Animals, Gardening, Pets and Livestock, Rural Living

Hot . . . Umm . . . Stuff: Adventures in Shoveling Out the Barn

Let’s start with the Book of Ecclesiastes. First off, that photo to the right? It has nothing to do with the subject of this post. But before I dig in (so to speak) I’d like to get something off my chest, something which I’m generally not all that moved by or all that privy to, but something which, at the grand old age of 64, seems to have unexpectedly crept up on me. And that’s what the less-charitable amongst us might call, “a bit of vanity.” You see, I’ve written so much on Ricochet over the last nine years about life down here on our little farm, and I’ve figured so prominently and so often in so many of my posts and comments as a sopping-wet figure in hip boots and overalls, up to her knees in mud trying to free the tractor from the swamp it’s axle-deep in; or as the person rolling around in the muck on the barn floor with her arm all the way up to the elbow inside some ewe’s throbbing and painfully constricted cervix, trying to disentangle a set of twins in the womb and lead them out into the world one at a time; or as the person my large-handed or fat-fingered neighbors call, so they can ask me to stick my own dainty digits up into a sow’s uterus to make sure that all the little piggies have safely made their escape; or as the non-licensed veterinarian dealing with any number of disgusting medical calamities; or as the person making and installing a 14′ set of driveway gates; or even as the person mixing her own concrete and digging out and putting in a trench drain, that you may all be excused for thinking that I am always dressed from the charity barrel, that I never clean myself up, and that I am permanently sweating like a horse, covered in filth, and smeared with blood (either my own or that belonging to some other creature).

For some reason, it’s important to me, right now, to dispel that notion. So even though I shun the camera most of the time, and very rarely include a recent, recognizable photo of myself in any of my posts, here’s one where I’m relatively clean and reasonably well turned out. That’s all. Just a moment of vanity. All is vanity. Before I launch into yet another post about my very organic life on the farm.

But I digress (perhaps it’s because my Medicare card arrived in the mail the other day. Ouch). Back to Ecclesiastes. Oh, you thought the preceding paragraphs were the Ecclesiastes bit? Sorry. False flag. The Ecclesiastes bit has to do with the turning of the seasons, and when it’s “time.”

Last weekend, it was “time” to shovel out the barn. I don’t know why “shoveling out the barn” isn’t one of the enumerated priorities in Ecclesiastes. Because it can’t be avoided. Unless you want to get to the point, after avoiding it for two or three years, that it’s impossible to stand up in the place. (Perhaps, in that neck of the woods, winters are mild enough that one doesn’t need a barn, and perhaps there is no accumulation of “stuff” therein. But that’s not true where I live.)

In any event, I’d love it if the women around here could shovel out the barn dressed like Her Majesty when she feeds her beloved horses kibbles and treats in their stalls. You know, a lovely Liberty of London headscarf thrown carelessly over her hair and knotted at her neck. A Burberry jacket. A plaid, pleated, womanly wool skirt. And sturdy wellies. All impeccably clean and pristine. And worn with aplomb. Or if the men in this area could do the work in their Hebden Corduroy plus fours, their ribbed over-the-knee stockings, their Barbour shooting jackets (with articulated sleeves for maximum comfort and movement), their Harris Tweed flat caps, and their lovely glove-leather, deer-stalking footwear. I imagine them shoveling out a few lights and friable forks full of hay with only moderate amounts of manure, and laughing as they do it. Whilst leaving the barn floor cleaner than the one that’s in my kitchen as I write this (OK, that’s not hard . . .).

Alas, that’s not how it goes where I live. Shoveling out the barn when the sheep want to live in it during the winter just isn’t on. One does one’s best, but It Happens (TM) and It accumulates, until the day comes, late in Spring, or early in Summer, when Something Must Be Done.

When we reach that point, and when the timing and the weather is right, I get out of bed in the morning, make and eat breakfast, wait for the dew to dry off the grass in the field, put on the oldest and least attractive clothes and boots that I have, don a ridiculous hat, a filthy pair of gloves, hold my breath and spray myself with what is surely carcinogenic and neurodegenerative bug repellent, mount the tractor (a small, but useful 29-horsepower New Holland diesel with (for this purpose) only the front loader/bucket attached) and get to work. And this is a portion of the result:

As I was working the tractor the other day, with occasional forays into hand shoveling (using a hay fork which, when it works is a good piece of gear, and when the tines are too close together or too far apart for the purpose, is an absolutely infuriating and useless implement), I was contemplating, as I often do, how much I like Ricochet, and whether or not I could come up with a suitable post for this month’s Group Writing topic (Hot Stuff), because, to that point, I’d failed to think of anything thermostatically suitable.

Suddenly I noticed the steam rising all around me. Eureka! (Or, as I thought at the time, “You-reek-ugh!”)

You see, manure really is hot stuff. And as such, as visually and olfactorily unpleasant as it is, it does have its uses.

(I’m not talking about “hot stuff” in the chemical composition sense (there is one). But I’m a belles-lettres, and not a STEM kind of gal, so I won’t go into the scientific make-up of the stuff. I’ll leave that for someone to do in a future post. I’m talking about “hot” in the “OOF!” sense. the sense that, when I took my trusty infrared thermometer and pointed it at the pile shown in the above photo, it indicated that the surface temperature was about 82 degrees. I took a shovel, and went down about 4 inches: 126 degrees. Four more inches further in: 160 degrees. (All temperatures expressed in Fahrenheit, BTW).

What does this mean?

It means that manure is a very good source of intrinsically-generated heat and that, in northern climes, those with a short growing season, if a gardener has access to manure (do we ever), and if he shovels some of it out in, say, March or April, he may be able to extend his growing season by forming something called “hotbeds.” That if he piles the manure into a raised bed, and then covers it with several inches of soil, he’ll have a naturally warm environment to get his plants going, even if air temperatures still dip below freezing at night. This website gives pretty clear instructions on how to build a small hotbed (with a 12-inch layer of manure–they say horse, but sheep works just as well, trust me). When you live where I do, this is easy to accomplish. If you’re not out in the sticks, I’d suggest forming alliances with those who are, or if you’re a CSA supporter, asking one of your fruit and veggie vendors for assistance. The farm’s supply of manure almost always exceeds the demand or the capacity to cope with it, trust me (again), please. And most folks will be happy to share. (As with most things, misery, in the form of hot . . . umm . . . stuff, loves company, and trouble shared is trouble halved.)

It’s an incredibly useful way to use the properties of an otherwise utterly unprepossessing product to improve your life.

Now, if only I could think of a way to use it to facilitate winter sunbathing. (Oddly, my local spa hasn’t expressed much interest in experimentation when I’ve suggested what I’m sure could be a lucrative partnership.) For the record, though, even I draw the line at bird poop facials. Although there seems to be an overabundance of that raw material at the moment, too. In any event, done for another year.


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