Farm Collector

Most Disagreeable Task: Manure Spreading

Webster defines a chore as “a light daily and routine task or job.” It also lists a second definition: “a difficult to disagreeable task.” I can think of several “chores” I had to perform in my growing-up days on Muddy Creek that fit both of those definitions.

Under the first definition, one could well place the splitting of kindling and carrying in of wood until the big wood box was overflowing. Then there were ashes to be taken out, eggs to be hunted, and the slop bucket to be taken to the pig pen, where it was dumped into the old vinegar barrel where dad was soaking the “shorts” for the old brood sow.

Heading the list under Webster’s second definition would certainly come the manure spreading and hauling. A well-publicized study done at the University of Illinois once found that the nutritive value of cow manure as fertilizer was less than the cost of spreading it.

I tried to convince Dad that he was losing money by having Old Gabe spend all that time hauling manure out to the field, but he came back with an answer to the argument by asking “Whatcha gonna do with it, then?” We continued the practice of manure spreading.

Now it isn’t just the spreading manure that makes this the number one disagreeable “chore” on the farm: It is the repetition.

You cut and haul in sweet clover and red top hay, mow it back on a sweltering August day in a sweat box of a barn, and then, months later, down bunches of it to a herd of unappreciative steers that pick over and trample it into the muck that is formed by their adding the undigested portions of their dinner, packing it into a woven mattress of manure that must be cleared out periodically, or run the risk of having the cows stunted by rubbing their backs on the hay and mow floor.

It is a never-ending “chore” that could only be won if we followed old Jason’s example. When he was given the task of cleaning the Aegean Stables, he diverted the North Sea through them. Perhaps we might sidetrack Muddy Creek, especially when in spring flood, and watch Old Fox and his ilk ride the cascade down toward the Ambraw.

When Dad built the new barn, he put in one of the first “manure carriers.” This was a two-barrel capacity tank hanging on a hay mow track. It was pushed along behind the cows and scooped full of liquid and semi-dry cow manure, and then rolled far out east of the barn, where the manure spreader was supposed to be filled with this material. That way, in theory, it only had to be handled once.

In actual practice, it didn’t work out quite that way. First, the posts holding the track up would rot off in the wet soil and let the track sag. Then, the spreader was nearly always broken down. Either the moveable apron bottom of the bed was jammed, or the chain that turned the beaters was broken.

Rare indeed were the times when everything worked as planned. Instead, if it wasn’t the spreader, it was the carrier. The tank quickly rusted out from the high acid, and the weight often proved too much for the cut nails that were used to fasten the brackets to the barn rafters and the track would give way and had to be repaired, repaired after the load was dumped out onto a just-cleaned floor, and then, if the track could not be fixed quickly, wheel barrowing the “stuff” by hand out to the manure pile.

When the wheelbarrow was used, it was quite a trick to balance it on the old bridge plank that formed a runway up and over the manure pile. Anyone who has tried to stabilize a wheelbarrow load of liquid knows the hazard of trying to keep it balanced while pushing it along a narrow plank and trying, sometimes unsuccessfully, to avoid stepping off into the knee-deep loblolly.

If the spreader chain was broken, then the manure had to be spread by hand. Talk about a labor-intensive job. Having to dig loose and load a winter’s accumulation of odiferous, well-packed mat of sweet clover stems that are glued together with five months of bull excreta is a chore spelled in capital letters.

Then comes the spreading of this load on the field. The usual hand tool  of choice was the four-tined manure fork. One soon learned how large a fork-full could best be picked up and tossed in a swishing swirl that would leave the ground covered with a more-or-less even layer of fertilizer. And one certainly learned the hard way which way the wind is blowing. Talk about work: Wow!

Ma Ma used to tell us kids about the time Dad was cleaning out the new barn with his just-purchased manure spreader. A lightning rod salesman came along in his buggy and, seeing the new barn sans lightning rod, sensed a sale. Refusing to take Dad’s “no sale,” he followed him out into the back forty.

Dad repeated the disinterest. When the salesman put on the pressure, Dad terminated the interview by throwing the machine into gear. Needless to say, the salesman beat a hasty and undignified retreat. FC

The late Perry Piper was a columnist for newspapers in Illinois and Indiana for more than 12 years. His columns, reprinted here from his personal memoirs, appear in Farm Collector with the permission of his family.

  • Published on Aug 1, 1999
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