would NOT trust any one of these sources exclusively, but if you use several or all of them, you can get a pretty reliable idea what your specs are.

Be aware that while MOST sources give the fifth-wheel and max tow capacity as two different numbers, some sources will give the max tow as the fifth-wheel capacity.  GENERALLY speaking, the max tow capacity will be about 2,500 lbs more than the min. tow capacity, while the fifth-wheel capacity will be roughly 3500-5500 lbs. more than the min. tow capacity.  That is a very broad statement, so you really need all your numbers to figure out the difference, but we found it to be a decent guideline for pre-liminary investigating on used trucks.

If your trailer is right on the borderline of what you are finding, and you really want exact numbers, you always have the option of actually weighing the truck.  This costs a bit (perhaps $50-$100), and you need to plan ahead a bit.  You’d want the truck with any attached equipment (including brush guards, winches, extra hitches, or other equipment), the truck and bed cleaned out, a full fuel tank, and one person–the driver–whose weight is known.  Go weigh the truck and subtract the weight of the person.  That would give you your curb weight.

I mentioned earlier that you could be heavily fined for being overloaded.  The GCWR is a strictly enforced rating.  That’s why commercial semi’s have to stop and be weighed.  I had the “privilege” of once riding with a semi-driving friend who was hauling sod.  It rained during our trip, and his sod wasn’t covered, so it absorbed the rain like a sponge.  At the next weigh station, he was pulled over, ticketed, and had to make other arrangements for part of his load because it was considered too heavy to haul.  Just because you are a private driver does not exempt you from these laws.  Your truck and trailer, fully loaded for your trip, should never exceed that GCWR.   If you are concerned about overloading, you can also go weigh if you already know your GCWR.  As long as your total loaded weight is less than the GCWR, you will be fine.

This last paragraph may seem a little useless, but we considered one truck that showed promise until we better understood the importance of this GCWR concept.  We found a great truck that had originally left the manufacturer as an F-250, with all the ratings of a 250.  It became a fleet truck of some type, and as a result was converted.  The body of the truck remained a 250, but a dually axle was put on, the rest of the suspension, engine, and transmission upgraded, and the standard truck bed was replaced with a flat bed.  By all accounts, it would have been an incredible and powerful truck for towing.  There was only one problem.  Because the upgrades were done after leaving the manufacturer, there were no recorded specs on the truck.  The VIN number itself no longer even existed in Ford’s system.  It was being sold by an authorized dealer as a pre-owned truck complete with dealer warranties.  However, without specs and hard data, legally, we would have been limited to all specs originally assigned to the F-250.  Should we cross through an inspection station towing weight more appropriate for a 350, we could have been severely fined.

Be very careful.  These last 2 posts include some of the most critical data we found, and if you want your truck to run as efficiently as possible, for as long as possible, then you will want to know this information, stay within those limits, and select the truck based on what you need it to do.  At the same time, though, don’t fall for the dealer’s trick of talking you into the “latest” model truck that can haul a fifth-wheel trailer around 18,000 lbs. (GCWR of about 27,500 lbs.).  In fact, that big of a capability would likely be a waste of money, as most states require that your total GCWR be less than 27,000 lbs. or you will require a Commercial Driver’s license (CDL).  Therefore, it also pays to be familiar with your state’s law–something that can pretty easily be found with a google search.

Once you figure out what type of comfort features you desire, it’s time to really start learning the “specs,” or specifications, of the trucks.  The first thing you’ll want to consider is the curb weight, payload, GVWR, and towing capacity of the truck.

The “curb weight” is the weight of the empty truck itself, as it came from the manufacturer.  The “payload” is the recommended maximum weight of cargo the truck can carry–either in the passenger compartment or in the bed.  Theoretically, the payload should be all passengers, luggage, cargo, additions to the truck after manufacturer, etc.  However, when the manufacturer figures the payload, they often account for several passengers and reduce the payload by that weight.  Unfortunately, you don’t really know how much weight they are subtracting out for those passengers unless you look at the “GVWR,” or Gross Vehicle Weight Rating.

The GVWR is the curb weight plus the payload, any assumed passengers, or other assumed weights.   As an example, a common GVWR of a standard 2500 model truck is around 8,800 lbs.  The curb weight of the truck might be around 4,800, and the payload might be 3,300.  If you add the curb weight and payload, you get 8,100 lbs., which means the manufacturer has assumed an additional weight of 700 lbs. of passengers or cargo somewhere in order to reach the max. GVWR of 8,800 lbs.  In this case, it is simpler to just look at the GVWR, subtract out the curb weight, and know that anything else added must be less than 3,200 lbs. to keep the truck within safe limits.   The manufacturer can’t make any guarantees regarding the safety and reliability of driving the truck with any more weight on the truck than that.  Keep in mind, if you are towing a trailer using fifth-wheel or gooseneck hitch, the tongue weight of the trailer will have to be included in the payload weight you are adding.

Just how much can a truck tow?  What you will generally find are 2 numbers, the minimum tow capacity and the maximum tow capacity.  These numbers are based on not only the engine capability, which is a common misconception, but also the entire suspension of the truck, the weight distribution, and the braking system.   The numbers are set based on what all parts of the truck can safely handle.

When the truck is made, it usually has a factory set-up for a basic tow package on the back end of the truck, usually just below the bumper, but occasionally sitting on the bumper itself.  When you hook a “bumper pull” trailer to this rear-mount hitch, the weight of the truck must be able to support the weight of the trailer tongue pressing down on the bumper, without the front end of the truck lifting up any.  If the trailer is heavy enough to cause the rear of the truck to “squat” or sink under the load, thereby lifting the front end, you significantly reduce your ability to steer and brake properly, which increases the risk of driving as a whole.  The safest and most gas efficient setup is a properly set, properly balanced and stabilized, and properly attached trailer.  The trailer and truck will actually form a nice, straight, “line” parallel to the road surface.  Here’s a visual:

truck and trailer

The middle illustration of the front end of the truck lifting is generally considered the most dangerous, though if you happen to have rear-wheel drive, the last illustration of the back end lifting is equally dangerous.  You never want to set your tow vehicle up in any way that would decrease control of the truck and trailer.  The heavier the load, the more important this fact is.  It is important to know the vehicles limits so you know when you have maxed out these weights, and so you can prevent causing one of the above dangerous situations.

So, essentially, the minimum tow capacity is basically considered the maximum amount of weight you would want to hook to a bumper-pull hitch WITHOUT a stabilizer package or trailer brakes.  The maximum tow capacity is the maximum weight you could safely tow a bumper-pull trailer WITH a stabilizer package AND trailer brakes.  In most cases, these are the definitions, but read on, as the max. tow weight is occasionally interchange with the Fifth-Wheel tow rating.

The “Fifth-Wheel Weight” isn’t always easy to find.  Some manufacturer’s offer it, some don’t.  A fifth-wheel or gooseneck trailer’s tongue weight is centered directly over the rear axle of the truck, and therefore does not affect the truck the same way as a bumper pull.  It wouldn’t cause a tilt of the truck like an improperly-balanced bumper-pull trailer.  Rather, the weight of the fifth-wheel is limited only by the power of the engine/transmission, and the suspension of the truck.  If you overload those, you risk losing control of the vehicle, or, more likely completely destroying your transmission, engine, or both–very expensive repairs in either case!

If you are very lucky, you will be able to find this weight given–especially in current year models.  However, if you are looking at an older model, you may not find that weight as clearly.  In fact, at least one manufacturer doesn’t even give their dealers access to specs beyond 3 years.  (That was frustrating, let me tell you!!)  The good news is, you can calculate it using two other numbers.  The “GCWR,” or Gross Combined Weight Rating, is the maximum recommended combined weight of the truck pulling a fifth-wheel trailer.  The “Curb Weight” is the weight of the empty truck itself.  If you subtract the Curb Weight from the GCWR, that will give you your max. fifth-wheel tow capacity.

Keep the facts from these last two posts in mind as you look at trucks.  We heard some definitions of these ratings ranging from the simply incorrect to the completely absurd–the worst coming from a dealer himself who was supposedly the dealership’s “expert” regarding diesel trucks and towing!  I spoke with several customer service agents of the manufacturer who were clueless about these weights or what they meant.  Be sure to educate yourself so you don’t get stuck with something that won’t allow you to do what you had planned!  Stay tuned for another posts regarding a few other tid-bits we learned on our journey!

I wasn’t going to do a series on trucks, but the “likes” and “new subscriber” response to my trailer-purchasing posts was almost overwhelming.  At this point, thanks to our research-to-the-extreme tendencies, I am absolutely SICK of looking at trucks!  It is nearly impossible to find or decipher the info that’s out there when you need to buy a good truck.  Clearly, there is a need for a good series on truck purchasing.  So, here goes….

So you’ve decided you need a truck.  Some folks have their personal favorites which can help narrow the search a bit, some are working within a tight budget which narrows the search even further, and still others don’t care and may have cash to burn.  One person wouldn’t be caught dead in a particular brand, while another wouldn’t drive anything else.  Fords, Chevy’s, Toyota’s, and Dodge; 1500, 2500, 3500, and the “”F” equivalents; gas and diesel; manual and automatics; payloads, GVWR’s, GCWR’s, minimum and maximum tow capacities…..what on earth do all these mean?  Is one really better than another?  How do you choose?

If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that it’s much easier to buy the right trailer!  The terms, widespread beliefs, and misunderstood specs on trucks is almost overwhelming.  The simple answer, though, is that there is no “right” truck.  While some trucks are certainly better than others, the “right” truck is really based on your particular need.

For the purpose of this series, I am going to assume you are looking for a truck to actually do work with.  If you have found your way to my blog, you are likely in need of a farm truck, work truck, and/or a truck to tow your trailer with.  Based on this, I can tell you right now that, for the “average” stock owner, hauling more than 2 animal units (or, roughly 1 ton of animal weight), you have already pretty much ruled out the light trucks like Toyota Tacomas, Nissan Titans, Ford Rangers, Dodge Dakotas or Colorado’s, and so forth.  You would think you could select a truck based simply on it’s tow capacity, but it doesn’t exactly work like that.  You have to make other decisions first.

Throughout the next few posts, I will explain what we have found after a ridiculous amount of research, which included test drives, talking with private owners, dealers, and the manufacturers themselves, as well as reading through more online specifications and reviews than I care to remember.  Buckle up, and enjoy the ride!

Of all the pests and diseases that can weaken or kill a honey bee hive, if there’s one thing we’ve learned about raising honey bees through our first year, it’s that winter is one of the hardest things for the bees to endure.  The fact that we live at 7600 feet altitude, with winter temperatures lasting roughly 5 months, certainly doesn’t help.  As a result of this, you can imagine our elation when the established hives we had purchased in the fall of 2011 pulled through the first winter relatively unscathed.  As it turned out, they were so healthy and vigorous, we had two hives swarm (our fault for not being more knowledgeable and preventing it!).  We caught one swarm and purchased 2 bee packages in the spring of 2012.  They were able to build up just enough honey stores to get them safely through the winter, but not enough for us to harvest.  Even if they have enough honey to get through the winter, however, there are dangers.  To understand these dangers, you must first understand a few things about bee behavior.

A cluster of bees.  In this case, it is a swarm in a tree.  Source: Internet Stock Photo

A cluster of bees. In this case, it is a swarm in a tree.
Source: Internet Stock Photo

As winter arrives, the female worker bees chase all the male drone bees out of the hive, essentially causing them to die. The girls don’t want any extra mouths to feed (and we all know how much boys can eat!!).  When temperatures dip below 50 degrees (F), it is too cool for them to fly, so they stay inside the hive.  As the temps continue to drop, all the workers gather into a clustered ball around the queen, who temporarily stops laying eggs.  This clustering ensures the queen is the warmest, most protected, and has the easiest access to food (honey) stores.  The cluster of workers rotates their bodies throughout the ball, so all have a turn at eating and being warm, and all have a turn at exposing themselves to nearly frigid temps on the outside of the cluster.  Except for the motion of the workers rotating, though, the cluster itself does not change position in the hive at all.  When temps rise over 50*, the workers will fly out of the hive for a “cleansing flight” in which they will eliminate all their stored bodily waste materials, as well as “clean house”.  They clean out any dead bees or other foreign things they don’t want in the hive by tossing them out the front entrance.  The warmer temps also give the queen and the workers a chance to move upward or sideways to new honey stores before the next freezing temps arrive.  As long as winter temperatures have periodic warm spells (like we did last winter), this process is repeated throughout the winter–flying on warm days, clustering on cold days and nights.

This sounds like a great system until you understand the dangers of that stationary cluster.  If the temps remain cold enough to keep the cluster in position long enough, then the honey stores run out.  They literally starve to death, while surrounded on all sides with rich, capped, honey that they couldn’t get to.  This is called “Honey-bound,” and is a very common hive killer at these cold altitudes.

Unfortunately, we had an unseasonably warm November and December, which means the bees did a lot of flying, thus burning calories, but there was no food to eat except their honey stores.  Therefore, they ate more honey than normal by mid-winter.  Then, just before Christmas, we were hit with absolutely frigid temperatures that lasted almost 6 straight weeks.  The temps never got warm enough during this time for the bees to uncluster and change position or perform a cleansing flight.  You cannot open the hive during these cold periods.  The clusters of bees produce an incredible amount of heat that remains in the hive.  If we opened the top, it would release that stored heat.  The only real way to check for life is to bang on the outside of the hive, and listen for buzzing inside.  Pretty scientific!

As the cold weeks passed, S got an increasingly sinking feeling that he was going to lose all his bees.  We haven’t seen any sign of life for so long.  I finally convinced him to go out today and at least tap and listen.  We went, and found that two hives had audible buzzing.  One was strong enough that they stand a chance of survival now that we are through the worst of the cold temps.  The other was rather weak, and we aren’t sure of their future.  We couldn’t hear any buzzing in the remaining 4 hives, which means they are either all dead, or enough have died that there is little to no chance the remaining clusters will survive.

If the forecast holds true, then around mid-week, our temps should be warm enough to allow the bees their first cleansing flight since before Christmas (imagine not using a toilet in 6 weeks!).  The activity we observe that day will give us a much better feel of their condition and overall health and energy.  We also plan to open all the hives and check for remaining honey stores.  If they are running low, we will add some frames of honey we set aside last fall for just such a problem.

We like to be optimistic, and find the good in things.  In this case, although 2 hives out of 6 is not exactly something to brag about (if that’s what it turns out to be), it does mean we might have extra honey to harvest–as much as 40-80 lbs.  Due to our drought this past year, we were not able to harvest any for ourselves.  The bees were only able to make and store enough to get them through the winter.  We had a few extra frames full of honey, but decided to store those in the freezer in the event of a long winter.  That may prove to have been a wise choice.  In addition, it means we will have fewer active hives to move back to Red Gate when we move.  That wasn’t going to be easy!

Even though the bees really are more of S’s project, it’s kinda funny how much of an interest I’ve started to take.  I truly rejoiced with him today when we discovered at least 2 hives still hanging on.  We are both so eager to see what the warm weather inspection will find.  I really do hope they survive.  It’s really like losing any other animal on the farm to lose the bees.  Their pollination service and their honey are very valuable on a homestead, plus they really grow on you after a while!!

Today marks exactly 4 months to moving day.  While we have plenty of time yet, I’m already starting to feel it.

In the last month, I have reserved the moving van (better rates when you book early), ordered boxes, shown the house more times than I can count, potty trained R, listed all sorts of extra things on Craigslist, started planning finances, hopefully finally got all 3 goats bred successfully, searched almost endlessly for a truck and a trailer, finally decided to custom order the trailer we want (still looking for the truck), trained a new host for the organic foods co-op we host, made several “final” medical appointments for the boys and still have a few more to make for the rest of us, we had another litter of rabbits born, and as of today, officially started packing some boxes.  I figured we needed to de-clutter a little and try to “stage” our house better by purging some of the items I won’t be needing until after the move.

Over the next month or two, my parents will visit, I will hand over my co-op to the new hosts, the chickens should all start laying (up to 20 eggs a day!), several of the hens will be going to a new home, the remaining hens will all be tested so I can transport them cross-country, and I have to plan my March trip to the farm.  In the midst of all that, of course, we are celebrating two birthdays tomorrow (R’s and N’s, whose actual birthdays are a week apart), and one birthday in April.  AND the goats will start kidding.

Naturally, as if we didn’t have enough going on, everything seems to be breaking and wearing out simultaneously.  Our camera has pretty much decided not to work–when I hit the “picture” button, it turns off.  I’m hoping our vacuum will hang in there, as pieces are literally beginning to fall off it and I find myself rubber-banding and duct taping it together.  Our van brake drums seem to have warped a bit for some reason and the rear door hydraulics have totally worn out.  Our printer recently decided to get as moody as the camera, and the kids are all outgrowing their clothes faster than I can replace them.

Yup, life is busy.  Just the way I like it (minus the expenses of the unexpecteds in the last paragraph!).  I have a feeling the next 4 months are going to fly by, and moving day will be here before we know it!!

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