We got our straw chopper right after Monika was born, back in 2009. Compared to shaking straw by hand or with a pitch fork, the straw chopper was the best thing since sliced bread. Seriously, it was like magic: put in a couple bales of straw, walk up and down the barn, and end up with perfectly bedded stalls. I don't know any other machine or appliance that makes such short work of what had previously been such a dreaded job.
But as awesome as I think the straw chopper is, it took me six years to learn how to run it.
As I explained in my last column, I'm more inclined to work with animals than machines. And when I first watched Glen operate the straw chopper, I decided it looked a little too complicated for me. The straw chopper had an old engine that started hard. And the carburetor had a few issues, too. When you were done chopping, you had to remember to shut the fuel off several moments before killing the engine or gas would leak out and erupt into flames. We do have a fire extinguisher strapped to the chopper, but I've never operated one of those before, either.
For the past six years when I'd run the barn cleaner and scrape stalls, I'd wait for Glen to chop straw before bringing the cows in. Every time I thought about giving it a try, one look at the burn marks on the muffler that Glen and his cousin had rigged together reminded me that it was better to leave fears unconquered than to burn the barn down.
It turned out that my fears regarding the straw chopper weren't unfounded. Glen's brother and his wife did chores for us one weekend a couple years ago and started the straw chopper on fire. Glen's brother showed his wife how to run it and the darn thing ignited while she was chopping straw. It was our sister-in-law's first time helping with our chores - talk about trial by fire.
Shortly after that incident, we decided that it was probably time to replace the engine on the straw chopper. Between the carburetor and the muffler, it really was an accident waiting to happen. So we turned one of our dates into a trip to Northern Tool & Equipment to pick out a shiny new red engine. Glen said it was amazing how much better (and quieter) the straw chopper ran with the new engine.
But I still didn't learn how to run the straw chopper until a couple weeks ago.
We discovered last summer that the calves in our group pen stay cooler and drier in the summer when the pen is bedded with a combination of shavings and chopped straw. We shake straw in the winter to give the calves enough to nestle into.
Since the calf pen needs new bedding every other day, I figured I should finally learn how to do it myself. So I asked Glen to show me how to run the straw chopper. He told me the directions for starting the straw chopper and shutting it down were printed right on the guard. I said I'd feel more comfortable if he walked me through it. So he did.
I chopped the straw for the calf pen and then chopped straw into the stalls. I was pretty darn proud of myself when I got done. I'm not sure why I waited six years - other than my fear of starting the chopper on fire.
"Look," I told Glen when he got back to the barn. "I even got the stalls bedded. And I didn't burn the barn down."
"And you still have all your fingers and toes?" he said.
Now I should probably review the directions for operating the fire extinguisher. Just in case.
Sadie and her husband, Glen, milk 75 cows near Melrose, Minn. They have three children - Dan, 8, Monika, 6, and Daphne, 2. Sadie also writes a blog at www.dairygoodlife.com. She can be reached at gsfrericks@meltel.net.