Early Spring in the Barn

Reader Contribution by Laura Berlage and North Star Homestead Farms
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Kara with her first two sheep, Sweet and Heart.  Photo by Ann Berlage 

As we continue to celebrate our barn turning 100 this year, it’s interesting to recount how the structure has been utilized over the years, including today. 

With the Fullingtons (who were the original homesteaders of the farm, starting in 1915), the Gambrel center sported a large open door on the barnyard side.  A track still runs in the peak of the roof, which held the massive hay hooks that ran along it, dropping down outside to grab loads of harvested loose hay to drag back inside and store for the winter.  This meant that the main part of the barn served as, essentially, a covered haystack with a grain bin in the front part of the ground level.

The attached shed wings on either side of the barn had long, hinged doors that conveniently swung upward so the farmer could stand in the center part of the barn and fork hay to the livestock in either wing.  Draft horses (an important part of the stump-removal team) were housed in the southern wing, while the northern side was home to Jersey dairy cows.  The cow wing included wooden stanchions scrawled with the names of the animals that sheltered there.

But the cows and horses were long gone when Grandma and Grandpa purchased the farm in 1968.  The fields were then hayed by Jess Ross, who stored some of the crop in the barn.  Haying technology was changing, and square bales, which were fed into the mow with an elevator, replaced the need for the hay hooks.  We still use that rickety elevator, patched up over the years for the once-or-twice-a-season need to reach the mow with second-crop square bales.

Now, instead of horses and dairy cows, the barn has become home for our flock of sheep and farrowing sows (momma pigs).  We started in 2001 with two sheep (Kara originally wanted alpacas, but sheep were more in the budget)—a ewe lamb named “Sweet” and a whether named “Heart.”  Before the barn was restored in 2001, they lived in the north wing of the barn, which was the most structurally sound at the time.

Since the restoration, which included a full concrete floor, a reinforced hay mow, two large sliding doors at the back of the center barn, and a level south wing, the way we use the structure changed again.  Now, ewes enjoy the ground floor of the center barn, while hay is stored in the mow and above the two shed wings.  The south wing currently serves as the maternity ward in lambing or farrowing season—filled with “jug” pens that keep moms and their babies safe in that important early bonding time.

In 2011, we completely renovated the inside of the north wing, transforming the 1940’s era cow parlor into a working sheep dairy, including a raised platform milking parlor (sheep are short, so this helps with the ergonomics).  After the lambs are weaned, the ewes venture twice a day into the parlor to be milked.  That milk is transformed in the dairy at Farmstead Creamery into delicious gelato or cheese.

But in early spring this year, there is neither milking nor lambing happening (since we now lamb in the fall of the year).  Instead, super-fluffy sheep await April’s shearing as they dream of green pastures.  The north wing dairy sits patiently, waiting, while the south wing is alive with the chunky, growing lambs.  They will be eager for pasture this spring as well—getting a chance to run and leap.

In early spring, sometimes the melting snow wants to run into the barn, so Kara diligently kept the snowbanks away from the eastern face.  Now bits of weathered grass have emerged, warmed by the strengthening sunlight.  Sparrows flit in the rafters overhead.  Unlike the chorus of barn swallows, they stayed all winter, snitching feed from the sheep and enjoying the open water of the heated stock tanks. 

The smell of the earth awakening is carried on the spring breezes, even though the ground is still crunchy in the morning.  As the soil thaws, the flooding of the turkey coop (which is downhill of the barn) has mercifully subsided.  The barn sits contentedly in the face of its 100th spring, free of snow on its roof at least for now.  It waits for the swallows to return, for the scurrying chipmunks to awaken in their burrows, and for the echoing calls of Sand Hill cranes that nest in the pastures each summer.

It’s a good feeling when spring is coming on the farm–even if it means mud and muck and inevitable barn cleanings.  I hope you are enjoying the transition towards spring as well.  See you down on the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com

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