Goats prefer to come and go as they please. They don’t want to be stalled in pairs or quads, even if it means protecting them from inclement weather. They want to be able to choose where they go and when, not just in terms of geographical location but also in terms of manure. There are pluses and minuses to that. The positive is that goat manure is ready to use as fertilizer the moment it exits the goat’s body; no composting needed. The minus is that it’s too small to be effectively scooped up with a typical dung fork. It’s an all or nothing sort of clean up that’s required for goats. No bedding means that the manure pellets can be swept or raked up. Too much bedding and you just have to shovel it all out, which can get expensive.
We found a system that seems to work for us. I usually clean our stalls once a week which seems adequate considering they spend less than 12 hours a day inside. I bed with premium kiln dried shavings. The goats add hay droppings to this bedding with the exorbitant amount they waste when choosing the perfect stems for eating from their hay racks. It’s impossible to scoop poops per say, but the shavings absorb the urine. We use lots of lime to neutralize the acidity. We also use diatomaceous earth to help combat creepy crawlies. I generally feel like I do a good job keeping the stalls in order. We want the freshest tasting milk that isn’t tainted by odor, and this seems to work. It’s definitely far from a manure pack system, but on this particular hot day it certainly smelled like it as I picked up the first fork full and set it into the wheelbarrow with more of a thud than I’d intended.
These stalls hadn’t been cleaned in a few weeks. I was far behind. I had still been suffering with post-concussive syndrome from an automobile accident that occurred in December 2014. The month before, I went in for a spinal tap alleviating the excess fluid around my brain and returning my cerebrospinal fluid pressure to a normal range. I’d been flat out with a spinal headache for the week following that procedure. My husband and daughter became the lifeline for the animals on our farm, which required quite a bit of physical labor considering the seasonal meat-producing animals (pigs, chickens, and turkeys) were still here, consuming more time than seems tangible. But, oh, the sweetness of satisfaction in tasting the sustenance they provide us after all our nurturing was something we were all looking forward to. Despite my incapacitation, the animals got fed and watered thanks to my family. I instructed them not to worry about cleaning the goat stalls. I wanted to clean them when I felt well enough. Somehow I find it relaxing; a chance for meditation.
Little did I know that I’d be dealt another blow. My health took a horrible turn for the worse. My vitality was compounded due to anemia from hemorrhaging. Pretty invasive testing had to be done, and the results hung somewhere between tissue in a jar of formalin and a cytology report. Mentally, I was wasted. Positive affirmations weren’t any comfort. I just wanted to have energy enough to work in my garden with golden sunshine warming my face. I had started a new regime of blood building herbal concoctions, as well as some natural progesterone cream. It was appearing to work, but I knew it would be a slow process for my body to heal. Regardless, the stalls needed to be cleaned. I knew the animals weren’t living in squalor, thanks to many more bags of kiln dried shavings being piled on top of soiled bedding, but the cleanliness of my barn and the health of my animals have always been paramount.
I was still was weak. My arms felt like jelly worms and the dung fork like a lead weight. I could do this. It’s only three stalls. I was out of practice, but I’m inherently strong and even more strong-willed. Plus, this smell was pungent and I vowed to not yield until the work was finished. I set my phone on the ladder to the hay loft after spending a few minutes determining where our wireless internet reached so I could still hear my music.
Thompson Square started playing from my phone.
“We may shine, we may shatter,
We may be picking up the pieces here on after,
We are fragile, we are human,
We are shaped by the light we let through us”
I paused long enough to think about these lyrics, grabbed the dung fork again, and began shoveling into the wheelbarrow. Hot. It was so hot. The air was acrid. The flies were relentless. I swear my sweat was sweating. I had just loaded an entire wheelbarrow full in just 5 forkfuls. This was going to take all freaking afternoon! I took hold of the barrow’s wooden handles and lifted. Surprised by the once familiar weight, I awkwardly rolled it out of the barn. The incessant wind hit my face, cooling the sweat and even making goose bumps stand up on my arms. The manure pile seemed so far away. Why did we move it out behind the buck shed anyway? Too bad it’s not winter. I could just dump it here and plow it down to the pile with the truck. Damn stinky buck is heading into rut already too. Great! Load one was barely dumped and our flock of free ranging chickens attacked it like little velociraptors, consuming any maggots and scratching for any sunflower seeds the goats might have dropped into their bedding, happy for any discarded waste.
Back in the barn Gary Allan’s voice filled the air.
“But the struggles make you stronger
And the changes make you wise
And happiness has its own way
Of taking its own sweet time.
No, life ain't always beautiful
Tears will fall sometimes
Life ain't always beautiful
But it's a beautiful ride.”
His words were true. I wished happiness, and healthiness, would hurry the hell up though. Surely, mucking manure was not beautiful, but I was back in my barn. Only about a gazillion more burdening trips to the pile with dung, I thought.
I kept shoveling. I found myself singing along to the lyrics and realized that the sweat and the flies weren’t bothering me anymore, and the smell was subsiding as the barn became emptier. I was nearly finished before I knew it. Literally, two forkfuls of shit were all that remained in the last stall and the wheelbarrow could not hold anymore. I had to go back to the manure pile with a 16th, near empty, load. It was as if life was saying one more ‘screw you’.
I checked my phone for the time and quickly did the math. I’d really finished three stalls that had piled up for three weeks in just 48 minutes. Really?! With a burst of pride, I set to sprinkling the stalls with pulverized lime and diatomaceous earth. I zipped open the plastic bags of shavings with my utility knife, and shook their contents into each stall with the greatest of abandon. I felt rejuvenated. Taking a deep breath, pine phenols filled my nostrils. I spread the shavings level with the pressure-treated wooden ledge of the barn frame with the fork. Everything looked refreshed, and I was gratified. I shut the music off and checked the time. Elated, I sent a text to my husband: I’m baaa-aaack! 1 hour to do all the stalls.
I walked down to the spot in the pasture where the goats were browsing on lush green. Sitting down, I noticed the wind had either died down or I was close enough to the trees in the stone wall that I was sheltered from it a little. Still sweat drenched but happy, I watched the goats take mouthful after nourishing mouthful. I listened to them chewing, swallowing, bringing up their cud, chewing some more, and swallowing again. I heard the Hairy Woodpecker tapping the maple tree behind me. The sun was sinking lower and I could begin to feel the oppressive heat dissipate. The ground was cool but hard and strong. For the first time in over a year and a half, I felt like I was on solid ground.
I thought about my life; its healthy direction forward. I thought about the goats; the pleasure their company provides. I thought about my daughter; the way she lights up my life and how important our farm is to her. I thought about the hard work of cleaning the barn, and I realized that life is a little bit like the dung fork and the wheelbarrow. Sometimes you have to shovel through more shit than you’d like. Sometimes you can only bear so much weight. Eventually though, the burden is gone. Relaxation, beauty, satisfaction and peace fill the empty space. It feels damn good.