Spreading manure

After all the fuss and dress clothes and socializing of the last few days, it was a relief to get up in the dark, have coffee, climb into my coveralls, and milk early. I had strained and bottled the milk and was back in the barn by the time Allen pulled in with his tractor at 8 AM.

Allen had offered to bring his tractor out to help me move my giant manure pile. The hydraulics on my old tractor won’t lift high enough to load the manure spreader. I’d told myself I could save money and load the spreader with a pitchfork, but when you’re looking at more than 20 or 30 tons, sometimes willpower fails. I was very happy to have Allen.

allenhoseActually, “Allen days” are always happy days. I love to work with Allen. We don’t talk much. I’m not sure he and I would even recognize each other without the baseball caps and Dickies we both wear. But we have a good time.

He’s always concentrating with a small frown. Under the roar of machinery he gives hand signals to direct me. I think he respects that I at least try to do whatever is called for. I make so many foolish mistakes, though, that in the midst of hard work we often burst out laughing.

It was a grey, chilly morning, with clouds hanging low. I was afraid we would be caught in a downpour. Allen shook his head. “Ain’t gonna rain.” He was right. But it was dreary.

It took us four hours to load the manure and spread it. Allen quickly realized I was hopeless at backing the spreader. This inability to back any machinery that pivots on a hitch has plagued me for years. If you don’t have the knack, it’s much tougher than it looks. Inevitably I pinch the axles and get stuck. I knew I had been written off as hopeless when I was stuck in a tight corner by the barn and Allen quietly picked up the spreader with his tractor to straighten out my wheels. After that, without comment we arranged ourselves so I could pull the spreader forward to be filled.

The benefits of spreading manure on fields have been known for centuries.

“When I speak of a knowing farmer, I mean one who understands the best course of crops; how to plough, to sow, to mow, to hedge, to ditch and above all, Midas like, one who can convert everything he touches into manure, as the first transmutation towards Gold; in a word one who can bring worn out and gullied lands into good tilth in the shortest time.”

George Washington, letter 1785

I love this glimpse of the Father of our Country. Only a true farmer would dream up a Midas with the Manure Touch!

Today organic farmers turn their manure regularly with tractors, take the temperature of the piles to keep them steaming at peak efficiency, and cover them to prevent the nutrients from leaching away. With this kind of care, heavy manure mixed with bedding will be transformed into dark, sweet, crumbly compost, a perfect soil amendment, in one season. (“Moo Doo” is sold by the 50-lb bag in Vermont garden nurseries.)

My manure pile is not like this. Mine is an old-fashioned, neglected manure pile, where Wilbur would feel at home. All winter I haul dirty bedding out of the barn and dump it on the heap. It absorbs tons of snow and rain and rots slowly. Each scoop of Allen’s bucket was a solid, caked, black mass, so heavy that the spreader sank on its axles and my elderly truck, groaning to pull the load up the sloping land, constantly popped out of gear.

A manure spreader has a rolling floor of chains which moves the manure back to beater blades. The beater blades turn, break up the clods, and spray them in a wide arc behind the spreader. It soon became clear that my little spreader was overwhelmed. The blades began to bend under the sheer weight of the load. They caught on the side walls, stopping the action. We had to pause often to pry the blades free with a crowbar and bend them straight.

There were other challenges. Over months of construction, passing big machines had thrown rocks the size of canteloupes out of the barn driveway onto the pile. Most of these rocks, buried in manure, were invisible to Allen as he loaded. A manure spreader makes a loud clacking noise as the chains grind across the floor and the beater blades whirl. My muffler-less truck roars. Allen taught me to listen above these distractions for the sound of a rock bashing around the inside of the spreader. (Though he’s hard of hearing, he could immediately pick up the slightest irregularity.) I got better at it but was much slower. With every load the blades bent a little more.

Finally, the land itself is sloped and studded with boulders, half-rotted logs, and unexpected gullies. With each pass of the spreader, the going became more slippery. I was determined not to get stuck and require pulling out by Allen, but I was fighting the wheel in four-wheel drive every moment, bouncing around obstacles.

After making it down from one pass I grew concerned that the spreader was no longer clacking. Had I picked up another rock? Were the chains broken altogether?

I pulled up where Allen waited on his tractor, bucket loaded and ready.

“I can’t hear anything!” I screamed over the noise of truck and tractor.

Allen gave me a satirical look.

I jumped out of the cab to see. The spreader had disappeared!


At last I spied it far uphill, a couple of acres away, canted drunkenly. I’d obviously hit a boulder, popped the hitch, and never noticed — but blithely proceeded “spreading” down the slope. We both laughed helplessly. Allen is very patient with me.

IMG_3667By lunchtime we were done and Allen was washing the crusted manure off his tractor. Though we’d worked hard to keep the blades of my spreader intact, the very last load of manure had concealed a small boulder which bounced across the floor and flattened them all. Allen says the blades need welded reinforcements (and fewer rocks).

I wonder if I could learn to weld?

Perhaps I’ll look into it in the fall. For now, it is satisfying to have another big chore crossed off.



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