Wednesday, January 20, 2010

January Thaw

I may be one of a very few people not excited about a thaw. What isn't nice about the sun shining, warmer temps, and some of the snow melting? Well, I do love seeing the sun. It's a local secret that the sun doesn't shine in West Michigan from about November to March. Any sunny day is a miracle here. And I do like warmer temps. I don't know why I settled in such a cold climate. But, thawing snow messes up my alpaca pens.

Here is when I am going to get into a topic that makes my non-farming friends uncomfortable: poop. It's a fact of farm life, which everyone knows is there, but no one wants to hear about. I know. You can talk about it with fellow farmers, but bring it up to a non-farmer and watch them squirm. The fact is, in general, cleaning up alpaca poop is not a bad job at all. First, there is the fact that their poop does not really smell. There can be an odor to alpacas, but I've found that is usually when there is not good drainage and their urine pools. We have really good drainage because our soil is very sandy. It's nothing like dog poop (yuck!). It's nothing as bad a changing a child's diaper. It's like sweeping chocolate covered raisins into a bin. Pretty easy. The other thing I like about scooping poop is that it is a nice break in my day. As a busy mom, I actually find my poop scooping time to be the most rejuvenating. I know that sounds crazy, but hear me out. While scooping poop, no one comes to bother me. No kids fighting, no phone calls, no one asking or demanding anything. The alpacas usually keep an eye on me, they are so curious they need to know what I am doing in their area. So it's not a lonely job. But they don't bother me (occasionally one will get in the way of the wheel barrow, but in general, they don't bother me). I can ignore them if I want. It's a time my thoughts run, and I can sort out the day in my head. Scooping poop is not a bad job at all. There are other chores I dislike more (like lugging water buckets a long distance, my arms at not that strong).

I've spent the last two winters trying to figure out how to manage poop in the winter. In the warmer months my poop management is to scoop it daily. But in the winter, in our area, we get a fair amount of snow, and we have freezing temps for months on end. Just scooping everyday isn't so easy. Some days you end up scooping more snow than poop. Other days you'd have to dig poop out of the snow. Then there are times to poop is frozen solid to the ground. Plus, pushing a wheel barrow across the pasture in the snow isn't possible sometimes (unless I want to shovel a walkway for myself, which I really do not). I've read of farms who just leave the poop all winter and have a huge clean up in the spring time. You can put straw over the poop to keep it off the animals. I've read of other farms that put down rubber mats so they can scoop up all the poop all winter just as they do other times of the year (it scoops off the mats rather than freezing to the ground). And I've heard just about every variation in between, even to the point of farmers who use shovels and axes to chip away at frozen poop piles. I've tried a bunch of different things, some worked better than others. I've come to the conclusion that ones winter poop management is going to depend not only on location (amount of snow and cold), but also on soil (how much drainage, how frozen it gets, etc.).

What I've decided works best for us, is for me to scoop what I can, to level the poop pile with the height of the snow. If I dig down, which I have in years past, I create a crater, so when a thaw comes, it fills with water and this produces the most awful poop soup. If the poop is frozen to the ground, I leave it. No hacking at frozen piles. I just go over the top and take what comes easily, but leave the rest. This works fine when the weather is stable. But when a thaw comes, you end up scooping more because as the snow melts, the poop pile needs to be lowered to meet the same level as the snow line. That part doesn't bother me so much, it just means a couple more trips to clean up that day. The hardest part for me is to not dig down too deep and create that crater that ends up being poop soup. Another thing I don't like as much about a thaw is that then you can see all the poop. When the snow is falling, it covers it up and the entire pasture looks so pretty. A thaw comes and out pops all the piles. Melting snow makes everything look so ugly. It would be different if it were spring time and I could picture the grass and flowers coming up to fill in the ugly ground. It's not spring time. A thaw just means more brown and ugly ground.

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