Pile of You Know What

My farm business currently operates at a slightly awkward scale. If businesses can be likened to the phases of a human life, Cairncrest Farm is an gawky adolescent. Like a kid who has a moment of brilliance giving a speech followed up by immediately tripping over a trash can in the hall, my farm still has a ways to go before it has all aspects of life under control. The most recent farm task that reminded me of this phase had to do with our manure pile(s) from last winter. In a post from last spring I have a photo that shows the structure my pigs lived in for the winter. It was a simple metal hoop with tarps over it to stop the wind. Once I took down the tarp and metal skeleton I had a big pile of shit to deal with.

In a perfect world with everything going as it ought to I think I would spread manure right after I take the first cut of hay. Timing thus would give the manure time to break down and feed the grass prior to the second cut of hay. Spreading later in the year is still good, but it does less for the total yield of hay harvested than it otherwise might. This means ideal spreading would happen in mid to late June around here. I didn't get to it until September...

I put out feelers for spreaders in the area, but the gradual decline of family dairy farming in my neck of the woods means operational units are few and far between. A local tractor place rents nice modern ones, but I only have one tractor. I wasn't sure I'd be able to do all my spreading in a single day if I had to load, hitch, spread, unhitch, repeat for every last bit of manure. The cost was sort of borderline for the volume of manure I have to spread anyway, so I didn't feel like springing for it with the unknown variable of whether I'd be able to do everything and keep the cost under control.

The next step I tried was to ask for help from a neighbor. He brought over an old, perhaps not yet ancient, manure spreader that had seen little or no use in the last 25 years. He had it hitched to his 45 year old tractor. "Farm machinery is built tough," I thought and we gave it a go. We tried to go easy on the spreader, only filling it about half way with each load. It worked gamely for the first five or so runs, and then chain links on the drag (the mechanism that pulls the manure pile back to the beaters) snapped. Lacking any spare links, the spreader went out of commission for an indeterminate amount of time.

Winter comes early here in central New York, and I need to have a winter hoop built by October first for some piglets I've agreed to buy. Therefore I needed to clear out the old hoop and get it repositioned for this winter. Without a machine to aid in the task Garth and I resorted to a tried and true method - handwork. I loaded the old set of running gear with big scoops of bedding and then we spread it chunk by chunk with pitchforks. While I loaded the next wagon full Garth would retrace our tracks and further pull apart the bigger piles we'd tossed off so as to keep them from fouling the hay next year. Pitching ton after ton of manure off the wagon was physically demanding labor. Despite that, I sort of enjoy heavy labor. Modern spreaders do have a major advantage above and beyond the time/labor saving they provide. Good modern spreaders have fast rotating beaters that can rip apart even tough bedding packs and spread a thin, even layer across a piece of ground. They can spread much more thinly and finely than the hand method can, which means more land has fertility returned to it in a given year. Spreading by hand means much of my land has hay cut off it, but only a fraction of the cut acreage has manure returned to it. That which does get it receives a hefty dose, and I rotate where the heavy application goes, but it would be better to get a little bit everywhere than lots in one spot. I have every intention of getting manure spread over a greater percentage of my hay fields in the future, but by the end of this year I'll be lucky to have covered 10 of the 40 acres I took hay off of.

We spread about 90% of the manure in this pile over the course of one day. We left the shallow end of the pile because it was covered with volunteer pumpkins and squash. The pumpkins I started and planted just outside the garden were a complete bust, and I wanted to leave the pig patch to fully ripen. I still have pole barn full of cow poop to get back onto the fields. I sort of hope to give the neighbor's spreader a crack at it, but I suspect I'll be doing it by hand too, sooner rather than later.

Next summer I'll have a much greater volume of manure to spread since I'm going to take four times as many pigs through this winter than I did last year. At that point the cost of renting a good quality implement to do the task might pencil out better than it did this year.