We often ask children what they want to do when they grow up. They have to answer this from limited life experience. Perhaps we should ask “What are you sure you don’t want to do?” Asked this at an early age, I would have had a good start on a list.
In hindsight, life on the dairy farm where I grew up involved a lot of hard work. No regrets. As they say, hard work builds character. It provided me with a foundation for decision making and problem solving. One particular task I remember doing definitely steered me away from a career in waste management.
Winter on our farm, which Dad called the “Nelson Ranchero” (spelled out on a sign he made with Copenhagen snuff covers mounted over the garage door), was a mixture of chores and fun stuff. One of the hardest jobs involved the dairy cows. Our barn cleaner consisted of a scoop shovel, a pitch fork, a wheel barrow and a kid. Each cow produced at least a half wheel barrow daily. The oozy brown stuff needed to be removed every day. It was scooped into a wheel barrow and loaded into a manure spreader parked at the end of a ramp and a platform. Cleaning barn was serious stuff and required a certain level of competence, ingenuity and agility.
The secret to wheeling a barrow of the stuff was to get up a little bit of speed, hit the planks straight on, then drastically reduce your speed when you hit the flat spot and flip the handles at exactly the right moment before the wheel dropped into the spreader. It was always a good idea to sprinkle some hay on the planks if they were frosty or icy. Foot slippage halfway up the plank abruptly changed the momentum of the load. The consequences stunk. Either the load veered off the plank and dumped prematurely, or you went in face first.
The second peril of barn cleaning was missing the end of the runway and dropping the single wheel barrow wheel over the edge, into the spreader. Once again it’s a matter of momentum and knowing when to let go. Instinct told you to hang on if at all possible because getting the wheel barrow back up on the platform meant getting down in the spreader and lifting it out. Deciding what to do at this instant required quick decisive thinking. You had to instantaneously calculate the rate of speed, the weight and balance of the load and your own weight as leverage applied to the handles. If you miscalculated, an underweighted barrow operator could easily be flipped through the air into the spreader or, in cases of manure overload, flipped clear over to the other side. Pretty funny stuff if it happened to your brother.
When the snow became too deep for the tractor and spreader, you began building a manure pile. A non-farm person may say “What’s so hard about that?” Trust me, it took some long-range planning and guesstimating. You had to factor in how many cows you had, how much they pooped and how many days until the snow melted before you even dumped the first wheel barrow load. If you dropped the first load too close, you would run out of room and be forced to higher elevations later in the season. You also had to guess how wide to make the pile. Once you got the base down, you ran your plank and dumped off the edges. Here is where you had to factor in temperature and consistency of the material. Cold weather helped the pile set up. One could push clear to the edges as long as she stayed frozen. Pushing to the limits on a seemingly frozen crust built on top of mushy stuff could result in edge failure and a tumble down a slippery slope. That stunk too.
Saturday mornings meant cleaning the heifer barn. That job was done with pitch forks. Dad modified the barn door to allow him to back the spreader in. Us kids pitched in from the sides. It wasn’t bad when straw was used for bedding. Quite often however, he used wild hay, cut from the meadow. The reason we cleaned it every Saturday was because if you didn’t, and it became even more packed by the cattle, you would never be able to tear it loose.
When the snow got too deep, we got to use the horses and the bob sled. Dad would drive the team into the barn and we kids would pitch the sled full, haul it outside and pitch it into a pile. The best part of that was we got to hook our little sleds behind and get a ride. Looking back, I guess it was hard work with a twist of fun. At the end of the day you didn’t say you were tired, just all pooped out.