A living barn

Tails from Beacon Hill Farm
Fri, 10/06/2017 - 10:15am
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It’s only a barn.

Four walls, large hay loft, three horse stalls. A barn is usually the simplest of buildings with few windows, a few large doors, no plumbing, maybe a few overhead lights. Could have one staircase to the hay loft but sometimes just a ladder suffices. No heating system, cold during the winter and warm in the summer, so we open the gable vents. There is no insulation, just bare boards where sunlight sometimes shines through. There are beams supporting the entire building, which holds many hundreds of bales of hay above the living quarters of many animal types. The barn is painted red with white trim and the ritualistic white “x” marks across the doors in true farming nostalgia. 

There are small barns, large barns; most characteristic are the lean-to additions to every barn, back, side and front. There never is enough barn space. Owners of farms almost always have “out buildings,” or more areas for stuff. Loft space is of great importance if you have animals. Most farm animals need hay, which has to be stored high and dry. The hay is harvested usually on the hottest early days of summer, like the Fourth of July. The family unites to help pull it off the trailer then place it on the hay elevator dumping it into the open hayloft door. The biggest job is cutting the hay, baling the hay, then loading it on the tractor driven trailer piling it high. All of that is done at our farm by John Littlefield, who then oversees the stacking of the hay in the loft, usually with some help. There is then enough hay for the entire winter. 

This all sounds so simple that you might think that to be the end of the story, when in fact that is only the beginning. A barn on an active farm is a complicated composite of many life forms, large and small. Naturally the largest are the horses, then usually cows but we have none, then the donkeys. The barn is their shelter and their refuge and they leave their open stalls just before daybreak, returning at dusk. Only with hard rain, cold wind and snow will they stay in for the day. They might venture in to escape the flies on a hot summer day. With an abundance of green grass our horses are free to come and go, not so at a stabled horse farm. A horse with freedom to graze has little stress and will have an above average life expectancy. 

Next in line are the donkeys, full size burros which are the pickup trucks of the third world. Our donkeys don’t pick up anything but are very social, sleep on the ground or floor like a dog, whereas a horse sleeps standing. Don’t get upset to see a horse lying in a field, they will on occasion. The donkeys have their own stalls since the horses tend to bully them. 

We have three miniature goats that aren’t so miniature anymore. A goat house was prepared for them years ago but they prefer to be with the horses especially when it gets cold. So as to not get stomped we built elevated platforms for the goats in the horse stalls making them eye to eye with the horses. Jumping to the platforms is nothing for a goat. They are free to come and go without fencing but never leave. Except Pig Boy that followed hikers one day to Aldo’s for ice cream. 

The stalls are interconnected so the horses may mingle. The three large doors are open all summer but two are closed in winter. If we were to close the remaining door it would be shattered by morning. Don’t forget that the stalls need “mucking out” each day, shoveled and swept clean to not attract flies. Try to make this someone’s chore.

As we slide down the size scale of animals we come to the chickens. All of our free-range chicks have coops and egg boxes but somehow the barn has attracted them also so a long roost was built along the back of the horse stalls close enough to the wall that droppings won’t fall on a horse, donkey, or goat. It started in winter when chicks realized there was steam heat above a horse. There are now egg boxes along the back wall where most of our eggs are laid. So much for chicken coops. We do have a loft staircase enabling our barn cats to sleep or have their young in the hay loft. By early summer a cat family will slowly emerge out onto the farm and we have free kittens. We love our barn cats and we have no rats.

This summer, another family arrived in a nest over a barn light fixture. Four baby barn swallows, which is only appropriate for an open barn, made their way to the edge of the nest, sitting and waiting for mom and dad to give the signal and off they went. So you see a barn can have a lot going on besides hay storage and a shelter for many animals.

A barn is not lifeless, just sitting there full of hay — looking all pretty barn-red or dilapidated barn-brown — waiting for someone to place its picture on a calendar. It can be so much more than that and a living breathing animal domicile, a home to many living creatures.