How Draft Horses Are Helping Upgrade Cell Towers In Wisconsin

May 9, 2017
Originally published on May 10, 2017 8:57 am

Companies that provide cell phone service are constantly racing to provide the most reliable signal. In Wisconsin, one of the providers has turned to a surprising option to get the job done: draft horses.

The horses are helping U.S. Cellular upgrade equipment on about 200 cell towers in Wisconsin, some of which are served by hard-to-navigate access roads.

"We call them roads. They're more of a path," says Brandi Vandenberg, the company's regional planning manager for engineering. "So when you don't have a firm structure to travel on, any type of inclement weather can make it a challenge." Wisconsin's deep snow and heavy rains can make the access roads all but impassable for trucks.

Vandenberg says with construction planned at so many tower sites, the company has a tight timetable for delivering equipment and scheduling technicians to install it.

Jason Agathen, a driver for CH Coakley, the logistics company hired to coordinate the tower upgrades, knows how tricky the access roads can be. Agathen has delivered thousands of pounds of electronics gear to the cell tower sites. One trip, he says, involved snow so deep it blew the transmission on an ATV.

So the company hired farmer Jason Julian of Medford, Wisc., and his draft horses to keep the tower upgrades on track.

Julian uses draft horses to do much of the work on his organic dairy farm and for a horse logging business during the winter. His Belgian Brabant are the type of working horses that were common on Wisconsin farms before motor vehicles took over much of their work.

"They're short-backed, heavily muscled. They're easy keepers, very calm-minded, very easy horses to be around. Very easy horses to train," he says.

Julian raises and trains the horses. For the last few months, he's been loading two or three of them into a horse trailer a couple times each week, and hauling it with his pickup truck to remote cell phone towers. On a recent morning, he took along Hannah, a bay roan, and Billings, a blue roan. As he approaches the cell tower, he surveys the surrounding fields.

"Look at the end of the field. Do you see the water shining in the dead furrows in the end of the field? That tells you how muddy everything is. There's just water sitting," he says.

Julian pulls over on the highway's shoulder, followed by his wife, Katrina, who's in a second pickup hauling a wooden wagon with a flat bottom and low sides. The two attach the horses to each other as Julian prepares to get to work.

"I'm getting ready to hook them to the wagon and get ready for the truck to arrive, so when the truck arrives we have a minimal, minimal amount of downtime time to deliver the freight," Julian says.

Soon after, the delivery truck drives up. Julian hops into the wagon and instructs his horses to back up to the truck. The workers transfer their cargo to the wagon, unloading a half-dozen boxes, each holding an 8-foot antenna. Julian then leads his team to the base of the cell tower. It's only about 300 yards away, but out of reach for the big delivery truck, which would have become mired in the muck.

"This is a cakewalk for them," Julian says. "They're used to being in the woods with me in thigh-deep snow and mud, and have a 1,500 pound log hooked behind them. So this is pretty easy stuff for them."

Julian says each load for the cell tower upgrades is usually about 2,000 pounds. Although that's heavier than a log, he says it's not a challenge for the horses because most of the sites are on relatively flat terrain.

Yet he says one recent delivery was tougher than the others. It was in a hilly area called West Salem. Julian says it took his team about 90 minutes to make the steep climb to the tower.

"It had constant switchbacks, super steep, just unbelievable terrain, and we made it," he says. "[W]e had to use a piece of firewood actually to block the [wagon's] tires. About every 40 or 50 yards towards the top we'd block the tires and give the horses a breather."

One of the horses working that job was pregnant, and when she later gave birth, Julian named the foal Salem in recognition of the tough cell tower job.

Agathen says he gets a kick out of the fact that horses have proven essential to the U.S. Cellular project.

"I'm from the city, so I don't get to see a lot of horses to begin with. And seeing what he can do with them, it's amazing to begin with. The control he has — and they've been using horses since the beginning of time from way back then to now. It's pretty neat," Agathen says.

CH Coakley says it won't hesitate to use horses again, the next time modern vehicles fail to get the job done.

Copyright 2017 Milwaukee Public Radio. To see more, visit Milwaukee Public Radio.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Companies that provide cell phone service race one another to offer the most reliable signals in order to retain customers. Sometimes to do that, they turn to a surprising option to get the job done.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORSE NEIGHING)

INSKEEP: And it's a draft horse in Wisconsin, a horse that is helping a cell phone provider with a big service upgrade. Ann-Elise Henzl of member station WUWM reports.

ANN-ELISE HENZL, BYLINE: U.S. Cellular is updating equipment on about 200 cell towers here in Wisconsin, some of which are served by primitive access roads. That poses a challenge for CH Coakley, the logistics company coordinating the upgrades. Jason Agathen has been delivering thousands of pounds of electronics gear sometimes to tricky locations.

JASON AGATHEN: We actually used a ATV this year for a site that I was on, and it blew the tranny out of it - on one of the hills because we had - the snow was so deep up north.

HENZL: So the company hired Jason Julian who farms in Medford, Wisc. A couple of times a week, Julian load's two to three draft horses into a trailer and drives his pick-up truck to remote cell phone towers. This morning, he's approaching one in the middle of a farmer's field.

JASON JULIAN: Look at the end of the field. Do you see the water shining in the dead furrows in the end of the field? that tells you how muddy everything is. There's just water sitting.

HENZL: Julian stops on the shoulder of a highway where he leads two Belgian Brabant horses from the trailer. Their names are Hannah and Billings, and they're huge animals with a stocky build, although not quite as large as Clydesdales. Julian's wife Katrina pulls off in her pick-up that's hauling a wooden wagon with a flat bottom and low sides. The two attach the horses to each other as Julian prepares them to get to work.

JULIAN: I'm getting ready to hook them to the wagon and be ready for the truck to arrive, so when the truck arrives, we have a minimal amount of downtime to deliver the freight.

HENZL: Soon after, the delivery truck pulls up. Julian hops in the wagon instructing his horse's to back up to the truck. They're accustomed to listening because Julian uses them on his organic dairy farm and in the logging business.

JULIAN: Whoa, gee, gee, gee, gee...

HENZL: The workers transfer their cargo to Julian's wagon. It's a half dozen boxes each holding an eight-foot antenna. The team then heads to the base of the cell tower. It's not far, but out of reach for the big delivery truck. That would get stuck on this dirt access road.

JULIAN: This is a cake walk for them. They're used to being in the woods with me in thigh-deep snow and mud and have a 1,500-pound log hooked behind them, so this is like a - pretty easy stuff for them.

HENZL: Julians says each load for the cell tower upgrades is usually about 2,000 pounds, heavier than a log, yet not a challenge because most of the sites are on relatively flat terrain. Yet, one recent delivery was tougher than the others. It was in a hilly area called West Salem where it took about an hour and a half to make the steep climb to the tower.

JULIAN: And it had constant switchbacks, super steep, just unbelievable terrain. And we made it, and we had to use a piece of firewood actually to block the tires about every 40 or 50 yards towards the top, we'd block the tires and give the horses a breather.

HENZL: Delivery Driver Jason Agathen says he gets a kick out of the fact that horses have proven essential to this project.

AGATHEN: I'm from the city, so I don't get to see a lot of horses to begin with, and seeing what he can do with them - it's amazing to begin with, the control he has. And they've been using horses since the beginning of time, so from way back then to now, it's pretty neat.

HENZL: The company says it won't hesitate to use horses again the next time modern vehicles fail to get the job done. For NPR News, I'm Ann-Elise Henzl in northern Wisconsin.

(SOUNDBITE OF LED ZEPPLIN'S "BLACK MOUNTAIN SIDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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