St Croix River Road Ramblings

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Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Spreading the Profits

"Don't bite off more than you can chew," yelled my brother Everett across the barn as I jabbed my flat blade shovel into the gutter, trying to break off a foot of pungent, steaming, fresh, green manure, stuck together with bright yellow straw, to push down to him at the end of the gutter where was waiting to pitch it into the manure spreader. "The bigger they are the harder they fall," was my reply. Our attempts at wit were part of the camaraderie we brothers shared whenever we worked together.
In the Fifties, we did everything by hand on our farm behind Bass Lake, including cleaning the barns. We boys estimated that if we fed the cows a ton of hay and grain, by the time it had gone through their four stomachs and had been mixed with water, it came out as 2 tons of manure. The more common name for manure was considered a four-letter word in our home—and used at the pain of a soap-washed mouth.

In the wintertime, our cows stayed in the barn, stanchioned in two rows facing each other across a 5-foot wide manger. Directly behind each row, was a 16-inch wide 8 inch deep gutter to hold the cows waste. The huge Holstein cows filled it to overflowing each day and it had to be shoveled and forked out by hand. In summer, the cows stayed in the pasture and only came in twice a day to be milked—allowing a weekly cleaning of the gutters. All winter, the daily routine was to let the cows outside for a little exercise while we cleaned the barn and then bring them back in to the warm comfortable barn. On nice days, Dad backed the tractor and manure spreader up to the barn doors and pitched the manure into the spreader and hauled it out to the field to be spread as fertilizer for the next year's crop. Deep snow and frigid weather stopped the tractor hauling and forced us to wheel it out in the barnyard to an ever increasingly large manure pile. Temperatures below 15 were too cold to get the Super C Farmall tractor started easily, and froze the manure quickly enough to risk breaking the spreader.

Dad was philosophical when it came to manure. "The Farmer Magazine says that manure is part of the profits from the farm. It saves me from having to buy fertilizer at the Co-op, and according to a guy from the University, should be treated as a valuable part of farming produce" After that he no longer hauled manure, he "spread the profits." Before the 1950s, dairy farmers rotated their crops between hay, corn and oats. The manure spread back on the fields was a necessary part of making this sustainable version of agriculture work. Dad did the barn cleaning work by himself during the week, but on weekends when we four boys were home from school, we helped as much as we could. It was not that we had to; it was because it was fun to be in the barn with Dad and helping out. We boys worked hard on the farm, but not nearly as hard as Mom and Dad did.

"I was a little to independent to work for other people," Dad told me when I asked why he chose to be a farmer. "I could be my own boss as a farmer. It was a lot of work, but I liked doing it." He milked cows, cleaned barns, and raised all of the crops on his own farm from 1941 until he retired forty years later when Parkinson's disease forced him to sell the cows.

There were two parts to the actual gutter cleaning. One of us pitched the manure from gutter to spreader or wheelbarrow. The other pushed it down the gutter to the person pitching it. The gutter was filled with a mixture of straw and manure. It was the consistency of pumpkin pie filling with a straw binder. The pusher "bit off" a section of manure/straw by breaking it loose from the rest with the flat shovel turned backward—cutting off the portion. Then you flipped the shovel right side up and shoved your bite down the cement gutter picking up speed as you came to the end. A five tined manure fork worked if the manure had lot of straw. Dad had put cement floors and gutters in the 1915 barn when he first bought it. Years of sliding manure down the gutter had worn the bottom smooth and shiny. It looked like green variegated marble—colorful rocks mixed in the cement giving it a lovely polished look, stained the color of green manure. It looked so colorful and bright, it would have made a beautiful kitchen countertop.

Dad bought a new barn shovel each fall. They were steel, with a long handle carefully selected for straight grain, the pan just narrower than the gutter. By spring, the shovel blade would have worn down nearly half from sliding on the cement. One year the shovel was the Armstrong brand. After that, when people asked Dad what kind of barn cleaner he had, "I have an Armstrong barn cleaner" he would reply, chuckling as he enjoyed the double meaning. "Watch Byron," Mom told Marvin as he helped his 4 year old "baby brother" get his barn boots on. Byron was the youngest and liked to be where the action was, even if he couldn't help yet. In the winter, he kept his trike in the barn and raced Lucky, our dog, up and down the white limed walkways behind the cows.

"I'm a hawn dog cryin o'er da bool" sang Byron that day as he raced his trike up the walk, wheeled it around and headed back while we were grunting over our manure evacuation jobs. He was a big fan of Elvis's new "Hound Dog" song. Suddenly the song was replaced by a real howl. We rushed to him on the other side of the barn. Taking a corner too fast for conditions, he had hit a cow pie slick and rolled into the gutter. The trike was on top of him; his arms and legs were waving wildly while he yowled.
"Be quiet—the cows will kick you," yelled Marvin as we pulled off the trike.

"Yuk, he's all covered with manure," said Everett.

"You pull him out! I'm not gonna touch him," Marvin commanded me.

"You do it, you're the oldest" I replied.

By then, Dad came over and pulled Byron, still sounding like a siren, out of the gutter. "Byron, hush up, you're OK. You just need to get cleaned up. A little manure never hurt anyone," said Dad who remained remarkably calm through most situations. "Marvin, you take him to the house, but first take him out in the snow bank and rub off the manure with snow and hay so Mom won't have such a mess." Marvin was soon back but Byron was out of action for the rest of the morning.

In the winter, we let the cows out while we cleaned the barn. They got thirty minutes to walk around and visit with each other before spending the rest of the day in their stalls. As soon as the cows left their stalls, they stopped to poop on the walkway that we had to keep white with lime. We tried to fool them by rattling their stanchions, or rushing them, but they always waited to go until it they could make the worst mess.

We spread the stalls thick with fresh yellow straw each day, laboriously forked from the huge strawstack in the barnyard and brought into the barn each day. The old straw from the stalls went into the freshly cleaned gutter to soak up the urine and minimize splashing. With stalls bedded and gutters clean, the cows came back into the barn. Each cow knew which order to come into the barn, with the boss cow first, and each knew which stall was home. On the rare occasion that Dad wanted to move a cow from one stall to a new one, it took a lot of chasing and several weeks for the cow to learn its new home. The cows with big appetites walked along the stalls ducking their head in to grab a mouthful of hay from the manger where a picky eater might have left a wisp or two. We checked the manger to make sure the water drinking cups were working and clean; pitched the manger full of hay from the huge haymow above, and then swept and limed the floors behind the cows and adjusted the different doors in the barn to provide enough ventilation for the temperature outside. Cows produce a lot of body heat, so even at 20 below, a little ventilation was needed in Dad's barn, insulated with 30 feet of hay above and foot thick cinder blocks for walls.

With the main barn done, Dad moved to the calf barn where we shoveled and forked out the pens each week. With the manure spreader heaped high, Dad headed towards the field he planned to plant a second year of corn and needed extra fertility. With aggressive field tractor chains, the Super C could haul the spreader through snow up to a foot deep or more, but most winters the time came when it was too deep.

Then we built the manure pile. The manure froze solid from one day to the next, so Dad built smooth trails to the top that let him pile it higher and higher. After a few dives into the wheelbarrow, we boys learned how to push it ourselves and held competitions to reach Pike's Peak with a full load. In the spring after it melted, it all had to be pitched onto the spreader and hauled to the fields. We bought a Jubilee Ford with a loader to help us out in later years.

Grandpa had cows and a barn and the same problems. His barn was equipped with a manure carrier. A long metal track ran from one end of the barn to the other and out the door to a tall post down the hillside. Instead of pitching the manure into the wheelbarrow or spreader, Grandpa pitched it into a metal carrier that lowered to the floor. When it was full, you pulled a chain that raised it to the track; pushed it off and by gravity it went out the door and down the track and automatically tripped at the end, dumping on the spreader or pile. You pulled it back in and refilled it again. It was exciting to help Grandpa and zoom the carrier down the track. We never quite got courage enough to ride the rails ourselves.

By the 1960s, even small farmers were getting automatic barn cleaners. You turned on an electric motor and chains with paddles moved the manure along the gutters and out the door, up a chute and into the manure spreader. The romance of cleaning the barn by hand had disappeared; it is but a fond memory of a few of us old timers