Straw Stacks – Half Section Farming … and Making a go of it.
Written by Hulda Franklin
Edited by Reg Quist
Christmas Day! A beautiful white Christmas! For it snowed for the first time, in this neck of the woods, on Christmas morning – great, fluffy flakes to a depth of several inches.
As we drove down Agnes and Ralph’s lane for our family get-together, we noticed Ralph had made a couple of trips to the wheat straw stack for bedding. Their range cows and calves were kept in the grove-sheltered pasture behind the barn. The straw would provide a bit of comfort for them during the cold weather.
We knew Ralph would have moved the straw using their large Farm Hand loader, mounted on the front of the tractor. The bits of straw dribbled along the way were evidence enough of that.
“A straw stack,” you ask, “in this day of combines and straw bales, both round and square?”
Yes, Ralph has several straw stacks – wheat straw for bedding, and smooth, awned barley straw for extra feed. (awned barley has the teeth, or awns, pointing upward)
No, they don’t still thresh out their grain with a now much-outdated threshing machine. They use a combine with a contraption called a Foster Wagon drawn behind. This huge trailer wobbles along behind the combine, catching the straw as it is blown into it by a blower attached to the rear of the combine. When the Foster Wagon is packed full, an attached rope is pulled by the operator, the trap door at the back flies up, the thing tips up, and a huge “cock” (pile) of straw is left behind. The load is dumped, the empty trailer swings back into position ready to catch another load.
When the straw starts falling out the front, through a slit at the top, the operator knows it is time to dump again. At one time, these Foster Wagons may have been quite popular in other parts of the country, but Ralph’s is the only one I can remember seeing around here.
Harvesting over, Ralph goes out with the Farm Hand, and piles these cocks into large stacks, as close to home base as possible. And when feed or bedding is wanted, the Farm Hand is again loaded up at the then-settled stack, bringing out all the straw that is needed.
Seems to me, that method beats baling, stacking, lifting, hauling and scattering square bales. They say those cocks shed water better than square bales left in the field until time permits stacking.
But the real reason farmers invested in the things, years ago, was to save the chaff which has more feed value than the straw picked up by a baler. When baling, most of the chaff is left in the field.
A farmer must take a lot of seemingly small things into account when working only two quarters, if he hopes to make a success of it.
Those long-forgotten straw stacks, scattered over our farmland before the coming of the combine, was the mixed farmer’s best asset in the winter. I remember our dad telling how our few head of range cattle were kept snug, warm and fed, under a huge, sheltering, straw stack blown over some stout willows surrounding a slough, that terrible winter of 1906-07.
The summer of 1906 was a wet one. Dad’s forty acres of oats grew thick and tall. Some lodged, (laid over) allowing green second-growth to grow up. It was a problem to harvest and stack into those fat, round stacks Dad used, waiting for the travelling threshing crew. In the middle of November, they were threshed out by a new steam-driven outfit, after the first snow had already fallen, and temperatures hovered around zero.
As a child, I can still remember the waterman (water monkey, as he was termed) pumping water for the steam engine into the ice-covered, round-bottomed tank from the lake just below our house. Now and then, he’d stop pulling the handle of the pump back and forth long enough to swing his arms around his shoulders to keep his cold, and I dare say, wet hands from freezing. Those were the good, old days!
Our hog pasture too, had a heavy stand of poplar and willow in its midst. A stack of wheat straw blown over some of those trees, outperformed an expensive barn too, if it is run right. The hogs will burrow through it, making nests for themselves.
In a modern barn the hog population is locked up in pens according to size. Each pen has running water, feeders and a bare cement floor for a bed. The cement floor is hosed off every day, and the sewage is drained into gutters and out to a large underground tank or pond. A ‘lily’ wagon is used to pump out the sewage and spread it in the fields. I suppose they call the thing a ‘lily’ wagon to make the operator imagine the perfume is sweet. They tell me there is one called a ‘honey wagon’. I guess it’s sweeter!!
But what a life for a pig. When penned-up hogs get too bored, they fight and chew each other’s tails. Then, sometimes feeling the need of more excitement, they pile onto one of their pen mates, chew him up, and roll him around, until he finally succumbs. This is the way our modern ham and bacon is produced.
They occasionally get knuckle-joint trouble too, on that cold cement floor. But who knows what happens after packers get them boiled up in salt, vinegar and spices? They even look quite palatable, dished out under cellophane on the grocer’s shelves?
The eggs to go with the bacon are produced by hens individually jailed in wire cages. It’s a wonder the poor hen can even cackle when she lays the egg that rolls along to be gathered and shipped to consumers. The droppings fall through the wire mesh to the ground below, creating an ammonia gas that is enough to discourage any hen.
Just by accident, I have stepped into a couple of these egg manufacturing plants. I never bought eggs from these places again. Most likely some of them are better ventilated.
I am old fashioned, that I know, but I would like to see my bacon and eggs produced under freedom and sunshine, at least to a degree. Man, in his greed, is interfering too much with nature. Can’t help but wonder how it is affecting our enzymes.
Once in a while, those animal-built straw shelters did come tumbling down. It happened to me when I was older and farming on my own. One spring morning, after a heavy rain, I had a not-too-good-natured sow, and her family of thirteen, completely buried under straw. Only by her faint, mad huffing, when she heard me surveying the situation, did I know that she, at least, was alive.
I started to dig her out myself, but she and I weren’t on very good terms at any time, and I rather feared what might happen when she spied a hole with me on the other side. This was one of the times when I “chickened out,” and asked my brother to come to the rescue.
Both he and his wife came down with pitch forks. It took some digging through that well-settled, old straw to get near her. And all the time, we could hear, she was in no mood to thank us for our trouble. As soon as we judged she could finish the job herself, we beat a hasty retreat. She came out in a big huff, and her family of 13 soon followed. While she was away having her breakfast, I discovered they still had a nice straw nest formed against a sturdy poplar tree,
A 16-year old cousin who stayed with me during a polio epidemic in Edmonton, and who just loved farm life, often exclaimed, “Boy, I wish I lived on a farm. There is never a dull moment.” She eventually married a farmer.