"Where Fillmore County News Comes First"
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Sun, Aug 6th, 2000
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My family and I went to a wedding in Wisconsin on a recent Saturday morning. The wedding site was straight east of our place about one hundred twenty miles. There was no good way of getting there due to the negligence of the last glacier that failed to sufficiently level the landscape to allow for straight roads. Southeastern Minnesota and southwestern Wisconsin are just not designed for efficient travel by road. Many times we had to go too far north or too far south to get where we were going. This was true both before and after we had found a bridge to cross the mighty Mississippi.

We arrived intact and early for the wedding. Our only tense times came from traffic jams on narrow roads brought about by hard-working farmers who were busy cleaning out their livestock barns and yards. It was perfect timing for them. It hadnt rained in a couple of weeks so the ground was firm. The fields of oats and barley had been harvested during the previous week. The straw was baled and the ground was bare, ready for the applications of fresh organic matter. Perfect timing for the farmers, not so perfect for us. As careful as the farmers were trying to be to keep the roadways clean, we had to swerve and dodge a bit to keep our car clean enough so that we did not attract attention at the wedding.

Seeing all those tractors and spreaders on the road reminded me of my own experiences at that cleaning chore. That doesnt make me an expert at it, although a little practice makes perfect in this area. There is a broad base of data to study as cows, hogs, sheep, and poultry each have their own unique characteristics when it comes to their deposits. Ive heard it said that Eskimos have hundreds of words to describe the various types and textures of snow. Farmers, if they put their minds to it, could have hundreds of words to describe what is left behind by each species of livestock. The fact that the day-to-day working vocabulary for this material is boiled down to just one or two words doesnt mean that there are not distinct differences.

The topic of animal waste and the disposal thereof came up with my friend, John, just the other day. I was telling him how my sons were setting themselves up for a barn-cleaning calamity with their thirty-two chickens. John agreed that there is nothing worse than a bunch of chickens to make a miserable cleaning chore. We pondered how tiny animals like chickens can pack their bedding, and anything else they happen to drop, as hard as a concrete floor.

Cleaning a chicken house by hand was always an awful chore, probably the worst on the farm. The quantity of material accumulated over time almost without our noticing. Unlike cattle, whose backs got near the rafters if their pens werent cleaned often, it was hard to tell if a short little chicken was any nearer the ceiling this week than she was last week. We did begin to notice the build-up when we had to bend over to avoid hitting our heads on the ceiling when we went in to pick up eggs.

When it came cleaning time, we pumped hundreds of gallons of water onto the packed chicken house floor to soften the material and settle the dust. The water did settle the dust, but was detrimental in that water weighs eight pounds per gallon and it all had to be pitched out. Even with the water applied, it was almost impossible to jab the tines of pitchfork into the packed bedding. If the fork went in, you would often be trying to lift slabs as large as a kitchen table because it wouldnt break up into manageable forkfuls. This is where the occasional fork handle met its end as some inexperienced or careless worker tried to lift too much with his hands in the wrong position. As John has been quoted as saying, "Any idiot can break a fork handle." It is not a measure of strength, but of carelessness. True enough.

Another unsavory aspect of cleaning up after chickens was the atmosphere. Dust aside, there is the ammonia. Old-timers tell of silver quarters tarnishing in their pockets every time they went into a chicken building, but it wasnt always the old-timers that went into these buildings to do the cleaning. As John pointed out, the job included reaching under nests and roosts, so often the shortest, therefore the youngest, people got the job.

The pitching eventually got done and spreader-load after spreader-load went down the road and out to the field. That was the fun job. As the workers left behind fixed equipment and carried fresh bedding, the tractor driver got to get out to breathe some fresh air and see some sun. If everything went well, he returned with a revived attitude and a dry shirt. If it went badly, he was in the field a long time, pitching off a load by hand to get to the worn out apron chain in the bottom of the spreader.
It was always a good job to have done, but I have to say that this is one job that deserves all the automation available. There is not much honest nostalgia to be wasted on the chore of cleaning livestock housing by hand.

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