If you’re a fan of actor Andy Griffith or vintage television shows, you might think that my column’s title is a misprint. Griffith starred as Ben Matlock, a criminal defense attorney, in the TV series “Matlock” from 1986 to 1995. It was a fine show, but “mattock” is what I meant to write here.

You get bonus points if you recognize the term, mattock, as being a long-handled hand tool with a handle-mounted head having a horizontal ax blade on one end and a pick on the other. It is also known as a “grub ax” and is used for “digging, prying and chopping,” according to Wikipedia. If this term is new to you, don’t feel bad — I never heard of it either until a few weeks ago when Dennis announced he was in the market for one. I used Google to see what he wanted to buy.

Why was this purchase so necessary? The two of us have been trying to clear out an over-accumulation of sheep and goat manure from a small barn since last fall. It’s a job I always took care of by myself until four years ago, when my fervid newly retired state caused me to tackle too many tough tasks too quickly. Overusing my left hip to repeatedly pivot as I unloaded my fork or shovel into a wheelbarrow led to a repetitive motion injury. It left me barely able to walk at the time, and still haunts me to this day.

As I kept waiting for my hip to recuperate, the sheep and goats kept manufacturing manure. During two different periods, they were also joined at times by beef cattle who temporarily used the same pasture and barn, and added their manure to the mix, too. The real problem was that, this small-scale barn might have been state of the art when constructed around 1901, but those were the days when manpower did most of the work. Thus, this structure’s narrow doorway and narrower pens preclude the use of a tractor to scrape manure out.

Several times in the past, we intermittently had outside assistance that had tackled portions of the manure accumulation, but their efforts were always undone faster than they were able to work. Finally, Dennis and I took matters into our own hands last fall, and started attacking the stubborn manure with him using a small rototiller to break it up and me using a shovel and garden cart to remove it. We didn’t get very far before cold weather arrived, the beef herd returned to the barn, and our time for extra projects evaporated.

This spring, we made it our goal that — one way or another — the sheep barn was going to be thoroughly cleaned out. We started out with help from Dennis’ son and his teenage helper, but then the hot weather set in and no one wanted to labor in the sweltering sheep barn.

On cooler summer days, Dennis and I returned to the sheep and goat stable armed with a pitchfork, two scrapers and two shovels. As I had discovered over the past several winters of shoveling corn silage from the second floor of our main barn to the feed cart below, the secret to not aggravating my hip pain was being sure not to pivot on either hip. Rather, if I carefully turned both feet separately to point in the direction I was unloading my shovel and did so straight on, life was good.

It was after almost ruining his rototiller, which bounced right off the top of the stubborn accumulation of manure, that Dennis decided to invest in a mattock. It is a fearsome looking tool-and did an awesome job of freeing the manure from the concrete floor of the sheep and goats’ quarters.

As Dennis hacked away with his mattock, I shoveled manure chunks into the bucket of our trusty little Kubota, parked outside the sheep barn’s pasture door. I purposely used a small coal shovel, so I wouldn’t be tempted to lift heavier than I should. Being sure to bend my knees on the pickup and not pivot on the toss became my recipe for success.

After only four installments of “manuring out” spaced over three weeks, Dennis and I gladly announce that this burdensome job is finished. We’ve disinfected the concrete floors and covered them with wood shavings and straw.

Ironically, the only ones that weren’t satisfied with our work were the sheep and goats. You’ve heard of “road rage,” but this was “goat (and sheep) rage.” They didn’t appreciate being displaced during our manure maneuvers. Although too skittish to remain inside while we worked, they would run inside between loads, then either flee again or, in some cases, snort and stamp hooves angrily when our activities resumed. You’d think they’d be happy to have a clean environment, but they apparently viewed our manure removal as depriving them of their “memory foam” manure mattress layer between them and the floor.

My takeaway from all this — other than keeping after manure removal more promptly — is why pay for a gym membership when you can get a great work-out for free? See a local farmer and ask him if he needs a hand.

Sue Bowman is a freelance writer in southeastern Pennsylvania.

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