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Blane Klemek column for July 5: Naturalist reminisces about farm boy days

When the farm boy of endless summers becomes the man of limited sunrises, the man sometimes reflects longingly on those boyhood days of boundless energy, imagination, and freedom.

In the days of youth, life beyond the barnyards, fields, pastures and woods - though indeed thought of from time to time - seemed much too remote to ever arrive, much less even care about.

You see, the future to a boy faced with the unenviable task of ridding a calf pen of a reeking mixture of manure, was frequently no more distant than when the last manure spreader would finally be filled, spread over the field, and, at last, the loathsome job completed.

With nothing more than a four-tine pitchfork, the boy's sore, yet still developing biceps and forearms, ached from prying loose countless slabs of excrement and heaving forkful after forkful through an open barn window into the empty manure spreader parked outside.

It was there, after all, in the great out-of-doors, where the boy really wanted to be; in the woods, exploring, thinking about things, hunting with his dog - not inside the putrid smelling calf pen.

In due time, however, and inspired by progress, additional trips to the field riding atop that delightful open-air H-Farmall tractor pulling the manure spreader, and with an end in sight, the boy fulfills his father's Saturday morning orders.

Who knew where Dad toiled; maybe a trip to town to get "parts" or whatever, it mattered not. For the boy was left alone to do a man's job, and a man's job he did.

If it was a Saturday, and depending on the season, the boy could expect working somewhere on the farm after the milking was done and breakfast eaten. If it was spring, he might be picking rock, plowing, disking, dragging a grain field, or trapping pocket gophers (and for as long as he would live, the smell of moist black dirt in the coolness of springtime evenings, along with the sounds of drumming ruffed grouse, winnowing snipe, and singing meadowlarks, will forever be his fondest of memories).

Wintertime had its own set of challenges for the boy. It was hard for him to get out from under the bedcovers when his dad called his name. From the bottom of the stairs, well before sunrise, the boy heard his father's booming voice calling him to "rise and shine" and help with the milking and morning chores. Sometimes the boy pretended to get up in order to sleep just five minutes longer.

The 30-foot-tall statuesque concrete silo, standing snug-up against the barn and filled to the top with sweet smelling fermented chopped corn silage, offered another challenge for the growing and dreaming boy.

Instructed to feed hungry cattle and to load a silage wagon full of the green forage and haul it home with the tractor, the task, which would take a grown man perhaps no more than an hour to complete, would typically take the boy two hours, usually longer.

Tools of the trade included a multi-tined, two-foot wide, short and stout silage fork; its wood handle, fashioned like a grain scoop's, was as big around as a sapling. Heaped and heavy loads of silage could be piled onto the fork and tossed through open silo doors for cascading trips to the silo room below.

Periodically, following several forkfuls of silage tumbling down and against the inside of the galvanized tin chute in loud "whooshing" sounds, the boy would stick his head through the door, peer down the chute, and gauge his progress by the size of the steaming pile below.

Such a job was normally winter work. An ice pick, a tool used to chop through the frozen and moldy six to eight-inch top layer, was necessary to reach the green and warm silage underneath.

Once this layer was removed and the seal was broken, wonderful aromas spewed from the candy-like smelling silage. The powerful scent of sweetness filled the boy's nostrils and, oddly enough, reminded him of his own hunger and approaching suppertime.

After supper in the old farmhouse, the second milking of the day commenced. The cows' mangers had been previously swept clean and neat piles of ground oats and corn, mixed with mineral, salt and molasses, sometimes soybeans, would be fed to each cow. They would eagerly devour their feed and lick the concrete spotless with their raspy tongues.

To this day, the boy remembers all of the cows' names - those 27 Holstein Friesian, cud chewing, somewhat docile beasts: Daisy, Darkie, Clover, Dixie and Pixie. There was Bossy, an almost pure white Holstein, who was nervous and would often kick the milker off.

Polly, a lanky and horned bovid, wore a cowbell in the summertime. The boy can still hear that steady "dong, dong" as she grazed or walked.

Another notable cow was Stub. She was the homeliest cow of the herd. She had only half a tail, stubby ears and a skin condition that caused hair loss and scabs across her back. Yet, despite her appearance, Stub out-produced all but one other milk cow in the barn.

Indeed, the boy soon grew up and left the farm for "greener pastures", or so he thought.

He remembers the pure joy of hunting gray squirrels and ruffed grouse throughout the farm's wooded acres; he's nostalgic about the scent of freshly cut alfalfa hay, the feeling of sweat dripping from his brow as he worked on the farm, the pulsating sounds of milkers in the barn ... he remembers it all ... even today, especially so, as he gets out and enjoys the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at