Pitching Manure


About this time of year, I unload the finished compost from the “hot box,” as we call our concrete block compost bin and refill it with fresh sheep manure from the barn. It will heat up gloriously in a few days and when the highest heat and ammonia subside, we can transfer plants started in the house safely to this hot bed, with a plastic cover at night if necessary.  This job means I am back to pitching manure, a task otherwise reserved for July and August after the manure has aged in the barn for four or five months.

As a boy and younger man, I rejoiced when tractor front end loaders and skid loaders came into vogue to lift the manure and relieve us of long hours of manual labor. But there is something to be said for forking manure by hand. For some reason, it inspires philosophical meditation if you are alone, and philosophical conversation if you have company. I don’t know why. Following Buddhism, perhaps this menial, repetitious task empties the mind of all worldly care and a kind of Nirvana enfolds. The mind becomes centered on the job instead of flitting restlessly from one distraction to another. This concentration somehow (ask Buddha) allows the mind to enter a sort of transcendental peace. Then comes a chance for deep thought.

Or it may just be that the ammonia emanating from the manure produces a kind of chemical high that causes the mind to reverberate with impassioned thought processes and/or talkativeness. Coffee, not to mention bourbon, will set me off the same way.

At any rate, to enjoy forking manure, one must be in good physical shape and understand the principles of leverage. You can’t just jab the fork deep into the manure pack and lift up a forkful. That’s a good way to get a slipped disc or a hernia.  The manure and bedding have been trampled down solidly by the livestock and is easier to pry out in somewhat thin layers. Start along the wall of the stall not out in the middle of the pack.  Right next to the wall, the manure and bedding will lift away more easily. Slide the fork under only a few inches worth and push down on the fork handle. The curve of the fork tines will act as a fulcrum to lever the forkful looser from the pack. Next, if you normally grasp the middle of the fork handle with your left hand (right hand out on the end of the fork), set your left knee under your left hand and push further down on the fork handle with your right hand, using your left knee as a fulcrum. (If you normally grasp the fork handle in the middle with your right hand, use your right knee as the fulcrum.) The forkful will come loose much more easily than if you just try to muscle it out of the pack.  Proceed to remove the manure in layers that way.

Some of my most treasured memories are of long talks while forking manure. Once in the seminary, where I led a rather eerie, lopsided life (you can read about it in my novel, The Lords of Folly), studying philosophy in the morning and forking manure in the afternoon for example, a conversation I remember fondly went something like this:

“I don’t get that metaphysics stuff, do you?” a fellow forker asks.

“Not really.” (In fact I almost flunked the course.)

“Well, what do you think it is.”

I puffed up, proud to have been asked. “Far as I can figure, it is sort of like, well, you can look at a particular object just as it appears in nature. An oak tree, for example, rather than just any tree. That’s the first degree of abstraction. In the second degree of abstraction which is mathematics, you can count the number of trees in the woods, for instance. Or how many board feet of lumber is growing there. In the third degree of abstraction, you contemplate sheer treeness, that which makes you recognize a tree every time you see one no matter how different trees are from each other. That’s metaphysics, learning what the idea of tree is all about.” I had no idea what I was talking about.

My companion, not wanting to seem any stupider than I, nodded as if in comprehension. “I’ve always wondered about what tractors are really all about. Metaphysically, I mean. The idea of tractor must be all about tread. Right?”

Buddha would have been pleased. I think.  And in the process, one more field got fertilized the right way.
Image Credit: Ten Apple Farm
Crossposted at OrganicToBe.org



I learned early on that sheep manure was a little like splitting firewood in that finding the weakest point paid dividends. Oddly enough, manure that was several feet deep came easiest in layers, much like peeling an onion, or the rings of an enormous tree. Onions, or for that matter trees, never made me gasp for breath of fresh air as much as sheep manure. It was like sticking your head in an ammonia bottle. I must have missed the philosophic boat though. I just found myself thinking of places I would rather have been than where I actually was. I didn’t know enough to call it transcendental meditation.

As I’ve reengaged in small scale livestock farming the last few years, I’ve reflected many times on the simple joys and aggravations of forks. As a boy, we always made a distinction between 3 tine forks and ones with 4 tines as pitchforks and manure forks respectively. These 5 and 6 tine monstrosities that seem to be the only thing that you can find around here now may be good for mucking horse stalls, but are useless for pitching straw-pack manure. They are pretty much heavy scoop shovels that leak. I special ordered a 3 tiner and it is a pleasure to use.

Any livestock farmer who regularly uses pitch forks, scoop shovels and 5 gallon buckets as essential materials handling equipment should automatically qualify for “contrary” credentials.

Your discourse on metaphysics and “treeness” was a profound and lucid masterpiece. I also have no idea what I’m talking about.

John and Don, ah yes, the sweet smell of manure. I think you have given me a topic for a future blog. Gene

Manure truly is one of the better smells on earth. Its a pity that so few of my generation would agree. I prefer horse to anything else, personally–perhaps about the only real advantage to keeping horses on a small homestead. A good ox could do at least as much work and give milk too, but to me, the manure just doesn’t quite smell as wonderful. But that’s just me…

Several years ago (probably 30) I read an article you wrote that said some of the best conversations you remembered were of you and your father while pitching manure. I have shared this nugget with my son recently, who wholeheartedly agrees. Some of our best discussions have occured while pitching manure or picking stones, both mundane chores that must be tackled with grit and determination to do properly.

I knew my son was a true farmer when he told me, “Don’t tell anybody, but I really like the smell of cow manure”.

Thank you for renewing my interest in Metaphysics…now I can go about the day pondering the essence of tread!

Teresa Sue Hoke-House March 31, 2010 at 6:35 am

I love reading your thoughts in the morning…always gives me a great start to a day and always a chuckle or two.
Great idea how you have the hot box. I don’t have sheep anymore, but when I get some more of them, I’m going to try that.
For myself, I find a peace within myself whenever or whatever I’m doing out on my little place. It’s a good feeling.

And meditation, in my experience, is the result of pretty much any physical,repetitious job that has a visible result: housework, ironing, dishes, weeding, milking the cow. Doesn’t happen with the so-called “white collar” work–wonder why? Love the metaphysical discussion! Umm, Gene, do you think there might have been a connection between what you were forking and the subject you were discussing? You know, one comes out of the south end of a north-bound ruminant, and the other is dispensed in a similar fashion by a hide-bound religious ruminator?

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