North Star Homestead Farms, LLC

  (Hayward, Wisconsin)
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Spring Cleaning

When interns come to our farm, there are lots of things to learn, but one of the first lessons goes like this:  half of good farming is cleaning, another half keeping things organized, another half planning three steps ahead of what you’re doing now, and the last half is saved for picking up after unforeseen disasters.  If that sounds like too many “halves” to you, then you might guess that farming also involves having more things that need doing than can possibly be completed.  This week, however, we’ve been catching up on the cleaning part.

The saga really started in January—or didn’t, to be precise.  Typically, a light January or February thaw gives us a chance to clean out the hen coop and freshen things up.  But with no thaw, the bedding and droppings stayed hard as a block of chicken-flavored ice that wasn’t going anywhere without a good fight.  By March, things were desperate.  Hacking paths into the snow in our yard big enough to drag out the wheelbarrow, we dug and chipped and drug out the odiferous concoction and heaped it amidst the two feet of snow.  This, of course, meant that a second cleanup into the manure spreader was necessary to relieve the yard once the snow subsided.  Next time you take a farm tour, be glad you don’t have to wade through three feet of last winter’s chicken excrement!

Our dear “honey wagon” (some tongue-in-cheek farmer must have thought that term up for a manure spreader) has certainly had a workout since it arrived on our farm as an already well-used piece of machinery.  In the days when we had 25 chickens and 2 sheep, a pitchfork, shovel, and wheelbarrow was all we needed to keep things tidy.  But as both numbers began to multiply, our hands and backs were ready for a break.

Grandpa remembers the days when he and his dad would pitchfork the manure from the cow barn out the back door into a winter pile.  Come spring, it was much more of a heap or “small mountain” as Grandpa recalls from his teenage memories on the old family farm in central Illinois.  “We’d fork it out the door, then fork it up onto a wagon pulled by horses (because we didn’t have a manure spreader) and then we’d fork it back out onto the field while the horses plodded along.  You gals have it easy.”

If you’re not familiar with the workings of a honey wagon, imagine a long, narrowish two-wheel trailor with three sides (the back is left open).  Along the bottom of the wagon runs a chain on each side along the length, supporting bars that slowly pull along the wagon floor to the back, drop off, come under the bed of the wagon, and then rotate back up like a large conveyor belt.  At the back of the spreader is a stout bar supporting what look like large metal webbed hands called “flails” pointed in different directions that spin around fast from the bar.  When the wagon is hooked to the tractor’s power takeoff and engaged, the combination of moving conveyor bars and flailing paddles spreads whatever might be in the wagon in a relatively even pattern out the back.

That is, unless the wind is blowing from behind you—then you get a nice even spray all over the tractor and yourself.  There’s more than one reason we have large-brimmed sunhat on the packing list for our interns.  “But remember,” Grandpa says, “My dad always said that’s the smell of money.”

After restoring our historic gambrel barn in 2001, there was considerably more space for housing sheep.  But even with the manure spreader to help with hauling and distributing the nutrient-rich bedding, we were still chucking it into the wagon by hand.  Some spring manure packs three feet deep could take days to clean out, and it was terribly hard on our hands, shoulders, and backs.  It was time to upgrade with some smart machinery!

Leave it to Grandpa to find the answer.  Another used piece, looking for a new home, only this time a bit more modern than the spreader.  Let’s just say that some small bobcats are trouble (for ducks) but others are pretty awesome powered pitchforks!  Kara whirs around between the hand-hewn tamarack timbers of the barn with surgical precious, attacking the soiled hay and wood shavings with vigor. 

But it’s more than just cleaning things out.  Composted animal manure bedding is a vital nutrient source for soils through organic and permaculture practices.  For our current barn-cleaning project, we’re working to improve our hayfields by spreading this excellent organic matter mixed with lime to improve pH and calcium levels.  Another load of black gold pulls away as Mom engages the Allis D15 tractor with its characteristic grumph-humming chug.  Earlier, we had the creative inspiration to use the honey wagon to spread well-rotted compost (humus) over the garden and potato patches.  Pitchfork, shovel, and 5-gallon buckets?  Save those for the small jobs; we are getting serious!

The other fun (hah!) aspect of spring cleaning on our farm are all those dishes I meant to get to last fall…if only there was just one more nice, sunny day.  I don’t mean dishes like what pile up at the kitchen sink—I mean “chicken dishes.”  Red-and-white plastic waterers, orange bell drinkers, metal bucket and range feeders, pails, ice-cream buckets, heat lamps, and all the works.  They waited for me at the back door to our walk-out basement, patiently.  It was one of those things that doesn’t go away, despite trying to ignore it.  No, the chicken dishes were still there after the ice, which had bound them all together onto the concrete, melted this spring.

I attacked the hoard in batches.  First off were all the feeders and waterers that were needed for the imminent arrival of baby chicks.  Scrubbing, brushing, sanitizing, laying out on towels to air dry—the floor was soon covered with bright, clean chicken dishes.  While cleaning isn’t my favorite thing to do (is it anyone’s?), at least it’s the sort of thing where you can actually see the progress you’ve made.  But then, off they go to the brooders, and it doesn’t take long for them to get all good and dirty again.  It’s like laundry—it never ends.

Now we just have to move those piglets out to their summer pasture paddocks, pen the yearling ewes out in the yard for the day, and muck out the Clear-Span “lamb barn” sometime soon, get the rams into their summer home and clear out the “red barn,” and we should be in good shape with our spring cleaning.  We’re pecking away at the yard work and garden, and summertime will be here before we know it.  Best wishes for your spring cleaning projects, and maybe we’ll 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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