Perfect Presents

December 31, 2014

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In our rural area I do all my Christmas shopping by mail order. Since delivery is often erratic, this can be so anxiety-provoking that I barely notice what I, in turn, receive. However now that the shredded wrapping paper has been cleared away and we’ve moved on from turkey leftovers with all the trimmings to a giant vat of turkey soup, I can register that I was given perfect gifts.

I have a large stack of used books (what bliss!), lovely photos of a family reunion with my siblings, and the twin Stanley sawhorses shown above.

These sawhorses may seem insubstantial — they are plastic and only weigh about ten pounds combined. They would not hold up in a heavy construction project. However they should be perfect for the many small, quick jobs I tackle day to day.

When not in use the sawhorses fold to hang on the wall, which is important to me in my workshop where everything from lumber to tools to livestock fencing vies for floor space. Finally, they have slots into which you can slide 2x4s to create a work deck. The promotional photo is a bit silly:

61a+soo5UEL._SL1004_Who works like this? Still, you get the idea. With two 2x4s and a scrap of plywood you have a table.

Today I will use the sawhorses as a base to trim, sand, and stain the under-the-stairs closet doors. This will be a marked improvement over using the top of my chest freezer.

Progress! I am excited.

 

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A Disappointing Blow

December 30, 2014
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rough sketch of the future house, RIGHT; design kinks not yet worked out

 

I have been wanting to build a house since 2010, when the interior of the garage and garage apartment were finished. Year after year, one thing after another has come up that prevented me from dedicating a summer and all my energies 24/7 to a new big task. Recently I have become determined to push every other clamoring commitment aside and build in the summer of 2015.

I am not an engineer or a carpenter. I am a grunt laborer willing to read directions, work very hard, and hire out what I can’t do. In the past I used Shelter-Kit pre-cut lumber packages to build the barn in 2006 and the garage shell in 2009.

I like Shelter-Kit. I like the men who run it. I like the high quality of their packages and I like their classic New England designs. I planned to go with Shelter-Kit again. From the time I bought my land in 2002 I planned to use their packages for my whole farm. I still have in my files a brochure I sent away for back in the early 90s.

Unfortunately, in the nine months since I last got a price quote, Shelter-Kit’s prices have gone up 25%. They’ve experienced an unexpected jump in labor costs. I’m all for paying labor fairly, and the change is out of the company’s control, but the steep increase may make it impossible for me to justify buying a pre-cut kit.

I inquired about purchasing the plans, material lists, cutting specifications, and building instructions, then buying the lumber locally and cutting it myself. For various reasons they cannot do this.

Long, long ago, my father taught me that I had a reasonable brain and could figure out most problems if I approached one methodically and made lists. I know I have options. I can find a builder. I can look into pre-fab. I could even do all the calculating and math and design the building myself. (“There must be a book!”) But for the moment, the “loss” of Shelter-Kit at my back is a big disappointment.

I just can’t let myself get derailed.


A “Break” in the Mucking

December 29, 2014

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My efforts to muck the deep bedding out of the sheep stall came to an abrupt halt when, prying and heaving at the heavy manure pack, I snapped the haft of my pick-axe completely in half.

The pick-axe is the key to meaningful progress on this job. Though it was late in the day, I immediately drove the fifteen miles round trip to the hardware store to buy a new handle.

“This is an easy fix, right?” I’d said on the phone to Damon.

“Sure. Just drive the old handle out, drive a new one in.”

I was secretly looking forward to the project. A simple repair! Something I could mend! Usually all my contributions to a job are on the other end of the equation. Allen, Damon, and Mike answer my telephone calls with, “What’d’ja break now?” Unfortunately the only broken thing I have any talent to fix is broken English.

Just drive the old handle out! This would be fun. I looked forward to feeling happy and competent. On my list I allotted a generous half hour to the task.

I’d brought the head of the broken pick-axe home and in the kitchen I hit at the handle stump with a hammer. The hammer bounced off uselessly.

“You know, the head is made to stay on, right?” said DH, trying to be helpful as he made himself lunch.

“Yes, thanks.” I smiled through gritted teeth. DH means well but he doesn’t have a clue about tools.

I drove back to the farm and got my sledgehammer. I figured I needed a bench vise to hold the awkwardly shaped head while I pounded. I don’t own a vise, but the school does. I drove to the shop. After two small taps with the sledgehammer I realized I would break the bench vise before I made any progress on the handle stump.

Leaving the shop, I stopped my truck at a pile of firewood in the snow. I fashioned a simple crib of firewood to hold the pick head upright while I slammed the handle with my sledgehammer. The whole caboodle fell to the ground. I re-stacked the firewood and tried again. And again.

Suddenly to my horror I realized a group was watching me flail mysteriously at logs in the snow. The head of the group was a man who decided about ten years ago that I was a perfect fool. The man nodded at me with cool politeness. I slunk into my truck and drove home.

None of my pounding with a sledgehammer had moved the broken handle at all. The stump was simply splintering across the top.

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I decided I needed to cut off the handle to give the hammer blows a solid surface.

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I set up another small crib, right outside our door. By now I had an hour invested.

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For the next fifteen minutes, I swung the heavy sledgehammer, ignoring the pain in my bad elbow. The pick head rocked and jumped. Each time, I repositioned it and swung again.

Nothing.
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OK. Now what? Again I used a handsaw to saw off the mess.

Maybe I could weaken the last wedge of the handle and break it into pieces to get it out.

Many years ago my late father-in-law presented me with a Black and Decker drill he had been given for Christmas and never used. (DH gets his lack of tool knowledge honestly.) I drilled about thirty holes in the stuck block of handle.

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Then I drilled holes from the other side. Then I tried hammering a chisel all the way around the edges on both sides, to free the hangle. Then I tried using the sledgehammer to drive a crow bar to pop it out. Zero movement. Nothing.

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Now I had a couple of hours invested and I was getting irritable.

“Wouldn’t it be easier to buy a new one?” ventured DH.

Of course that solution had crossed my mind, but not only would that mean admitting defeat by a simple repair, but this type of double-ended pick-axe (bought at a garage sale years ago) is actually not easy to find. Most hardware stores carry garden mattocks, which have a pick on one side of the head and an adze on the other. The pick on a mattock is too short for leverage. A true pick (the double-ended pick-axes like mine are often called just picks) is apparently designed to break up concrete. You can see why they are perfect for deep bedding.

In my next attack I decided to try a spade drill bit. The remaining piece of handle was rotten yet so tough that it seemed I would have a bow-drill fire long before the bit made it through. I had to stop occasionally to cool the drill and let the smoke in the hole dissipate. I thought of Tom Hanks in Castaway.

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Finally I had a hole all the way through the belly of the old handle. You won’t be surprised to learn this didn’t appear to weaken it at all. I was beginning to wonder if the old handle was a strange mixture of rotted hickory and epoxy.
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More chiseling and prying.

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I pounded some more with the sledgehammer. Nothing.

I think DH was beginning to worry for my mental health.

I decided to use the smaller bit again and this time drill a hole every quarter inch around the edge on both sides.
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Next I got a piece of scrap iron, set it in the large hole, and slammed the scrap iron with the sledgehammer. To my astonishment, it worked.

Success! The old handle was out!

It only took me a little over four hours.
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I discovered there had been a collar of non-slip rubber, lining the inside of the pick head. Over the decades the rubber had melted to adhere both to the wood and to the steel. I cleaned the remnants out.

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It took only a few minutes to drive the new handle in. It is “American hardwood” — made in Mexico. I doubt it will last as long as the old one.

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My simple repair accomplished, I’m ready to work.

 


Neal Calf-frey and the Problem of Math

December 28, 2014

I’ve got a problem. It might help to know the background.

In 2013, my cow Moxie gave birth to her second calf on the very last day of June. I named the little heifer June Bug, and immediately called the dairy forty minutes away to see if I could find a bull calf to foster on as a “twin.” Moxie’s rear teats were so tiny they were impossible to hand-milk. Hungry calves were the answer to keep Moxie milked out and healthy.

On July 2 I brought Neal Calf-frey home in a dog crate as a day-old calf. I named him for the charming con-man hero of my daughter Lucy’s favorite television show, White Collar.

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After a couple of nursings in the stanchion, Moxie accepted him with her usual tolerance.

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She allowed him to tag along in the pasture as part of the family, and nurse when Junie nursed.

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However her kindness did not extend to taking care of him as if he were her own. She did not monitor his whereabouts or call him to follow her. Invariably when I brought the cattle into the barn in the morning, Junie was bouncing at Moxie’s heels and I had to search the pastures for Neal.

Like fawns, calves instinctively hide motionless in the grass until they are summoned by their mother. They will lie still, only moving to breathe, for hours and hours. They are hard to spot. As I hiked painfully in search of Neal every morning, for the first time I was grateful to have lousy pasture. Still, I was always almost on top of him before I saw him.

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These days a sixty-pound calf feels heavier than it did ten years ago. Moreover the knee I tore in 2011 and had surgery on in 2012 has a permanent ache. I was grateful that D had left his four-wheeler at the farm to ride with his granddaughter, and had given me permission to use it. Here’s Neal enjoying his daily lift out of the sunshine and flies to the shade of the barn.

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As always happens, eventually Neal outgrew infancy and woke up to follow his foster mama himself. Or, actually, to follow his “twin.” To create bonds of attachment, I always stall my “twins” together and they become close playmates. Here are Junie and Neal at the end of the summer:

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Winter came early and cold.

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By the time the twins were five months old, they were sassy and fat and lifting Moxie off her feet at nursing. It was time to wean.

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It was around this time that my life became a grueling daily endurance event and I stopped taking pictures.

Neal next appears in the photographic record five months later in early May. Here he is, leading the cattle into the barn in the morning.

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He is barely ten months old. You’ll notice his coloring has changed.

His temperament had changed, too. Starting at around eight months, Neal had begun to stare at me measuringly. “This bull is precocious,” I said uneasily to my husband. Neal would not move away from me quickly at the gate. He knocked Junie out of his way to gobble her morning grain as well as his own.

I felt the beginnings of the familiar “bull dread” in the pit of my stomach.

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Just ten months old, but I was afraid.

Electric fences are thin cord, tape, or wire. They only work if the animal that is confined is more worried about a shock than he is interested in whatever is on the other side. I was aware that Neal did not seem to worry about much. I tried to make sure there was always plentiful grass inside the fences and nothing very interesting outside it to draw his attention.

On June 9, when he was eleven months old, Dorrie came into heat. She came into the barn in the morning as usual, but he charged after her, moaning and lunging and caroming off walls. It was dangerous. He would have broken down the stalls to get to her. I turned them out again in the barn paddock. I put Dorrie’s calf out with her, in hopes that Harvey could nurse and relieve any pressure in her udder.

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However Neal would not let the calf anywhere near Dorrie. He chased her relentlessly. Here is Dorrie mooing to me plaintively, clearly saying, “Rescue me from this rapist!”

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By the next morning, life was back to normal, but I worked around Neal as I would around a loaded gun with an uncertain safety. DH was away on vacation and I wrote to him, “The bull is a pain. Every day roaring and growling. He’s not angry at me or even making any threatening gestures — I think he’s roaring at me for grain! — but it is a constant worry.”

Family came to stay at the farm and not long afterward I was horrified to see them walking a small dog on one side of the fence while Neal paced along, watching, from the other side. I rushed down upon them, gabbling frantically. I’m sure they thought I was crazy. I was afraid.

Next Neal figured out a new trick: lifting a ten-foot gate off its hinges. Twice he let the herd out — luckily, both times merely into new pastures. Between other chores I hurriedly worked on all eight of the big gates around the farm, taking them down and rehanging them with the hinge pins reversed so they could not be lifted. I weedwhacked the fence lines to keep the charge high. In case despite all these precautions the cattle got out, I hung a dummy electric line across the top of the driveway, to turn them back from the 55 mph highway.

On June 22, Moxie came into heat. It was the same story. If anything, the heat and flies were worse, and so was Neal. I had to do some fancy footwork to keep myself safe from him, and I could do nothing for Moxie. As she lacks a tail, she was miserably chewed by biting flies all day outside while scurrying to escape Neal’s attentions. One of her toes cracked as she pivoted hastily, and then she was limping. I felt awful.

By the next morning the heat was over. Moxie was crusty with bloody fly bites. She almost hopped into the barn, trying to keep her sore back hoof from touching the ground. Neal went into his stall, gobbled his grain, then roared for more.

I had planned to keep him until 14-16 months. He wasn’t even a year old but I wanted him gone. The rest of my life felt out of control and the sense of danger surrounding this bull was putting me over an edge. I called to beg the slaughterhouse for an immediate date. Then I asked to borrow the school stock trailer. The trailer was in use and I would have to wait a few days.

The next morning, before driving Lucy’s carpool, I was chatting via Facebook with a family member at the farm when she wrote, “BTW, did you know your bull is out?” (I live a mile away.) My heart slammed in my chest and I raced for the car.

At the farm I discovered that someone had driven through the fencing tape at the top of the driveway, snapping it. It lay in shreds on the ground. There was nothing between the loose bull and the highway.

“Don’t get out of the car,” I told Lucy when we drove up to the barn. Neal was lying in the lee of the pasture fence, chewing his cud. He rose and stretched lazily, watching me.

I ducked into the barn and armed myself with my pitchfork. Then I scooped grain and poured it into all the grain feeders. I filled the scoop again and shook it where Neal could see it.

“C’mon, Neal,” I called, my voice squeaky with tension. “Breakfast.”

I never needed the pitchfork. It was easy. The bull meandered slowly into the barn and into his stall. I slapped his gate shut and locked it. I let in all the rest of the cattle and fed them. Then I went searching to see how Neal had got out. In the very furthest corner of the south pasture was a tiny 4′ gate I had forgotten. It was hanging askew on its chain. Neal had picked it up off its hinges and walked under it. I had a chill thinking of him testing every gate on the place until he found the weak link.

I kept all of the cattle in the 6000-volt barn paddock that night and the next day my elderly friend Allen helped me load Neal on the borrowed trailer and drive him to the slaughterhouse.

I was so relieved to have the danger past that I never stopped to do the arithmetic.

Until yesterday.

One of the items on my Winter List was to figure out Dorrie’s and Moxie’s due dates on a gestation calendar. Knowing these dates would tell me when I needed to dry them off (gradually stop milking). Typically, a cow has a ten-month lactation and then two months of rest and rebuilding before calving again. In the past I have taken advantage of this schedule by raising 2 calves until weaning at five months, and then substituting another for the second five months.

After looking up all the dates, I made my notes. Assuming they are pregnant (I’ve done no testing this year), Dorrie is due to calve March 18 and Moxie, March 31, 2015. Thus, counting back two months, they should be dried off…hmmm… in January? What??!!

Because they calved six weeks apart, I had waited until Moxie’s “twins” from this year, Leo and Marty, were five months old, before weaning the four big calves and putting on the two new babies. The current foster “twins,” Luke Bryan and Conway Twitty (Allen is a country music fan), were born just before Halloween. They are happy and healthy. They are a team, nursing Dorrie every morning and Moxie every night.

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The once-a-day nursing has been good for the cows, allowing their milk supply to decrease naturally during these days of harsher weather. It’s been great for the calves, who bounce around the sheep stall all day playing. So what’s the problem?

The problem is that Luke and Conway are only ten and eight weeks old, respectively. At the time Moxie and Dorrie should be dried off, Luke and Conway will be only three months old. I try not to wean calves until five months. The earliest I’ve ever weaned, in a pinch, is four months.

I couldn’t understand how this happened. What was wrong with my math? Yesterday I went over and over the dates, puzzling over my mistake. I finally figured it out.

My first cow, Katika, never came into heat until a solid 2+ months after giving birth. This made it easy to space out her lactations vs. her calves. Her daughter Dorrie, however, came back into heat 7 weeks after giving birth. Moxie raced back into heat a mere 3.5 weeks after giving birth. To have a two-month rest period before calving, Dorrie can have only a nine-month lactation and Moxie only an eight-month lactation.

Moxie’s first twins nursed the usual five months. Dorrie’s twins nursed six months. These can only nurse three.

I know early weaning is do-able. It’s just not been something I do.

It’s my fault. I let my life get overwhelming, and I was so relieved to be rid of a danger that I never stopped to think of the consequences of precocious breeding. I never did the math.

Though I have regularly let the calves taste sweet feed, I will start today to supplement them seriously and over the next month will gradually make the switch to hay and grain. I will ask my cow friends for more advice.

Sigh. I hate it when I make mistakes.


The List

December 27, 2014

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I’m making my Winter To-Do List today. This is a step forward for me. All my life I have kept lists. Seasonal lists, weekend lists, vacation lists, daily lists. In a pinch I will write on my hand in Sharpie marker. I’m the most forgetful person on the planet.

However recent months have been so stressful that I could never find the energy and optimism to assess the big picture. I felt hopeless and depressed. What did any of it matter?

Almost five years ago my dear friend Allen was stumping my back pasture in bad weather. His health was failing and he was weak and tired. Allen told me that to keep going he had to fix his gaze strictly in front of the excavator and not lift his eyes to the acres and acres of stumps still to pull. “I can’t look up,” he said.

I have remembered this so often lately. I haven’t been able to look up. All fall I’ve written the daily lists that kept me on track day to day, and let the dreams go.

However, summoning all my energy, I’m changing direction. (I think of the scene in Titanic when the ship’s giant gears are reversed and the stokers frantically pitch coal into the boilers. Of course we know how that worked out for them… but I’m counting on having a better rudder.)

DH wants to retire in five years. We need a home to move into and a manageable plan for reduced finances. It’s up to me to make it happen. I’m nervous, but I’m stoked.

It all starts with the list, and I’m making it today.


Merry Christmas!

December 26, 2014

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You’re never too old for new jammies on Christmas morning…

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… or a card game on the living room floor while the turkey is roasting and Mom is mashing the sweet potatoes and baking a pecan pie.

luamandaselOn Christmas Eve, Lucy, Amanda, and I had attended the wonderful carol service at our church down in the valley. In my usual pellmell rush, after kicking off my barn boots and straining the milk, I’d had five minutes to wash my hair and jump into a velvet dress. DH took this photo of us before we ran out the door.

Moments after the picture was taken, Lucy said kindly, “Mom, that is an Easter scarf,” disappeared into her room, and brought out a lovely cashmere and silk scarf she’d been given by a school friend. The girls arranged it around my neck. I am clueless about clothes and it felt wonderful to have two cheerful assistants on the job making sure I am presentable.

2014 has been a tough year. At the end of the service, I held my flickering candle in the dark church with two hundred others as we sang Silent Night. “All is calm, all is bright,” I sang, and reminded myself of my many blessings.

Merry Christmas to all!

 


The Deep Bedding Problem

December 24, 2014

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Over the past few days, in the midst of hectic Christmas preparations, I’ve been engaged in fighting my perennial deep bedding problem. That is: how to get it out of the barn.

Yes, by fits and starts last year I did manage to close in and 90% finish the addition for the sheep off the west side of my barn. I still need to build two doors, trim out the roof, and stain the outside walls, but in the way of these things I’ve been using the addition in its unfinished state for nine months. Not only the sheep but the calves, geese, and chickens have enjoyed the extra 320 square feet of space under a roof. However once again it is a foot deep in dirty hay bedding.

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In a deep bedding system you let bedding accumulate by always spreading fresh dry straw or hay on top of dirty or wet areas. The sheep or cows lie on this and compact it and eventually you have a thick mat of material that is dry on top but composting underneath. When the system works, it is clean, it is warm (the fermenting action), and it is easy (no daily mucking). However, the day of reckoning always comes. How do you get this mess out of the barn?

Under the weight of the animals, the fibers of the hay or straw weave themselves together in heavy mats. Just beneath the dry surface, these mats are wet. They weigh a ton. Obviously this is an age-old problem: I was reading a memoir from the 1890s that mentioned the chore of trying to muck cattle bedding that resembled “dirty, wet rolls of carpet.” My shoulders twitched in painful recognition.

(Should you be so foolish as to think it might be easier to let the material dry out in order to weigh less, think again. When thoroughly dried, manure-soaked bedding turns into adobe. You will want the help of a chain gang to chisel it out.)

In my barn addition, I have an additional problem I did not anticipate: the low ceiling. I had thought a six-foot ceiling would be fine for sheep — they are, after all, built low to the ground. Moreover, I am only 5’10”. So what’s the problem? Number one: there is not enough head space to ventilate a sizable manure pack unless I leave the top of the dutch door open. This is fine and healthy at 20° F but will be undesirable at -30° F with lambs on the ground. Number two: with a one-foot pack, the head space is reduced to five feet. Not only can I not stand fully upright, but using a pick-axe resembles a strange hoeing or pecking exercise, rather than an overhead swing, and is murder on the lower back.

Meanwhile my right elbow has aged even faster than the rest of my body. Looking online for clues to my throbbing pain, I find I have both “tennis elbow” (tendonitis along the outside of the joint) and “golfer’s elbow” (tendonitis along the inside of the joint). I don’t play either sport. I call this double-punch condition “pitchfork elbow.” The cure for the pain is rest: don’t use the arm. As I farm alone, I haven’t figured out how to do this. Instead I gobble ibuprofen.

Even in the best of circumstances, removing dirty deep bedding is an abysmal chore. When you add in the above, you begin to contemplate options.

Last summer my friend Allen gave me a tiny tiller he found on a junk pile and repaired for me. Gosh, wouldn’t a tiller be great to break up those heavy mats? I tried it, full of hope. The little tiller immediately turned into a giant hairball of snarled wet hay that jammed and stopped the tines.

OK, I’ll research it. Sure enough, there are lots of online discussions of the deep bedding problem. On the Homesteading Today site, I read many, many eager suggestions for solutions until I got to this post:

I’m sorry to rain on anyone’s parade, but there is no easy way to clean a manure pack out of a barn. The deeper it is, the smaller/lower the barn is, the harder it is to clean it.

I’ve tried a Gravely [a walk-behind tractor]. I’ve tried a chainsaw. I’ve tried a tiller. I’ve tried using a horse plow and cultivators. A manure pack is akin to dried clay as far as tilling goes. What works is a skid steer or a bunch of forking.

I myself actually had been researching horse plows, but what really stopped me was the image of a farmer driven mad by deep bedding and attacking his floor with a chainsaw.

The skid loader is the fastest and will likely turn out to do the job more completely. Otherwise you get a 5 tine fork and start ripping and tearing and trying not to bust the fork handle. There is NO easy way to get it out.

I do not have a skid steer, nor would a skid steer fit through the doors of my barn. I decided this gentleman had explored enough of the other options that I would take his word for it. (Though I must add that my friend Damon, a heavy equipment operator, once helped me clean my sheep stall for twenty minutes and thereby developed a serious hatred respect for the problem of deep bedding… he has suggested “a jackhammer with a chisel blade.” Maybe someday.)

In the meantime I am proceeding slowly with my usual tools: a pick-axe to break the surface, a six-tine manure fork to turn over the mats, and a wheelbarrow to cart it all away.

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A peeled top “carpet roll” of bedding waiting to carried out

My one improvement this year is the addition of a borrowed hay fork. Once you have torn the surface with the pick-axe (I did crack the pick-axe handle this year, trying to pry up a heavy edge), and then have rolled a mat free with the six-tine fork, a three-tine hay fork works best for lifting the heavy load into the wheelbarrow.

two pitchforks: hay fork, left; manure fork, right

two pitchforks: hay fork, left; manure fork, right

Why is a hay fork better? First, the head is smaller so you are less likely to spear a weight that will rip out your back muscles when you lift it. Second, while a manure fork works best for daily loose mucking, having fewer tines stuck in a matted fork-load of deep bedding is a good thing. Too often I have had to pry wet mats off my six-tined fork with my boot, or “pitched” a wet mat, had it not fall off, and had the weight of the thrown, loaded fork yank me off my feet. The old hay fork is such an improvement I’m going to be watching farm sales next summer.

(By the way, while we’re looking at pitchforks, take a look at the manure fork on the right. Those six tines were all the same length a decade ago. I’m old enough to feel some macho-girl pride in those worn, bright tines. Tons of manure have been pitched by these arms!)

Now that I’m on vacation, I work on the sheep stall 90 minutes a day (in addition to the usual 2+ hours of chores) and with persistent puffing and sweat, every day I make about four feet of progress down the 32′ stall.

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It is stinky work. The minute you break the dry surface, the trapped ammonia is released in a rush of noxious steam. However I have a strong stomach and usually I can turn off my thoughts and drift off into what I call the mindless grunt zone. I enjoy feeling connected to the farmer of the 1890s and even to the crazed gentleman with the chainsaw.

IMG_1342Every evening I bed the freshly clean area with shavings (shavings as a bottom layer are crucial to prevent the straw or hay from bonding with the dirt floor) cover the shavings with waste hay, and bring the sheep back in for the night. When the whole stall is finished I will worm the flock, rake out the thin temporary bedding, spread fresh, and start the pack anew.

Then, unless I can come up with a better solution, I will try to do my best to forget about it until doomsday rolls around again in February.