I looked up the word, acrid, in the dictionary. “Sharp and harsh or unpleasantly pungent in taste or odor”. I’ve often read that word describing odors of manure on farms. I’ve often thought that statement may be true for most folks, but for old farm boys like me good manure spread on fields for fertilizer just smells like Spring time.
I grew up with a pitch fork in hand. This time of year I spent days cleaning barn stables of accumulated animal waste. Old barns and stables were built to be worked with hand labor. Pitch forks were yesterday’s equivalent of today’s front end loaders. Manure needed to be spread on fields before annual plowing. Chemicals and machinery necessary for no-till farming weren’t invented yet.
Manure from horses and cows in stalls could be cleaned out every morning. A few minutes work with a fork cleared their night deposits after they were let out for the day. Over winter, manure piles grew outside, around the corner from stable doors. In Spring it was an easy matter to pull a tractor and spreader along side those piles for loading.
Biggest barn cleaning chore we had was related to sheep. Our lambing season generally began around Christmas and lasted well into February. During that time sheep stayed inside most nights. Bad snowy weather meant lambing ewes were generally fed grain and good alfalfa hay inside both evening and morning.
Everybody who has been around highway construction is familiar with an implement called a sheep’s foot roller. One or more large heavy drums with protruding spikes spaced closely together, pulled over loose soil. The spikes, like a sheep’s feet pack and smooth soil into a solid base. A couple hundred sheep can pack a lot of soil fast.
We cleaned sheep stables once a year, in Spring. Especially during lambing season, stables were bedded with fresh straw at least every couple days. Sheep tend to grab a mouthful of hay from the rack, then step back to chew. Stray wisps and stems fall beneath their feet and become part of the manure pack. Forking out the resulting pack of straw, hay and waste occasioned loss of sweat and religion. Perhaps that’s where “filthy language” as a descriptive term for cursing came from.
That manure pack may be six to eight inches thick depending upon location in the stable. Thickest near hay racks or in low places in the dirt floor. You don’t just dig it out unless you own stock in pitch fork manufacturing companies. Young and dumb and full of strength I broke a few handles until Pap suggested I pay for those I broke and get back to work with my very own new pitchfork.
Not dig it out, but more slip it out. Slip an eight inch pack off in three or four layers. I was good at it. Maybe not greatest thing to say I was good at forking manure, but I was. I handled forks and shovels both left and right handed, could work from either side. Either left or right knee became fulcrum for my fork handle lever. When back and limbs tired from one motion I switched off to the other side and kept rhythm.
Slow steady rhythm gets the job done. I tended to start too fast, but soon settled into a regular slip, lift, pitch, and recover sequence. Four spreader loads were a good day’s work when I worked alone.
I helped hand clean that old barn for nearly twenty years. First tractor loader went to work there when I came home from Vietnam, but still there was no driving access to about half of what we moved. A solid week of hand labor pretty well cleaned things up.
Hard work, good work, farm work, and yes, it smelled like spring time.