Smells Like Money

Since marrying the Dairy Man almost three years ago, I routinely find myself privy to conversations that shock, horrify, and traumatize me.

A spirited discussion about artificial insemination at the dinner table? Why not? An impassioned debate about the best kind of teat dip in the church narthex?  Makes sense. A detailed description of manure management relayed to friends at a fancy restaurant? Totally normal.

These farm-induced out-of-body experiences often  cause me to ask, “Is this really my life?” Last night, dear friends, was one of those nights.

DM and I were sitting on the couch, working on our respective laptops. Out of the blue:

DM: (sniffs his hand) You know, I really like the smell of manure.

MFW: What!?

DM: I’m serious. Smell this (thrusts hand under MFW’s nose; MFW recoils and nearly falls off the couch trying to get away).

MFW: Umm, no thank you!

DM: (sniffs hand again) Good stuff. They should make candles that smell like this.

My husband is not normal. But Yankee Candles, I hope you’re listening. This is my life.

manure pit

2 Orange Tractors

On the second day of Christmas, the Dairy Man gave to me:
2: Two orange tractors



1: And a twinkly-light-laden faux tree.

As you might remember, I recently learned that we have not one, but TWO big orange tractors. These pumpkin-hued twins stay busy from spring to fall hauling manure to the fields. They boast air conditioning, padded seats, GPS technology, and one even has a satellite radio!

Modern farming, I tell ya. It’s not easy being a dairy man.

When it Reeks to High Heaven: Adventures in Manure Management

Marrying the Dairy Man has inexplicably changed my vernacular, my vocabulary, and the stories I relay without a second thought. I am often shocked at the things that come out of my mouth. Seconds after nonchalantly finishing a sentence with, “…and that’s how the cow broke out of the barn,” I realize, with startling clarity, that I am slowly becoming desensitized to the things city slickers find abnormal.

I chat about feed prices. I regale mildly interested coworkers with tales of mischievous cattle. I utter words like “artificial insemination,” “TMR,” and “manure” without skipping a beat. It’s shocking. Half the time I don’t even realize I’m talking about something counter-Jess until I’m around a friend who knew me before I moved to the country. Their look of horror/shock/confusion provokes a moment of self reflection—“Um, how the heck do I know that!?”

I hope to cling to my urban roots for as long as I can. I don’t want to lose my knowledge of the Chicago subway system or how to be an aggressive city driver, but as I spend more time out here, it’s inevitable that I will slowly morph more deeply into my role as a farmer’s wife.

This brings me to something I never EVER thought I would be discussing: cow poop. Or, for those with more delicate sensibilities, manure.

These are the facts: We have cows. Cows eat food. As with all animals, food has to be digested and then *ahem* disposed of. Our hundreds of bovine ladies spend a good majority of their day engaged in this disposal process. When the girls are in the milking parlor doing their thing, our employees drive a skidster (small loader) through the barn and push the latest offerings out into a manure pit.

Our dairy has several small pits. Please do not confuse them for ponds or reflecting pools. Not even the ducks would make that mistake.

The Dairy Man’s father’s dairy (also known as the home dairy) has a massively ginormous pit.

This baby is the size of a soccer stadium and can hold FOUR MILLION gallons of manure. Back in 2008, it was a thrilling addition to the farm.

Each winter, the cavernous pit fills to the brim. In the spring,  we (as always, “we” is a loose pronoun) spend a couple of frenzied weeks emptying it out.

Typically our manure hauling just involves a pit, a pump, and a tractor. But during the weeks I’ve dubbed “Manure Mania,” we actually bring in trucks to expedite the hauling process. This allows us to haul a greater quantity of the smelly stuff in a shorter period of time (because, after all, five trucks can drive much faster than one tractor). The Dairy Man hauls manure throughout the year, but there are only a couple of weeks in which we actually try to empty out the pits.

During the mania of manure, there are four steps.

1: Pump the manure from the pits using a tractor.

2: Fill a truck and drive it to one of our fields (we’ve only got 1100 acres to choose from – oy vey).

3: Pump stinky liquid from truck to manure spreader.

4: Drive the tractor through the field spreading a delightful fairy dust of … poo.

Rather than simply throw manure on the fields, we inject. Oh yes. A futuristic little contraption on the back of the manure spreader injects the organic fertilizer directly into the soil.

This process not only cuts down on the odor, but it injects nutrients directly into the soil, creating an optimum environment for our future corn babies.

Waste not, want not. The cows are making it and our crops will love it.

Now I just have to resist the urge to whip out this information at dinner parties.

Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of … March!?

Oh hey, in case you haven’t heard, the weather in Michigan is going crazy.

This was the temperature two days ago, on MARCH 19. This was only at 12 noon. It went up from there. To 85 degrees.

March, a month that usually brings light snow flurries, gradual warming (to the 40s/50s), and the fleeting promise of spring has plopped us smack into summer.

For the past week, temperatures have been in the 70s and 80s. Wednesday’s high was one the warmest ever recorded in West Michigan in the month of March. Phew.

Even though a small part of me feels like the world is going to end in a apocalyptic ball of global warming, I have emerged from a long winter hibernation desperate to soak up as much “summer” as humanly possible. The hammock is out, my skin is rosy (from a long nap taken in aforementioned hammock), and all of our meals take place on the deck. From this vantage point, it’s easy to see that everything is turning green.

I know that this is wrong, wrong, wrong. This can’t last. Something in the universe has gotten out of whack and we’ll probably get a blizzard in the middle of June. I half expect to see a plague of locusts or frogs spring forth from the earth.

The cows are confused. Most of our girls haven’t even shed their fluffy winter fur yet. They are hot and bothered, but fortunately the Dairy Man turned on our big fans to cool things down. There was talk of a frozen daiquiri bar, but Dairy Man wants to try the fans first.

The heat wave has also allowed us to get a jump start on Manure Mania 2012. Bum bum bum. The Dairy Man doesn’t call it that, but I added a name to the annual process to lend some drama and flair. I’ll provide more details on this odorous undertaking in a future post, but all you need to know at this point is that warm weather = manure spreading. All day, every day. Our two orange tractors work the pavement from dawn till dusk. Pit to field, pit to field, pit to field. The goal? To empty our manure pits before the real craziness of spring starts.

We’re not the only ones. Dozens of farmers’ tractors are motoring around the countryside and the scent of spring is upon us. The Dairy Man says it smells like success. I say it smells like, well… poo. Agree to disagree.

I know the summer-March won’t last forever. The earth will figure this out and I’ll go back to light sweaters and boots. But until then, we will haul, cool the cows, and spend time outside with the pups.

I just hope we can get him back inside.

Our first planting season.

Early last week the Dairy Man sat me down. He took my hand and said, “Well, it’s been fun. We had a great winter and I’ll always remember the time we spent together. But now it’s time to plant. I’ll see you in a few weeks.”

Yes. Sometimes the Dairy Man likes to be dramatic. But after we had a good chuckle, the basic point was still there. He was kidding, but not really. Spring is here and the busy season is off and running.

I wasn’t really aware that we were ever in a “slow” season, but normalcy for farming starts a lot higher than the rest of the world. 60+ hour work weeks are the norm. Busy season means getting up really early, staying out really late, and working like a madman to get as much done as possible before the rain comes. My Dairy Man, his father, and/or my future brother-in-law have been known to still be in a tractor at 11 p.m. at night.

This is my first planting season and I’m still adjusting. I find myself secretly hoping for rain so that I can see my Dairy Man for a few precious minutes. But it cannot rain. We will lose time, or the corn will get into the ground too late and the whole season will be thrown off.

In this small farming community, it seems like every farmer and his brother is driving some type of machinery down a road or through a field. The town is buzzing with activity. On my drive to and from work, a glance to either side of the road reveals fields speckled with shiny metallic tractors and the air is thick with the scent of … fertilizer.

My Dairy Man and his father farm over 600 acres between our two facilities. Every square inch is planted with corn to be ultimately turned into feed for our cows. I don’t claim to be an expert on the intricacies of planting (just when I was finally getting the whole cow thing down, we started an entirely new aspect of farming!), but I’m trying to learn just what my Dairy Man is doing out in those fields all day.

One night I decided to find out. After work, I changed my clothes, pulled on my rubber boots, and set off to find the Dairy Man. I located him in one of the barns and sweetly coerced my way into a ride-along. We climbed into the big red truck and set off to check on the fields.

This particular night it was his father and future brother-in-law sitting in the tractors. Here is my FIL working the ground.

Conversations with the Dairy Man (and extensive research on Wikipedia) tell me that there are four main stages to planting a field: 1) fertilize, 2) chisel plow, 3) disk, and 4) plant.

Fertilizing is an easy one to understand. We have many cows. Those many cows produce manure. That manure is stored in pits (like the nearly-empty one below) during the winter and spread on the fields in the spring as fertilizer. How very green of us, eh? Though anyone who lives near a farm will tell you–it stinks to high heaven.

This particular night, I was able to witness the disking portion of the planting process. Now, at long last, I know what this spidery thing actually DOES. Step #2, chiseling plowing, involves another piece of machinery to turn the soil. Using a disk harrow (below) finishes the top of the soil for planting. Not exactly a plow pulled by oxen, is it? Modern farming is big, intense, and involves a lot of giant toys. The Dairy Man still spends hours working the land, but his tractor has air conditioning and satellite radio.

Once the land has been properly fertilized, chiseled, and disked, it’s planting time. Within a few short months, this entire field will be bursting with leafy waves of corn.

So, there you have it. Apparently planting corn does not involve throwing handfuls of seeds into an open patch of dirt. Who knew? Though that does explain why I haven’t seen the Dairy Man for more than twenty minutes per day in the past week. It hasn’t been easy being a planting widow, but I know that this craziness won’t last forever. And a long hug in the morning can get me through just about any kind of craziness.

(And yes, I am aware of just how awesome my rubber boots look with shorts.)