Throughout my writings, I have extolled the virtues and value of self-reliant living, but I do admit that our chosen retirement lifestyle carries with it some hard and unpleasant work responsibilities. All dairy farmers must struggle with the chore of keeping their livestock barn as clean as possible. We just completed one of those difficult and nasty jobs yesterday morning when we “mucked out” the goat barn for the spring. Although we clean out the goat poops that our girls leave in the barn twice daily, the bedding that covers the barn floor becomes progressively matted over time with the gradual accumulation of urine and feces. As a result, the bedding must be removed periodically to protect our goats from illness and infections. Chief among our health concerns include pneumonia, which goats can contract from the build-up of urine odors in the matted bedding and infections from flies and maggots that breed in the bedding over the summer months.
Cleaning out our barn was a much more challenging daily chore when I was growing up on our childhood dairy farm. My adoptive father and I shared that unpleasant chore when I was young. Our stanchion barn held 32 cows, which had to be milked twice daily. The milking work alone required two-to-three hours of dedicated work carrying the milking machines from cow to cow along the two opposing rows of stanchions that stretched down the length of the barn. Since all the cows remained in the barn during those long milking hours, they also pooped and peed as they ate and waited for their turn to be milked. The urine and manure landed on the concrete flooring, which was covered with a generous bedding of sawdust. Using hoes, we would scrape the manure and contaminated bedding into the long gutters (concrete trenches) that stretched out behind each row of cows. Those gutters had to be cleaned at least once daily during the warmer months and twice daily during the coldest winter months when we allowed the cows to spend the entire day and night in the barn to keep them warm.
In the early years of my childhood, when I had more time to do farm chores and my adoptive father was in his youthful prime, we cleaned the barn gutters by hand. This involved using a large U-shaped tub that was suspended from a single track by pullies and chains that could be adjusted to raise and lower the height of the tub. The track ran along the walkways behind both gutters and down both sides of the barn. We would pull the manure tub into the barn and push it along both sides of the barn and, using shovels, loaded it with the manure and urine-soaked bedding that had been scraped back into the gutters. We then pushed the tub to the end of the track outside the barn, where it was dumped in a pile and eventually loaded by tractor into our manure spreader to apply on our fields as fertilizer. Obviously, this was a dirty and unpleasant job, but it had to be done.
During my high school years, I had less time to devote to daily barn chores and my adoptive father was suffering from emphysema and farmer’s lung, which made it even harder for us to clean out the barn. At that time, we had a mechanical gutter cleaner installed in the barn, which could remove the gutter waste automatically using metal paddles linked by chain that ran in the gutters around the barn. All we had to do was turn on a switch and the paddles would slowly track around the gutters and drive out the waste into the waiting manure pile. To us, it was a miracle of technology to handle our manure waste so effortlessly, but it ultimately became the added monthly expense that ensured the financial failure of our dairy farm. Within a couple of years after installing the automatic gutter cleaner, my father’s deteriorating health forced him to begin scaling back our operation and selling land to pay for his mounting medical expenses (and the gutter cleaner).
Our own retirement dairy goat operation is tiny by comparison and requires a different and more affordable approach to housing our livestock. Our barn was built with dirt floors that do not have to be cleaned as often as the concrete flooring in my childhood dairy barn. After the barn was built, I built up the floors to ensure good drainage. I installed a three-to-six-inch layer of crushed gravel as a base. The gravel provided a good drainage layer that would help minimize groundwater from soaking the top layers of flooring and allow urine to soak down from the top layer of dirt. I then covered the gravel layer with a six-inch deep top coat of sandy loam, which provided a firm base but drained very well. This design ensured that the goat urine would not build up in the bedding to a level that would retain ammonia odors in the barn that can contribute to pneumonia in our goats’ lungs. I then spread a dusting of lime on the top layer of sandy soil to counter the pH in the ammonia (which generates the foul odor) and covered that with a layer of hay and straw as warm and comfortable bedding for the goats to lay upon.
Despite all my efforts to design an efficient bedding and flooring system for our goats and to remove the goat poops twice daily, the hay/straw top bedding in our barn becomes increasing matted and contaminated over time and must be removed and replaced. That is the determined work that we accomplished yesterday. Since we have so few goats and we are aggressive with our daily cleaning efforts, I only have to “muck out” and replace the entire barn bedding twice each year—once in the spring before the flies become a problem and once in the fall to remove any fly larvae that they may leave in the bedding for next season. We find this to be an adequate maintenance schedule to keep the barn clean and healthy for our goats. We know they agree, because they choose to spend most of their time in our barn even when I leave the eight-foot-wide panel door wide open.
We accomplish the task by shoveling out the contaminated bedding using pitchforks and loading it into the waiting bucket of our tractor, then hauling it away to a compost pile, where it can serve as a source of fertilizer for our garden and other miscellaneous planting beds. You see, even waste does not have to go to waste on a farm. I then put down a fresh dusting of lime and we replace the bedding with a top layer of fresh hay or straw. The entire job requires only about two hours of determined work because our barn is so small. It would have been far too onerous and unhealthy for our cows to have maintained my childhood dairy farm in this simple manner. Our herd was just too large for it to work as effectively as it does for us.
I certainly can’t say that the work we do to muck out our barn is pleasant or easy. It is a messy and foul-smelling job. However, I have also never promised that self-reliant farm living does not require nasty work at some point in time. As I look at it, all the work we do, whether it is in a clean and comfortable office or in a dirty, smelly barn, requires some tasks that will be difficult or unpleasant to do. Even when I worked as a planner, I had to do a number of things I didn’t want to do or that offered little personal reward. However, I believe the ultimate satisfaction we gain from our work is not dictated by the individual tasks we have to perform, but in the overall pleasure we gain from the entire job. That, and the relative sense of freedom and independence we gain from it, is what I can assure you to be the true reward we gain from our retirement homestead farming work.