The Deep Bedding Problem

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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.

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5 Responses to The Deep Bedding Problem

  1. Newly says:

    I am so glad to learn what you are doing to relax on your vacation, sister dear! I also happy that the addition has been in use for so long.

  2. adkmilkmaid says:

    This made me laugh. It’s particularly fun when listening to carols on an iPod and you’re roaring along in harmony, “FALL on your KNEES, and HEAR the angel VOICES”… 🙂

  3. Amy says:

    I have been curious about Polyface Farm’s method of adding corn cobs and grain to the fresh bedding every day, and then bringing pigs in to till the whole works up after the cattle come out. I understand the pigs break up the mess looking for the grain and cobs. If it really works, perhaps that could be a solution for you.

    • adkmilkmaid says:

      I’m sure this does work — pigs are wonderful rooters, possibly even better than a jackhammer with a chisel blade! 🙂 But the system only works for Joel Salatin because he’s in the pork business and keeps all ages of pigs year-round. You need strong, 4-6 month old pigs to do the rooting. I raise piglets in the spring and they are gone in the fall. I do put piglets on the pack for a small window of time in early June, but they are babies then and mostly scamper across the surface. Then my pigs go out on pasture. I could conceivably put 6-month hogs back on the pack in October, just before I bring the sheep home from their summer pasture, but 1) I try to muck the stall over the summer while it is empty, and 2) loading and moving big hogs is such a challenge I try not to do it more than necessary. However, for years I have dreamed wistfully of doing this. 🙂

  4. Paul Vezzetti says:

    I think this is a very common problem for shepherds. Especially if you are dealing with older barns. Wide doors and front end loaders are needed to break the matted straw. A rear mounted tiller, and a front end loader on a tractor do the job. But many of us do not have the door widths to uses these tools.

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