Housecleaning appeared more appreciated by the livestock than by the humans. Some older cows jumped and pranced when they were returned to stalls that had just been cleaned. “Envision these animals sticking their noses in the fresh straw and with udders waving, leaping from ecstasy,” recalled Warren Lange in 2015 about cleaning the barn as a boy on a Houston County farm in the 1930s. “It was a joy to observe… quite a sight and made the barn cleaning all the more meaningful. Calves really made a spectacle of themselves as they cavorted about their freshly cleaned pen.”
Lange wrote, “Persons complain about the difficulty in keeping a house clean, and they are dealing with supposedly responsible human beings. Livestock have no such scruples, and anything clean requires dirtying.” It took ongoing effort to keep a barn clean, especially during cold weather.
Cleaning or “mucking out” was a daily chore during winter because the livestock spent so much more time in their stalls. Managing livestock also meant managing what seemed like large quantities of fecal material – manure, which was both a “bane and blessing” for the farm family. The benefit of animal waste was its use as fertilizer. The bane involved other creatures of concern – flies.
A manure pile, along with “an unpleasant fragrance,” attracted many flies. Therefore, the winter manure was hauled to the field to be ready for spring planting. It was a laborious undertaking, especially for young Warren. A team of horses had to be harnessed and hitched to a wagon or sleigh. There were no tools involved for hand-loading and unloading other than a pitchfork and scoop shovel – and even a pickaxe.
“On cold days (zero or below), you drove away with a steaming load, which froze over during the time it took to get to the field,” lamented Lange. “It was necessary to take a pickaxe along to break the frozen crust or it could not be unloaded. I often longed for a dump box wagon. How I hated the job. When I arrived at the site, I was cold, by the time I was finished unloading, I was perspiring, and the trip back to the barn was miserable as my wet clothes froze stiff during my return to the barn. After arriving in the building area, it was still necessary to unhitch the team and get them into the barn.”
Having the manure already in the field saved time in the spring when it came time to spread it in the fields. But the winter experience was so onerous for the boy that he favored piling winter manure near the barn and leave hauling to the fields for warmer spring weather. When young Lange challenged his father about the wasted effort for that winter waste removal, he was “not so gently” reminded that not only did the horses need the exercise to keep them physically fit for the field work in the spring but that young Warren could use conditioning as well.
In the spring, there was a third handling of the same manure, which would be loaded into the spreader for distribution into the fields. Warren was able to avoid much of this phase by being away at school. “How about that for an incentive to get an education?” he quipped.
To young Warren, it all seemed a waste of human effort just to limit the fly population. However, the field-manure-pile procedure also reduced the number of flies around the farmhouse, and his mother hated flies. Her preference prevailed.
Lange remembers fly spray being the only chemical used on the farm. It made hand-milking less burdensome and curtailed bovine tail activity. While milking by hand, it was not pleasant being slapped across the face by a tail swatch.
Before the spreading, the manure pile in the field would begin to leach out. With nitrogen-rich runoff around the pile, the later response of the crops would always mark that location.
Manure was not all the same. Chickens produced the most potent droppings. There was always a powerful ammonia odor when “mucking out” (cleaning) a hen house. One day in late spring, Warren was to clean out the hen house and spread those droppings in a particular field. During the growing season, it was possible to trace Warren’s spreading path because of the higher green corn.
Warren admits he was a child that wondered what would happen if he did something a certain way. Feeling especially playful that day, Warren decided to spread the manure in a figure eight path. As the crops matured, the whimsical pattern showed up. His father was not pleased.
After chicken manure, the most potent was hog, then cow and finally horse manure. Chicken droppings were considered too “rich” (high nitrogen content) for the vegetable garden where it might “burn” those plants. Horse output was used there due to its gentler nature. It also had a time-release feature with the high level of straw providing compost and moisture retention. There was no irrigation equipment. If rainfall did not suffice, Warren remembers carrying buckets of water to the garden, especially early in the planting season.
During cold weather, the outhouse was used only by the lady of the house. The menfolk instead used the barn with its “relative warmth” and thus added to the waste used for fertilizer.
During warmer weather, one of Warren’s chores was bringing the cows in from the pasture, and summer attire did not include shoes. “Walking barefoot behind a herd of cows without watching the ground could end in a very unpleasant experience. Having warm cow manure oozing between your toes is not a fun thing. Those times that I failed to watch where I was walking taught me to keep my head down. This lesson learned causes me to find things presently that other people miss as I still walk looking down much of the time.”
Source: “My Boyhood Years on the Farm,” by Warren Lange (2015)