Winter's toils - and treats

It's the time of year I count bales, and calculate whether the dwindling hay supply in the barn loft will see our animals through mid-April, when they can begin once more to graze the pastures. Our nine cows, three horses, and the nanny goat are no less eager to return to fresh greens than we are to turn them out and stop toting bales of hay about.

But for now, hay sustains them and we deliver it twice a day, a chore there is just no getting around. I do the morning honors.

The animals watch from below with dedicated interest as I climb to the loft and disappear through the dark hole. Ours is a fine loft in a sturdy, turn-of-the-(20th) century timber-frame barn. Seen from the back, the loft bulges out slightly, the plank siding having yielded to the harvests of many a past summer when we milked a full herd and needed every inch of dry, covered space for their winter feed. It's a roomy place, roomier now than it used to be since we've retired from commercial dairying.

The past couple of years we've put up only a quarter of the hay we used to harvest. Eight hundred to 1,000 bales suffice for our three young bovines and their mothers and grandmothers - cows too old and beloved to sell, soft-muzzled creatures who gather at the feeding racks at dawn out of lifelong habit, as I climb for their breakfast.

It'll be close this year - we have about 250 bales left, and we feed seven a day, four in the morning, three at night. We can begin to taper off to six or even five as the weather warms, but it is impossible to predict south-central Indiana's weather in late winter and early spring. One year we worked in shirt-sleeves in February. Another we thawed hoses and broke ice on the water tanks for much of the month.

This February tends toward the icy end of the spectrum, and the cows will need their full quota of hay for the next couple of weeks at least. I eye the stacks in the gloaming and try to calculate how much longer we might get away with not buying feed. Mentally, it's a little like making that first rough tax calculation - but this is a far more fragrant and restful kind of reckoning. At worst we'll be looking for hay to buy in mid-March. At best, if the cold eases after a week or two, and the grass comes on early in April, we'll break about even.

The sun crests the cedars east of the barn, and a pale half-light slants into the loft, the hay no longer obscuring its single high window. I love the loft and often linger in its dusky peace and quiet as commuters speed into town below me. Having made my calculation and enjoyed the ambience of this aerie I move to the remaining stack and pull four bales down, drag them to the swing-out door above the drive, and send them off over the edge - with a forceful flip.

Let a bale simply fall its own way and it will perversely land on end and fly to pieces as the twine pops. That small "pop" presages a tedious clean-up of hay scattering where you don't want it to; hence the flip. Today, I have the right touch as I send the bales out and all four land intact, poised to be carried one by one to the feeding racks and all those waiting molars.

Before climbing down to do just that I glance into the loft annex, where 20 to 30 premium clover-rich bales are stored as a kind of reserve. They are the stuff to entice ailing animals to eat, to build stamina during bitterly cold weather - and they make wonderful, unexpected treats. Why not, I think, and throw one of those down to spread before offering the standard ho-hum plain grass bales of an undistinguished morning. The cows had enjoyed this delicacy on Christmas and New Year's - why not another clover-rich bale today? Something has to counter those predicted six extra weeks of winter.

The animals get a whiff of it before I even reach them, and all eyes lock on me as I enter the long rack. A gantlet comes to mind, but it is not, in fact, an unpleasant one. As I move down the smooth wooden floor, bovine heads crowd me from the right, pushing me into the necks of the draft horses, stretching in from the left. There's suddenly no space at all for me, until I push back. The gaps I make this way close behind me like water filling a gully. By the time I hop out at the far end of the rack there's no sign - but for the hay and all those working jaws - that I'd even been there.

Four more bales to spread this morning - and another 300 before we're done with this.

Then - no more quiet dawns in the loft. No moist bovine noses pressing my legs; no communing eye to eye with my horses as I jockey around their huge, gentle heads, making my way down the rack. No more little "pops" to give me an excuse to linger a bit longer in the loft before I climb down to clean up that broken bale.

You know, there are worse ways to start the day.

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