If a Tree Falls in the Pasture

If a tree falls in the pasture, and the farmer isn’t there, does it make a sound? I’m sure it does, but it can also do a whole lot more. And the farmer had better be ready.

A couple of weeks ago, we noticed that a goat or two was regularly getting out of the pasture. Pretty much every afternoon, we would look out in the hay field and see the main breeding buck and one other member of the herd. It wasn’t a real shocker, because he’s the master of escape … and wherever he goes, some other goat (or goats) figure out how to join him. Because the escapees were limiting themselves to munching the high weeds along the fence, and because it was just a goat or two each day, I sort of shrugged my shoulders.

As time passed, however, a larger number of goats would show up in the hay field. What’s more, they started showing up a lot earlier in the day. I asked the Yeoman Farm Children to walk the fence between the hay field and the pasture, and figure out what was going on.

They reported back that it appeared the fence was sagging between two T-posts, most likely because one of the fence ties had come loose. They re-tied it, thinking this had solved the problem.

It didn’t. The next day, the goats were back in the hay field.

The YFCs observed that some of the T-posts were kind of far apart, which can also lead to a sagging fence. They added some posts, and even tied an old tomato cage to the top of the fence in one place, to further discourage jumping.

The next morning, pretty much the whole goat herd was in the hay field. And they’d long stopped limiting themselves to browsing the fence line. They were moving like a roving mob, getting uncomfortably close to the road. I asked our oldest daughter to lock the goats into their enclosure near the barn, and walk the entire fence line of the goat pasture (not just the stretch that borders the hay field), and find the problem.

About an hour later, she reported on her findings. Along the back part of the property, near the ridge, a large chunk of a large tree had come down on the fence. But that wasn’t the worst part of it. “You’re not going to like this, Daddy,” she said. The tree hadn’t just taken out the fence. It had also landed on a goat, which had been right there at the fence. It was a smallish one, and one we’re not milking, so nobody had missed it. But it’d been tangled up with the fence, under that tree, in the sweltering summer sun, for a while. My daughter warned me that “You’ll smell it before you see it,” and that the tree would not be easy to move. We would definitely need the chainsaw.

The chainsaw. A couple of years ago, I invested in a really good Stihl Farm Boss. We’d had a succession of cheap chainsaws over the years, and each one had failed us at a critical juncture. I can’t emphasize enough how valuable a good quality chainsaw, kept in good working condition, is for a farm. When you really need a chainsaw, as in the our current situation, you really need it to get the job done.

When shopping for the saw, I knew I wanted a Stihl (because of their reputation for quality). I was tired of messing around with bargain saws. Even within the Stihl line, I was willing to spend a little extra to get a more powerful model. And when it came to the option of spending a few more dollars to get the 20″ bar rather than the 18″, I didn’t hesitate. I imagined myself trying to clear an especially large fallen tree, and not having quite enough length to do it. How much would those extra inches be worth to me then? I must say, I have not been the least bit disappointed in this saw. I highly recommend it.

The one downside to a powerful chainsaw with a long bar? It’s heavy. Getting a vehicle to where the tree had fallen was a bit tricky, so I set out across the pasture on foot. With the afternoon sun beating down, the saw seemed to grow heavier with each step.

Tree in Pasture.jpg

Note the fence, to the left. Goat (not visible) was alongside that fence, at the base of the tree, when it came down.

Okay, fair warning. This next part is a little (or more than a little) disgusting. I include it to dispel the notion anyone out there might have about small farm life being all romantic, with sunshine and lollipops and rainbows. Sometimes, there are extremely unpleasant tasks that simply must be addressed no matter what.

So, back to the story. My daughter was right about one thing: I did smell the goat (or, more properly, what was left of the goat) before I saw it. But, before I smelled it, a different sense told me I was getting close: I heard it. Or, more precisely, I heard the swarm of flies.

Once I had my eye and ear protection in place, I fired up the saw. I decided to start at the point farthest from the fence and work my way toward the goat. Since the whole tree would need to be cut up for firewood anyway, I figured I’d ease slowly into the most unpleasant portion.

Remember what I was saying earlier about the importance of having a good quality chainsaw, kept in good working condition? Yeah, about that. As I started cutting, I noticed it was taking a long time even to trim smallish branches. Getting through the trunk itself was even slower going. That’s when I realized how long it’d been since I’d used the saw. I’d forgotten how much wear this particular cutting chain had on it. I had a new chain I could put on the bar, but it was in the garage. On the other end of that very long walk across the pasture that now seemed very large.

I formulated a plan. I would use what was left of this chain to cut the tree fairly close to the fence, yielding a smallish log that could be rolled off of the goat, which would allow us to repair the fence. Once that immediate problem was solved, I could replace the chain and finish cutting up the rest of the tree at my convenience.

I thought it was a pretty good plan. I crept as close as I could to the base of the fallen tree, took a deep breath, and started cutting. The saw made it about halfway through when the log began settling. The cut portion closed in on itself, binding the bar and chain. I’d tried to avoid this by making cuts around the sides of the log, but these were apparently not effective enough. Much as I tried to rev the saw, I couldn’t overcome the binding force. I tried shaking the saw, and pushing the log; the only effect was to stir up the swarm of flies which had been busy laying eggs on what was left of the goat. I could hear the roar of their wings even with my ear protection in place. And all that movement of the log of course further stirred up the rotting smell from the carcass.

With the saw stuck firmly in the log, I was out of options. I made the long trek back to the garage, and wasted a good 15 minutes looking for any tools that could help free the saw. The kids had misplaced the long pry bar, and the sledgehammer had also vanished. After excavating a bunch of junk, I eventually found where both of them were hiding.

I trudged back across the pasture, lugging the heavy pry bar and sledgehammer, now finally understanding why so many farmers and ranchers own an ATV. I still don’t think we would use one enough to justify the cost, but I was definitely giving it more serious consideration.

It didn’t take long to work the pry bar into the partially-cut log. By whacking it a few times with the sledge, I managed to spread the log just enough to work the chainsaw free (and, of course, stir up the swarm of flies again).

The saw seemed to have survived its capture by the log, but the chain was not going to be doing any more cutting today. Not only was it too dull, but it was hanging far too loosely on the bar. Bone tired, covered with sweat and sawdust, my nostrils filled with the smell of rotting goat, I decided I was done. Back across the pasture I went, chainsaw in one hand and pry bar / sledgehammer in the other.

Once in the garage, I went to work on the chainsaw. Much as I wanted to flop down for a nap, I knew better than to leave the saw in its current condition. I pulled everything apart, cleaned it up, and fit a new chain to the bar. Once it was put back together and adjusted to the proper tension, I topped off the fuel and oil reservoirs.

Unfortunately, I could not get the saw to fire up. I hoped that the motor was simply flooded from all the struggle to free it, and that the problem would go away with the passage of time. Regardless, it was a good excuse to retreat to a couch in my air conditioned office for some much-deserved rest.

Later that evening, to satisfy my curiosity, I tried firing up the saw again. This time, it came to life almost immediately. Relieved, I put it (and the pry bar, and the sledge) away for the night.

The next afternoon, my body still aching from the previous day’s exertions, I again trudged across the pasture with the saw. This time, I took the pry bar (and chain adjustment tool) with me, just in case.

I decided to retry the original plan, and began cutting far away from the fence. Thanks to the new chain, chunks of log began dropping like I was going through butter. I only needed the pry bar once (but was I ever glad I’d thought to bring it). This time, I stopped cutting the instant I noticed the log starting to bind the saw; it required only minimal prying to free. Within a few minutes, I was down to the fence and making my final cuts (while holding my breath and trying not to smell the rotting goat or suck any flies into my throat). I was feeling such a sense of accomplishment, and was on such a roll, I began looking around for other downed trees I could cut up. The saw made short work of a nearby cottonwood trunk that I’d cut some of last fall.

The remaining task was by far the most unpleasant: putting the fence wire back in place. We would need some twine to tie the fence material to the remaining tree, all the while working around the rotting goat carcass (there’s no way it could be moved). This would be a two person job, and I unfortunately didn’t have any YFC helpers available. The goats would be staying in for at least another day, which isn’t the worst thing in the world. We have plenty of weeds from the garden to toss in for them to feast on, and they could even be let into the backyard for short periods to do additional weed control.

You may be wondering: how will we get the cut-up pieces of log back to the house, to be split and aged for firewood? It is possible to get a vehicle out there, but it’s a long and circuitous route that involves a lot of gates. (It’s significantly more direct on foot.) In the next couple of days, my plan is to drive out in an old minivan. With all the seats removed, and a tarp spread on the floor, it will be able to transport all that wood fairly easily. Between me and the 17 y.o. boy, loading it shouldn’t be much trouble. The circuitous drive out and back may even take more time than loading the wood.

Once we get these particular logs split, I think I’m going to stack them in a special place so I can keep track of them. As I toss them into the woodstove next winter, I will particularly savor the cozy heat. And remind myself why it’s so important to keep a good quality chainsaw in perfect running condition. Always.

 

 

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