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Manure, silage and other scents that take farm kids home

The smell of the ranch in the fall is far more than just the manure; it's all the comforting things that farm kids grow to associate with home.

A green, flaky pile of corn silage is in the foreground, with blue silos in the background.
Jenny Schlecht once disliked the smell of silage but now finds it a pleasant scent that reminds her of her childhood.
Jenny Schlecht / Agweek
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My daughter had a strange tale from her adventures on the elementary basketball bus this fall. Whenever the bus passed a ranch, she and a couple of her fellow cattle-loving friends would have the same reaction:

"We'd all say, 'Aaaaaah,'" she said, taking a deep breath in and smiling. "'Poop.'"

The girls who don't spend their free time around cattle know Reanna and her friends well enough not to judge them too harshly for their peculiarities. But even I had to laugh a little at their open admiration for the smell of manure.

Of course, a week or so after she told this story, I found myself driving alone through our feedlot and thinking that it smelled very pleasantly like fall.

It's not unusual for those in the cattle business to say manure smells "like money." But I don't think that's what those goofy girls and — apparently I — were smelling.

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While it's not what I'd want to smell inside the house — and I can't imagine anyone putting it in an air freshener or candle — it's neither a harsh nor a rancid scent. And it's not just manure. It's the cows and now quite large calves in the corrals or pastures. The hay stacked up neatly in the yards rather than strewn across the fields. The soil that has nourished the grasses and crops for the growing season. That crisp, indescribable smell when the first frost is coming. The sweetness of the crab apples now ripened in the tree rows and falling into the tall grasses. The damp leaves drifting off the trees. All that and more gets melded into a familiar odor.

I haven't even mentioned the pungent smell that comes with silage chopping. I remember as a child finding the odor of chopped corn somewhat repugnant, even before it truly could begin to ferment. I remember finding the silage samples that we'd run to the lab for quality and moisture tests quite gross.

But trucks carrying loads of silage are driving by my house as I type this, and last night when I took supper out to the pit, I took a deep breath in and felt like I had been taken back to my childhood. Of getting off the bus from school and waiting to hop into a truck with my dad. Of watching the chopper shoot streams of green forage into the trucks. Of those quick trips to town with silage samples.

The Proust Effect — named after French writer Marcel Proust, who wrote of involuntary memories triggered by the senses — can be a powerful thing. The smell of a barn on a hot summer day transports me to the fair. A particularly musty scent brings me to the root cellar. The tangy smell of freshly cut alfalfa sends me to the hay field where I'd ride along with dad while he was baling and occasionally hop out of the tractor to flip small square bales the correct direction to get picked up by the stack wagon.

I think that smell of "poop," as my daughter and her friends so eloquently called it, is all of those things that, for us ranch kids, just smell pleasantly like home. I can imagine someday when — whether they've left the farms of their youth behind or stayed rooted to them — they'll drive down the road on a crisp October day and catch of a whiff of something familiar that transports them to days of feeding and brushing their 4-H calves, of riding with their parents around the farm, of heading down country roads with their best friends to play basketball in tiny gyms that dot the prairie.

And, knowing them, I wouldn't be surprised if they take a deep breath in and say, "Aaaaah! Poop."

Jenny Schlecht is Agweek's editor. She lives on a farm and ranch in Medina, North Dakota, with her husband and two daughters. She can be reached at jschlecht@agweek.com or 701-595-0425.

Opinion by Jenny Schlecht
Jenny Schlecht is the director of ag content for Agweek and serves as editor of Agweek, Sugarbeet Grower and BeanGrower. She lives on a farm and ranch near Medina, North Dakota, with her husband and two daughters. You can reach her at jschlecht@agweek.com or 701-595-0425.
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