A Lamb’s Life

Winter: It was 24 degrees the morning No. 28 was born. Sleet pellets bounced off my old Carhartt jacket and the sky was slate gray when I headed out on my early morning rounds. The two cups of hot coffee helped little in warding off the chill wind as I rushed through my outdoor chores before reaching the relative warmth of the barn.

Entering a barn during lambing season involves careful observation: Who is soon to lamb, and is anyone showing signs of a distressed labor? Who has lambed already, and are all lambs up and nursing? The experienced mother will keep close track of her offspring, protecting them from the scrum of other sheep, but a first-time mother is easily unnerved and will often rush outside without her newborns, trailing the afterbirth, oblivious to what is expected of her in this new role in life.

On this particular morning, January 6th, a handful of fresh faces greeted me — the most exciting, twins born to our favorite ewe, No. 1333. No. 1333 is a large, handsome ewe who is uncommonly friendly, always standing still to receive a good scratching. As in the previous lambing season, she had just given birth to a male and a female. Much to our disappointment, she had lost the last year’s ewe lamb in a freak accident. We were anxious that nothing go wrong this time.

Later in the day, we eartagged No. 28 and her twin, 29. Eventually, we’d finish the season with 44 lambs, but in this first week of the year, lambing was just getting started. Other than the identifying numbers, the twins were soon indistinguishable from the mass of other lambs, running in and out of the larger flock, occasionally pummeling the udders of their moms.

Spring: Unlike the long and devastating drought of the previous year, this winter and spring’s rains had created a lush growth by April. It became a daily occurrence for us to remark on the change in landscape, as the unnatural browns gave way to the deepest greens. The lambs and ewes were turned out on new grass and thrived. For hours on end we’d watch the youngsters, tumbling about in soft grass at play, interrupted only by a mother’s bleat or a long, sun-warmed nap. Throughout the season, the inevitable deaths occurred: the lamb born at night that managed to roll outside the barn and die from the elements; the one I had to dispatch mercifully after it was stepped on by the flock and broke its back.

Summer: Mild temperatures and steady rain, a record hay crop, and modest garden success provided the backdrop as our little No. 28 transformed into a hardy, large-framed weanling. In June we separated the babies from their mothers. For the next few days, the moms would crowd one gate, the lambs another, fifty yards between them, and bleat. Loudly. Day and night. Another couple of days and the moms turned their attention back to the grass; a couple more and the lambs finally followed suit. Weaning accomplished, quiet restored.

Fall: It was an October evening during the late Indian summer, as we headed out to a dinner with friends, that we spotted a lamb lying down in the tall grass of the bottom pasture, noticeable by its isolation from the flock. We stopped the car and walked out to the field. There she was, No. 28, head up, alert, but unmoving.

Sheep are prey animals. They don’t lie down and stay down until they’re physically unable to go anymore. A quick check of the lamb’s gums revealed an unhealthy lack of color. Seemingly overnight, she had lost all of her body fat. We grabbed a wheelbarrow, put her in for the ride, and I pushed her up the long hill to the barn. We secured her in a stall and went on to dinner.

Over the next several days, we treated her with two different types of wormers. For us, worming is an infrequent occurrence. All sheep have some internal parasites, but we select and cull based on an individual sheep’s ability to carry a small enough “worm load” that she thrives without repeated use of parasiticides.

Each morning, we’d bring a bucket of warm water and mild soap to the barn and sponge off the accumulated scouring (diarrhea) from No. 28’s rear legs. After the second wormer was administered, the feces became solid, well formed — not what you’d expect from a lamb with a heavy parasite load. At that point we began to suspect something else was at work, since No. 28 remained alert, yet still unable to stand.

The day before we found her lying in the lower field, our 200-pound ram had managed to breach a fence and spend the night with our ewe lambs. Our new working hypothesis was that the ram had attempted to breed the developing young ewe and caused some nerve damage.

Having ascertained that her back was not broken, we rigged up a makeshift sling of saddle girths in hopes of retraining No. 28 to stand. For the next three days, we placed her in the sling three times a day with her feet just touching the ground. We would exercise each leg, moving it forward and backward, side to side. Through all of this, the ewe lamb continued to have a healthy appetite. We were committed to nursing her as long as the possibility of recovery still existed. But recovery was not to be.

On the morning of the fourth day, when I entered the barn, No. 28 was lying upright, but her head was extended forward onto the hay. This is never a good sign, but we were both loathe to give up on her too soon. We were anxious to preserve both her genetics and her life. She remained a calm, affectionate lamb, seemingly glad to have you stroke her head even in her distress.

Leaving the barn, I headed out to finish bush-hogging an upper pasture. We had a cold front coming in around midday and were expecting rain. It was a few hours before I made my noonday hospital visit to the patient. This time, when I approached, her neck was stretched out in the hay, her body limp, like a balloon with a slow leak. Her eyes still followed me, but without the usual spark. This was an act in a play that we had seen too many times. She was going to die — it was now just a matter of when.

I walked slowly back to the house. I picked up my 30-30 and returned to the barn. The lamb’s labored breathing was audible when I opened the stall gate. I raised the rifle and shot her between and just above both watching eyes. She died instantly.

Outside, the cold rain began to fall on the valley. I went back to the house, gun in my hand, breathing in the smell of the rain, of this season, aware of this rhythm, this awful beauty in the dying of the year. But I continued to look ahead, on another cold day in early January, to when the next lambing season begins on our farm, always in hope and sometimes in death.

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Reading this weekend: The Art of Loading Brush: new agrarian writings, by Wendell Berry. And, The Lean Farm: how to minimize waste, increase efficiency, and maximize value and profits with less work, by Ben Hartman. Both, seemingly at odds with each other upon first glance.

Farm Mornings: The tasks before the tasks

January, in theory, should be a slower month on the farm. So forgive my pique this Saturday morning when the rooster — who should be sleeping in on these post-solstice, light-deprived days —begins crowing before dawn. Opening my eyes for a squint, I read the red glow of the clock at 5:58. I close my eyes and try to drift back off to sleep. After what seems many more minutes, I chance another glance: 6:02.

Resigned, I drag myself from under the covers, gather up my overalls, and feel my way downstairs in the darkness to start the morning coffee. The 6 o’clock hour is my natural wakeup time without an alarm clock, regardless, so nothing lost.

Over coffee I contemplate the to-do list of the day, then dress and head out into the cold. Of late, our morning chores seem to have expanded. Currently we have pigs in three different paddocks. Water needs to be checked, feed delivered, bedding inspected, back scratches administered. Caesar, the draft horse, needs hay, his fresh manure shoveled and added to a growing compost pile, and the gate opened to his pasture, which in mid-January has little grass, yet still manages to absorb him all day in the search.

The hens take the least time in the morning: simply open the gate of the chicken run to the outside world, scatter a bit of grain, and let them do what they do best — chase cold-hardy bugs and get chased in return by the amorous rooster. We collect eggs in the evening, what little there are in these short winter days, saving that extra step in the morning.

In the sequence of chores, I usually check on the sheep, but this morning I decide to first feed the cattle, who get fed every other day. That requires fueling, then warming up the tractor, scooping out a bucket of grain, and putting hay spears on the front and back of the tractor. The bucket of grain is just an enticement, a path to the bovine heart, as it is for all God’s creatures.

The cattle are in the back forty, a half-mile’s journey through the woods. They meet me at the gate leading to the upper pastures. After a bit of jockeying so the tractor can get through (a nod of thanks to Becky, our English shepherd), I continue up the hill to the feed trough. I toss the grain in, count heads, and drive to another field, where I roll back a tarp to uncover a stack of round bales, then pick up a bale with the front spear, turn the tractor around, and lance another on the back hay spear.

Bales fore and aft, I head back across the fields to the cattle. While they are busy licking the trough, I roll out a hay bale across 50 yards of pasture. This allows them to eat as if grazing, and fertilizes along the path in the process.

Cattle counted, fed, and content, I climb back on the tractor and head back through the woods to the lower portion of the farm.  I arrive to find our weekend helper, armed with a to-do list from Cindy, busy loading hay in the barn to carry to the pigs in the woods. An arctic blast is coming, and we need to make sure they have plenty of hay in which to burrow down.

lambs 007

Two ewe-lambs born the next morning.

Our helper greets me by asking if I have seen the new twin lambs. I had not. Two beautiful ram lambs, the first of, we hope, 20 or more, are busy nursing their mom — a wondrous sight, no matter how often witnessed.

Although it is now just 9 a.m. and we have plenty to do the rest of the morning, I feel as if the day is done on our small farm. I turn back from the barn and walk up to the house to catch up with Cindy. She had been busy separating and attending to the new mom and lambs, but I find her inside, just hanging up the phone. She is off to another farm to collect a gilt (a young female pig) who’s been with a neighbor’s boar the past few days. I grab another cup of coffee and go back outside, to begin anew a slow January farm day.

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Reading this weekend: rereading selections from In Your Stride by A.B. Austin, a guide to walking England written in 1931