I fell into the daily habit of taking care of the barnyard animals in a circuitous way.
The barnyard and its inhabitants are primarily the domain of my parents, who live next door to us. And for the first few years we lived here, I didn’t have much involvement. I occasionally helped out for an hour or two during haying season or stepped in for backup herding duty when my parents needed to move the animals around and wanted an extra person to stand at one of the gates, but for the most part it wasn’t really my arena. There aren’t all that many jobs to do on a daily basis – let the sheep out of their pen in the morning; feed the cows a couple of bales of hay from the barn if it’s not grazing season – but my parents covered those responsibilities themselves, and when they were away, Rick usually took over.
But fourteen months ago we adopted our dog, Belle, and I started taking her out for a walk first thing every morning. Since we were passing near the sheep’s enclosure, it made sense to stop and let them out. As October came to an end, I noticed the cows, previously out grazing in the pastures while Belle and I took our walk, were congregating near the barn every morning. I asked my father if it was time to start “feeding out,” meaning giving the cows hay bales rather than leaving them to fend for themselves in the field. He conceded that it probably was about that time, and I said that since I was out with the dog -- and now the sheep -- anyway, I’d take on that responsibility as well.
More than a year later, I have to say it’s become one of my favorite times of day, those ten or fifteen minutes I spend with the animals in the barnyard. First I put on the heavy padded coveralls my parents gave me to wear in the barn; then I grab my pocketknife, my work gloves, and – if I am to be perfectly honest here – my cell phone, just in case I fall out of the hayloft or get trampled. Yes, I know that traditional farm hands don’t carry cell phones, but I’m on a tight schedule in the morning, needing to hurry home and get the kids off to school, so I figure it’s for the best to be able to call for help if I ever need it, which I never have.
Belle gallops across the field toward the barn, her energy high after a good night’s sleep and her exhilaration at being outdoors and free almost palpable. The cows see me coming and meet me along the way, expecting to have their curly dark-red heads scratched and then plodding along after me as I make my way to the barn. The sheep bleat as they hear us coming.
Once in the barnyard, it’s an easy job. I climb the ladder to the hayloft and toss down a couple of bales to get the animals below out of my way; then I descend and enter through the front of the barn to pull out a couple more bales for them. I use my pocketknife to snip the twine around the bales, which makes me feel like a Boy Scout. I scatter the hay a little so the animals don’t all cluster in one place.
Then I scan the barnyard and pasture until I locate Belle, who camouflages beautifully with the brownish-gray of the trees and dirt. She is usually either burrowing her face in cow manure, drinking from the brook or chasing squirrels in the thicker grass. Once assured that she’s not too close to the sheep pen – every few months she gets an inexplicable urge to chase them -- I let the six sheep out. Unlike the cows, they don’t particularly want my attention; they trot goofily past me, hurrying toward the hay to get their share before the cows finish it.
That’s all there is to it, and as my father reminds me frequently, there’s no reason I have to do it every day; he’d be more than happy to share the job with me or take it over once again for himself. But I love getting out with the animals early every morning. The heavy lifting as I move the hay bales and the climb up to the loft make me feel strong and well-exerted even though it’s brief and not that arduous. Seeing Belle get in some fast running and vigorous playing before my work day begins is satisfying too. And so is the benign appreciation of the animals. They’re a peaceful bunch, placid, never pushy (or if they are pushy, it’s to each other, not to me). Unlike dogs, they don’t go wild at feeding time. Unlike my kids, they don’t have opinions about what they do or don’t want. They just stand there waiting for hay, and when they get it, they eat it. Job done.
It might be an overstatement to say this is the best part of my day, but it’s definitely up there among the most satisfying. And it’s definitely a contender for easiest part of my day. I release the sheep, feed the cows, let the dog run and everyone is happy. How simple the animals can make life seem.