January is a stark month on the northern plains. The coldest month of the year, and while not the darkest, the extended nights of the far reaches of the Northern Hemisphere of January don’t have the twinkling lights and breezy air of December and Christmas. It is just a cold, dark, barren landscape, with the trees sitting seemingly dead as silhouettes on the horizon, like the rest of the earth, waiting for spring.
But life doesn’t stop. Work doesn’t stop. The day to day business of living goes on despite the cold winds that howl, the bitter winds, and the white, snowy landscape.
Part of growing up with a herd of dairy cattle was the daily chores – rain, snow or shine, from -50F to +110F the cows had to be milked and cared for, their needs and performance the lifeblood of the family livelihood.
In the chill of winter, when the cattle were nestled in the barn, that meant the usual feeding, milking, and bedding, as well as the continual daily chore known as ‘cleaning the barn.’
‘Cleaning the barn’ sounds like some innocuous chore like ‘cleaning house,’ or ‘taking out the garbage.’ In truth, it was literally making sure that the tons of feed that were carted, hefted, moved, and fed each day was properly disposed of once its job in the delicate interior of the cows was done producing milk.
In short, it was carting away the crap.
Sure, it was more than too – it was the left over waste feed, the scraps from the table so to speak, the uneatable parts of the feed, as well as the soiled and soiled straw, put down to make sure the cows were comfortable. As well as any liquid that they might have passed.
Every twenty four hours this job had to be done – despite the cold or snow as long as the cows were in the barn.
It was a dirty job, but someone had to do it.
For the most part, it was pretty mechanical. There was a concrete gutter, a square groove that ran around the barn behind the cows – all of which faced the wall. In this groove was a big metal chain with paddles that would carefully move the waste around the barn out the back through a small hole next to the big back barn door where it was elevated upwards at a 30 degree angle and into a waiting spreader to be taken out into the fields and spread – a good fertilizer for the coming crop.
It was one continuous loop that was run by a big electric motor at the very top of the elevated portion – the very head of the barn cleaner as it was called.
Each day, we would scrap down the concrete behind the cows (which were pretty poor aims) and clean out around the feet of the cows, scraping the wet straw from around each cow to ensure they stayed dry and comfortable.
It sounds pretty darn simple…but as with most things on the farm, it was the complications that would get you.
And those complications always seemed to happen in the bitter cold of winter, when things were cold, bitter and fragile.