Spring brought an end to winter’s annoyances made worse by repetition. The stock tank heater and using wood and corncobs to fire it up was among the tired tasks.
The barn, when the dairy herd numbered fewer than 20, lacked drinking cups. Once released from their stanchions, the cattle made a beeline to the tank to drink their fill.
My older brothers argued most every day about who would clean the gutters, feed the chickens, toss hay from the mow. They were not shy about making mischief that, when discovered, drew Dad’s wrath.
In secret, they had taken to buying Copenhagen snuff from the local grocery store. The stash was safely hidden in the mow until Dad discovered it. Nothing was said about it, but it was suspected that our father confiscated the nicotine treasure.
The farmstead was in transition from winter to spring. The temporary straw and woodshed built in the cow yard in late August became obsolete. It had been constructed the year before after a small grain harvest, and sheltered cattle and hogs through winter. Its interior was dark and foreboding to a young boy, but served its purpose well.
The building was collapsed in spring and manure hauled to fertilize cornfields.
The pregnant sows and gilts were moved to high ground in the back of the barn where they would farrow in A-frame huts.
The separator (as reliable a machine as ever invented) yielded skim milk that was carried several yards and dumped in a long wood trough. Addicted to it, pigs began an ear-splitting squeal long before the milk reached them. A large metal drum held slop, which was as much part of the ration as ear corn.
The farm was stuck between old ways and the new.
I was dismayed when Dad said he planned to sell our last workhorse.
Mother’s dad knew horseflesh well. He was acquainted with the horse jockeys who plied their trade in the area. Good teams were available but so, too, were flawed horses.
Mother said her Dad was never taken by a slick jockey except once, when he bought a horse that by all appearances was good. However, the horse was flighty and mean in the stall. It kicked its equine neighbor and broke its leg. Grandpa softly whistled when he worked around horses, Mother said, but never seemed quite so happy after the horse was put down.
Accidents while handling workhorses were not unheard of. An ill-timed kick by a Belgian or Percheron could be fatal. A friend recalled that a cousin back in the old country had for years wanted to work his small acreage with a horse. He did not own the horse long before the animal crushed him to death in the stall.
In the late 1970s, I interviewed a farmer who worked fields with horses. He was cutting hay on the day I talked to him. I asked him why, given that all his neighbors had tractors, he persisted with horses.
The clickity-clack of the mower, the horse’s deep breaths and the sounds of songbirds created a peace that could not be found on a tractor’s seat. A priceless beauty can be found in all of it, he said.
The latter became clearer after watching a horse-plowing contest. The teams, decked out in harnesses and gleaming metal, worked as one.
The horse and oxen era remains vital in many nations still struggling to advance agricultural production. Farming in Albania and Romania continues as it has for centuries.
Working the land and raising livestock rewards the soul if not always the pocketbook. The fertile land — whether worked with horses or four-wheel drive tractors equipped with air conditioning and GPS systems — is a blessing as is the rain and sunshine.
Mychal Wilmes is the retired managing editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minn., with his wife, Kathy.