North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

  (Hayward, Wisconsin)
Know your Farmer, Love your Food!
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January Thaw

So, last week, we all nearly froze to death.  And yes, I had been hoping for something a little warmer—something above zero.  But temperatures hovering around 30 degrees, while nice for the winter athletes in the area, is an utter messiness on the farm.

The donkey’s winter pen must be cleaned up each day with one of those handy, red, slotted mucking rakes like a kitty litter scooper on steroids.  The “donkey apples” are dry, clearly defined, and fairly easy to swipe up, shake the good bedding free, and dump into a wheelbarrow outside the pen.

The sheep use a deep-pack winter bedding system, where we keep adding layers of straw or old hay on top of the soiled bedding.  The entire mass slowly begins to compost below, offering a cushy, warm surface for the sheep to lounge upon.  In spring, this wonderful pack of manure and roughage is spread on gardens and hayfields to improve soil fertility and organic matter.

But the poultry situation is another story altogether.  Through the cold spell, the messy, wet-ish, chicken “droppings” freeze in cakes as I haul in fresh layers of wood shavings and straw to help keep little bird feet warm and dry.  But when that January thaw comes, all that frozen pack melts into a pungently odiferous swamp that oozes and goozes around your boots, threatening to mire you entirely!  Adding more bedding on top, at this point, is quite fruitless, so there is nothing to be done but to clean the whole thing out and start with fresh bedding.

In the summer, this means backing up the manure spreader hitched to the tractor, piling the beading on top, and driving away to spread the rich nutrients on the hayfields or pasture.  But in winter, the door to the shed where the manure spreader sleeps is piled high with snow, and the tractor will only be hopelessly floundered and stuck in the deep snow outside the chicken coop.  So really, that mid-winter cleaning with mechanical assist is a pipedream, at least on our farm.

Instead, it’s time for some real high-tech equipment:  shovels, ice chippers, five-gallon buckets, and wheelbarrows.  We scope out the barnyard, surveying the right place for the winter manure pile—out of the way of the snow plow but a good spot for loading into the spreader come spring, preferably not too far away from the chicken coop but also not where it will become a drainage problem come the big snow melt.

We settle on a corner of the plowed space between the Red Barn and a green storage shed, uphill of the mini lake that appears each spring behind the turkey coop.  Last year, in desperation, we had tried dragging the soiled bedding just outside the chicken coop door into the yard, but the ensuing ode-du-chicken that lasted until the ground hardened enough to take it away was less then appreciated.  This spot is certainly farther away but hopefully better suited as a holding ground for the day’s labors.

Little winding trails connect the plowed path to the turkey and then the chicken coop—just wide enough for walking with a filled and dripping waterer but not quite wide enough for the wheelbarrows.  We tug and pull the two-wheeled, yellow beast with red handles through the slightly mushy snow to the door of the coop.  The exhaust fan has been running all day and last night too, but it’s still not keeping up with the melting frost from the walls.

Working with old metal scoop shovels and our trusty ice chopper, we fill the five-gallon buckets with soggy, sticky bedding the color of milk chocolate, then empty the buckets into the wheelbarrow.  Too wide to fit through the chicken coop door, it waits patiently outside to bear the load.

As we chip and scoop away, I wonder how many loads of bedding and bags of feed I’ve hauled in here since the last time the coop needed cleaning.  Over a foot thick in places, we are hardly two feet into the doorway of the coop when it’s time to empty the wheelbarrow.  I grasp the handles and push with my full body while Mom clutches the rim and pulls from the front.  We mire down first to the left and then the right as a wheel sinks off the trodden-down path.  Ooh, this is going to be fun…ha ha.

Grumpy, mid-winter chickens are less than obliging to move out of our way as we trudge back for a second load.  The White Pekin ducks, who are overwintering with the chickens this year to avoid any season two of the bobcat attack, hurry outside and into the snow, flapping and quacking in delight at the warmed temperatures.  We’ve been doing our best to accommodate their ducky needs through the winter, but their penchant for spilling water has absolutely sloshed the bedding in places.

When the bedding stayed froze in the cold, this wasn’t too much of a problem.  But now with the thaw, the brown-gray goop and blocks of ice mounds are treacherous as well as nasty, and it all has to go.  Mom takes five wheelbarrow loads, while I take six or seven into the darkening afternoon, until we have finally cleaned out the first half of the coop.  Realizing that we had neither the light nor the strength to finish the job that day, we traipsed a path to the chopper box (which holds the fresh bedding from the local saw mill).

I carefully ease myself inside, between the tines and auger that power the unloading process for big jobs like barn cleanings.  Here, I attack the still half-frozen bank of wood shavings with a hoe and kick them towards the outlet, where Mom waits with the wheelbarrow below.  Even though they are difficult to maneuver in the snow, where would we be without wheel barrows?

As we work, it becomes apparent that 12 loads of litter were hauled out of the coop for the same amount of floor space that now only takes two-and-a-half loads to cover with fresh bedding.  Already, the air quality in the coop is improving as the ladies scratch at the light-golden shavings all nice and dry for their scaly feet.  Right away, their moods improve as they strut about.  The younger girls with the ducks on the other half of the divided coop stare through the chicken wire with envy.

“That’s not fair, what about us?”

But it’s dark and damp and our arms, shoulders, and legs are worn out for the night.  Guess what I’ll be doing tomorrow afternoon, thanks to the January thaw?  Well, we knew it would come around sometime.  At least the chicken coop will smell much better when we see you down on the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453

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