Every spring in our part of Canada, the snow melts away, the temperatures start to rise, and everything looks as ugly as it ever would or could. The ground is still too cold for the grass to turn green and there are no leaves on the trees. In fact, many of the leaves from last fall are still scattered about, surrounded by mud and the doggie land mines no one bothered to pick up through the winter. The soil is still frozen solid about ¾ of an inch down, so everywhere you walk the footprints smear like a layer of chocolate pudding on concrete. The sky is always cloudy and grey. The days are still annoyingly short. Let’s be honest, nobody ever took the gallery pictures for their farm website in March.
On the other hand, those of us who have spent our lives outside can still get excited about the days getting marginally longer, the odd day when the sun heats up our backs and that dank worm casting smell in the paddock. Combined with Canada Geese in the pond and the odour of the melting manure pile, it says that summer will soon be here. It also means that the fair-weather riding students will soon be returning like migratory birds, and it’s time to give the place a good spring cleaning.
In and around the barns, winter has a way of allowing things to build up. Sometimes it’s because they’re frozen to the ground, and sometimes it’s because the weather is just too inclement to put things back outside where they really belong. It’s remarkable how items gradually accumulate in the corners of the arena or the walkways or the wash stall – and how quickly and easily the whole place looks infinitely more organized by just putting them away (or at least out of sight). Outside, it’s amazing what will turn up when the snow starts to melt. Many a hoof pick, halter or wheelbarrow that had been assumed stolen or lost forever, will appear out of a snowbank (like Otzi the Tyrolean Iceman), only a few steps from the barn door.
Depending upon the design of your paddocks, paths and barns, flooding can add a lot of unnecessary work to the spring cleaning. Going back to my childhood on a dairy farm, moving snow around in a manner to avoid flooding due to ice dams is a lot of work, but saves a lot more. Also, there are few things more dangerous for horses, people and anything else with legs than the sheets of ice which can result from a thaw followed by a flash freeze. Always keep the surface drainage flowing.
As soon as the ground has firmed up enough to get onto the fields, we like to get all that free fertilizer on the manure pile spread onto the hayfields. Firm ground also means that you can get into the paddocks and do some maintenance. Rake up any hay that got left on the ground and stabilize muddy areas with woodchips (I get mine by following Hydro tree crews around). Some people like to get out on the paddocks with a roller too, and there are lots of agronomic reasons why that’s good for getting the turf to green up quickly. There are literally entire books written on the advantages of rolling turf on golf courses, and grass is grass. I’ve read all those books and research papers, because my life is a carnival.
Spring is also an excellent time for pruning the trees and bushes which often try to overtake the farm and fence lines in particular. Pruning ought to be done early enough that the plants are still dormant (unless you’d really prefer that the plant wasn’t as healthy as it is). It’s also a lot less work to carry away branches without leaves on them. Speaking of fences, it’s a lot easier to assess the work that needs to be done on the fences before the grasses, weeds and underbrush get growing – and it’s also a lot easier to carry out those repairs.
While I admit that spring cleaning might not be the most fun set of jobs in the world, and that it’s still cold and grey while you’re doing it, there’s no question that for those of us who’ve been around for a while that getting these jobs done early certainly make it easier to enjoy the warm days when the world finally does start to green up. Nobody wants to spend the first 20-degree day raking when you could be riding in the woods.