If necessity is the mother of invention, then distraction is the father of disaster.

About the time I was old enough to shovel manure from the gutter to the wheelbarrow, my dad switched to seasonal dairying. With no need for the barn during the winter and no feasible way to heat it, the water lines, drinking cups, and barn cleaner were removed. Yes, the barn cleaner was removed. I've never asked why.

As a result, my definition of barn cleaning grew to include the aforementioned wheelbarrow, a good shovel and the better part of an afternoon. So, it's not hard to imagine how, when we moved to this farm, cleaning barn quickly became one of my favorite chores. Here, all I have to do is flip the gutter covers up and flip a couple switches - manuring out is that easy.

The caveat, however, is that the barn cleaner and manure pump are highly susceptible to severe damage should the barn cleaner chain come apart and fall into the manure pump. Dad never really had to worry about us kids breaking anything while cleaning barn - maybe that's why he bid adieu to the barn cleaner.

To prevent such a calamity, we have a policy that whoever is cleaning barn must be standing within about five steps of the switches when the manure pump is running. Shoveling the gutters out by hand is something we never hope to experience while farming here - shoveling 17 stalls worth of relatively shallow gutter as a teenager built character; shoveling 58 stalls worth of much deeper gutter would surely lead to serious marital discord.

Barn cleaner break down

Dan was helping me clean barn from his stroller the other night. I was trying to take advantage of his undivided attention by working on nursery rhymes with him. After a couple rounds of "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" and "The Eensy Weensy Spider," I figured it was about time to start the manure pump and went to check the manure level in the hopper.

I turned to walk over to the hopper and my heart leapt into my throat: there was no barn cleaner chain in the section of gutter immediately in front of me.

"Oh, [manure]," I thought and flew back to shut the barn cleaner off. "Where's the chain?" was my next thought. It couldn't be down in the hopper. I hadn't heard anything at all while entertaining Dan. The chain had separated one other time and fell into the hopper, creating a racket that could be heard from the front of the barn.

Trying to quell my panic, I began to inspect the chain. Sure enough. There, where the barn cleaner chain comes around the sprocket after dropping its freight into the hopper, was a good sized pile of barn cleaner chain stuck under the arm of the flight scraper.

"Whew," was my sigh of relief. No chain in the hopper, which was half-full by now.

I grabbed the hook and pulled the chain from under the scraper, which dislodged one of the links. I couldn't tell for sure, but it looked like the link went overboard.

"Double [manure]," I muttered before remembering my audience.

Now it was time to go find Glen. I was planning to summon him as soon as I'd straightened the chain, because it's much easier to reconnect the chain with two people. But this development required his help now: if that link was in the hopper, I'd never be able to fish it out on my own; my arms just aren't long enough and laying down on my belly to extend my reach isn't an option.

"Um, I need your help with the barn cleaner. The chain came apart."

"Did any of it fall in?"

"Um, I don't know."

"What do you mean, 'I don't know?'"

"Well, one of the links came off while I was straightening the chain and I think it might have fallen into the hopper. It didn't sound like a link fell in, so I don't know for sure if it did or not."

We walked back to the barn cleaner together. After pulling the chain back into place it became clear there was indeed a missing link. Glen grabbed the hook, lowered himself to the floor and went fishing. After a couple swipes through the manure the hook bumped into something definitely not manure. To my relief, it didn't take long for him to snag the link and pull it up. (I had already been envisioning Glen's trip down into the hopper to find the link by hand.)

We reassembled the chain without any trouble and I was soon back in business. Needless to say, the experience was a good reminder of a lesson I'm sure every farmer learns at a young age: there is no room for distraction when operating equipment.

In this case, disaster wasn't the price paid for my lack of attention to the job at hand, but only because I hadn't yet started the manure pump.