Sometimes you’re the cow and sometimes you’re the manure.
I had the week off between Christmas and New Year’s Day. Enjoyed doing a whole lot of nothing with my family. Went to a movie. Played Words With Friends. You know, was basically a slug.
Then I spied a Facebook post from Michele Specht, who farms with her family in Tuscarawas County, Ohio. And felt guilty.
“Yes, tonight is the longest night of the year. Working on the gutter cleaner at 1 a.m. It could be LONG holiday weekend. All I want for Christmas is for the gutter chain to arrive tomorrow. Say a prayer.”
While I was grappling with which movie to go see, the Spechts were, well, wrestling with cow poop. Dirty, smelly, slimy manure.
Then, yesterday, back at the office, I spied this Tweet from Brown County, Ohio, farmer Adam Bolender: “Leaving the farm. Heading home. It’s been a long day. 15 hours of manure hauling.”
This, folks, is the stuff farmers are made of. This is what you’ll never see on the TV commercials. There’s a lot that goes on behind all those pastoral scenes of red barns and white board fences that’s dirty and thankless and never-ending. But it has to get done. Every day. Calves have to be bottle fed, wayward heifers have to be penned back up, pens need to be mucked and rebedded, livestock has to be fed and watered. Milking parlors have to be scrubbed. Cows need to be bred. Hogs need to be moved. And lots of poop needs to be managed.
And that’s the short list.
So I called Michele and Adam to get the scoop behind the poop (egads, that was bad!)
And I found out the 26-year-old Bolender doesn’t really mind hauling and spreading manure — although he might’ve maxxed his fun with the 45 loads in 15 hours. “I really don’t consider it the short straw.”
“I had a good radio and heat in the tractor.”
So he hopped in the cab of the New Holland TM140 and hooked up the AGCO 3732 manure spreader at around 10:30 a.m., took about a 15-minute break to eat lunch, and then kept on truckin’ until 1:30 a.m.
“There was a point when I thought I would quit, but then I was down to only about seven or eight loads, so I kept on going.”
Driving him was the weather. The day he hit the fields, it was cold and the ground was frozen — but the forecast was for temperatures back up to the 40s, which meant they wouldn’t be able to get the equipment back in the soft fields. So he kept going. And going. Getting rid of the manure from the family’s 120 Holsteins that had been piling up in their concrete pit since last spring, when the rainy weather prevented them from getting the pit completely cleaned out. So they’d been limping by, trying to haul a couple loads when they could, in this, the rainiest year on record. In addition to their dairy herd, the Bolenders — Adam, his father and uncle — grain farm 1,000 acres and another 200 acres of hay, and have 60 head of Angus brood cows. Not like they have a lot of time to go see War Horse.
“The farm wasn’t closed around the holidays,” he reminded me.
Even people in rural Brown County, Adam said, don’t realize you have to milk cows twice a day. In their double-5 parlor, it takes one guy four hours for just one milking. “We hear it all the time: ‘You have to do that twice a day? Why can’t you just milk them once a day?’”
“There’s never a day off.”
* * *
The old gutter cleaner trouble started about two weeks before Christmas, and Michele and Steve Specht knew they would have to order new links and paddles. But until the parts came in, Steve would have to crawl underneath and try to wrench the chain back on, climbing back up to the barn floor to adjust, then back down below to tug some more. “It was just a nightmare,” Michele said. “He was getting in from the barn at two in the morning.”
When the Spechts’ gutter cleaner finally stopped, their three young adult children were due in for the holidays from New York, Colorado and Texas. So guess what they did when they got home? No, they didn’t get to sit around the family room sipping cocoa and playing Mad Gab. Well, maybe they did, but first they had to move a lot of poop. Scraping the gutters all the way down the 200-foot comfort stall barn by hand, and back up the other side, piling it into a skid loader, and then dumping it in the spreader, which then had to be emptied.
Christmas Eve and Christmas morning, too. There was no “all is calm, all is bright” refrain from this group.
When the new pieces-parts arrived, the family grabbed four extra high school boys to join the three adult kids and two parents to wrestle the new system into place — only to find not all the parts came in. They’re making do until the rest of the order comes in, when they’ll have to take everything apart and put it back together again. Humpty Dumpty would’ve been easier to restore.
And while Adam, Allison and Annie Specht were home, they also helped vaccinate the herd, clean the pipeline and register calves — along with the other regular farm chores.
“They’re farm kids, and they come home because that’s who they are and where they come from,” said mom Michele.
“That was our whole holiday,” Michele said. “What do I want to say… it builds character.”
The family did reward themselves after they cleaned all the manure from underneath fingernails with a dinner at the Spread Eagle Tavern in Hanoverton.
“Every day it’s a new adventure,” Michele sighed.
An adventure most of the world never sees, never imagines and never appreciates. And that’s too bad. Farmers deserve more applause for their 24/7/365 dedication. Who else is gonna deal with all that poop?