March 31, 2020

Of Middens and Manure: The Fine Art of Shoveling

By John F. Chisholm •

We let our cows enjoy the shelter of the barn all winter.  They’re not that lucky when the weather warms.  We kick them out when spring arrives.  That’s because they make a mess indoors.  Anybody who’s ever kept cows knows all about it.  Yeah.  Manure.  There certainly is a lot of it.

We make good use of the dung though.  There’s over a hundred acres of field here.  Every square foot could use a healthy dose.  There’s never anywhere near enough for that.  The worst areas get the help.  The rest has to wait until next year for another chance.

In addition, we have a garden.  I was looking at it yesterday.  The rhubarb is up along with a couple of volunteer tomato plants.  Usually it’s May when I rototill in the winter’s compost along with a couple of loads of manure.

On top of all that, my wife enjoys geraniums, pansies, parsley and other annual plants and herbs.  We set those out in what I call our beef-by-product.  They love it.  It’s not that I have a green thumb, it’s just hard to go wrong by adding manure.

Still, it’s undeniable that manure is a lot of work.  Just think about it.

First, I have to muck it all out.  The midden outside the barn’s backdoor grows slowly but inexorably throughout the winter.  By the time I lock the cows out, the pile is huge.

Each spring, I throw good portions of it into our spreader and make the rounds of our fields.  It’s several trips.  At least.  It never loads easily.  It’s heavy.  Our pastures are invariably wet in April and May.  My tractors are old.  In fact, if the ground is too soggy I have to use the crawler to haul the spreader.  That’s bad news and not just because the bulldozer is slow.  It means that I have to load by hand.  Rest assured.  Shoveling manure is work when you’re measuring it by the cow.  It’s back-breaking labor when you’re measuring it by the spreaderful.

Next, as mentioned, there’s our garden.  Generally I use a stoneboat hauling over the manure.  That way it’s nowhere near as hard on the lawn.  Still, it requires plenty of effort to get it there.  Worse, that’s not including raking it around and mixing it in once it’s delivered.

Last, there are all those little jobs.  The flower pots, the geranium planters, the transplants.  It’s tough to quantify all of them because the work is incremental.  Plus, by the time I get around to them, we’re generally running low on manure.  That’s a good thing from one point of view but a bad thing from another.

However you look at it, manure is certainly a lot of work.  But every time I start to complain, begin to vent about all the you-know-what that it’s my lot in life to shovel, I stop short and think.

I’ve had other jobs.  It’s true.  Over the course of thirty-five years ― not counting my summer jobs when I was in school ― I’ve worked for individuals, companies and ― oh, dread ― for departments, too.  Without going into specifics, I can assure you with absolute certainty that those employment experiences are not just how, but why I wound up farming.

Today I work alone and shovel the real McCoy.

Don’t feel sorry for me.  It’s liberating.

In fact it goes way beyond that.  My head tilts back and I laugh aloud.

Farming is the only job in the world where there’s never enough to go around.