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.


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.

A Farm Breviary: Prime

Dawn is an active office, a time for movement and chores, a time when reflection and observation are often drunk on the go, when dark gives way to light and to shadows. Dawn begins the dutiful time of day, when the role of husbanding demands an attentive service. It is a time of rivers.

The back door shuts, a noise, carried to the barnyard as a signal to the ram. He rises and the bell around his neck wakens the flock. They stand and gather together with expectant murmuring, awaiting my arrival. An open gate, a shaken bucket of feed, and the river runs forward, eddies around my legs, erodes my stability, before flooding into the fresh grass: a flock experiencing the full pleasure of an early spring morning. The chickens mirror in lesser volume the actions of their sheep sisters. They stream out of the coop and into the sunlight, bugs and scratch high on their list of priorities.

Below the farm, down the hill at the road, the world of man has begun to reassert a misshapen dominance. A rising water at flood stage, threatening to overwhelm, the road is quickly engorged by the tributaries of commuters in cars and trucks flowing into its main channel. Among them, a school bus moves in and out of the road current, accumulating children, eventually depositing them like a debris field after a storm, to be trained in the finer points of boredom and disengagement.

After an hour or two, the morning flood will subside to a trickle before the mystery reverses itself in late afternoon. In the meantime, my path is a well-trodden one of scheduled rituals, starting with the giving of first food then water to all who need it. I end the dawn office leaning over the paddock fence, watching with pleasure as the pigs enjoy — as only pigs do — their early morning breakfast. A pause in my activities, a quiet few minutes to review the day to come.

I turn from those in my care now fed, the initial flow of morning chores observed, and return to the house for my own breakfast. Overhead, the fine blue sky is now streaked with half a dozen contrails, sad evidence of our misplaced search for wonderment.


Reading this weekend: Wendell Berry and the Given Life, by Ragan Sutterfield.

Woodlot Management in the Anthropocene: Part Three

“A constructive and careful handling of the resources of the earth is impossible except on the basis of large co-operation and of association for mutual welfare.”

— Liberty Hyde Bailey, The Holy Earth


Winged Elm Farm has approximately 40 acres of hardwoods, and last year I posted a couple of pieces on our woodlot management plan, here and here. In them and here, I use the term “Anthropocene,” the period in Earth’s history when the impact of human existence shapes the natural world and climate. I chose that term to distinguish the plan we’ve embarked upon as being a more old-fashioned management approach.

A South Wood Walk 009

A large “wolf” tulip poplar in a new growth woods on our farm.

As we began the process of managing our woodlots, our biggest hurdles were knowledge and the preconceptions of being moderns. Our mindset was geared toward extraction, the basis of our current economy. Our innate resistance to extractive processes like clearcutting was primarily why we had avoided managing the woods at all.

But a Wendell Berry piece three years ago spurred our interest in sustainable management, and a casual review of the 19th century literature based on the knowledge of small farms past showed us a clear path for applying the same model. How markedly different was the approach of those manuals and handbooks — managing woodlands for the benefit of farm and watersheds for future generations — from the “modern” practices of that century and the 20th of the extractive industries.

Last week, as we prepared to take hogs to market and dreamed of the variety of dishes and cuts we were to enjoy, the phrase “nose to tail eating” came to mind. The term is used to describe the process that takes advantage of every bit of the animal. It’s a way to honor the animal’s life and sacrifice.

Hauling Firewood with Ginger 019

One of our Haflinger drafts hauling a small log out of the woods.

The slightly modified term “nose to tail logging” aptly describes a good woodlot management program, the constructive use of every bit of the harvested tree: for our benefit, for the soil’s benefit, for the watershed, for the wildlife, and, most important, for the woodlands’ benefit.

There are innumerable old texts on managing a woodlot, books that describe how to select harvest, reseed, preserve soil, amend and improve the soil. So far, the approach as applied to our farm seems to be working — from selection to lumber, chipping to removal, sowing mushrooms and providing firewood, leaving wildlife habitat to conservation. Future generations will need to be the final judge.

A couple of newish books, too, have helped us flesh out the specific and the larger challenges to sustainable woodlot management.

Paul Stamets’ work, especially his book Mycelium Running, helped reshape the way I viewed the soil and its structure in the forests, a soil as in need of care and replenishment as that in our pastures. And, of course, it opened my eyes to the use of fungi to facilitate those ends.

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Poplar lumber newly cut on our Norwood mill.

But the mindset of extraction lingers as the world’s dominant invasive species. Azby Brown’s recent book, Just Enough: lessons in living green from traditional Japan, helped me correct some of that dominant outlook. A study of the Edo period (early 1600s to mid-1800s), his chapters on farming, and particularly the one titled “Guardians of the forest,” were revelatory. The care and thorough use of all woodland products, the steps to endlessly recycle natural products through multiple generations of use, the care of water sources, waterways, and riparian buffers — all were woven in that period into an overall societal commitment to what we would now call planetary care.

The practices of the traditional Japanese and of our own small-farm woodlot ultimately rely on a larger cultural awareness of the need for such intensive conservation of both the woodland and the products derived from it. The evidence of stress on our Eastern hardwoods from escalating climate change is before us. To be successful in both harvest and preservation will require some old-fashioned individual commitment and a multi-generational commitment by our culture.

Our farm can commit to the first. It remains to be seen if there is the will for the second. And that is the real challenge.

Harvest Season

If there is a single harvest season, this is it. Exceptionally heavy rains in July have rejuvenated the pastures and put the garden on a course of steroids. The corn in neighboring fields seems to double in height weekly. Harvest time adds just one more layer of work to a busy diverse small farm.

On Saturday we had a father-son drive from an hour away to buy Sussex chicks. Our Speckled Sussex hens are likely to go broody anytime of the year but winter. And although we really shouldn’t be surprised after all this time, we’re still stopped in our tracks to see a hen walk from an outbuilding, chicks tumbling around her feet. Many weeks we have an ad out to sell chicks, pullets or cockerels. Both the birth and the selling of the chicks is a type of harvest.

Wendell Berry remarked that his dad’s farm advice was, “Sell something every week.” It’s a reminder that the farm constantly needs to be generating some income. Balancing the outgoing with the incoming is always a struggle. Our farm has its conventional income—selling meat from our hogs, cattle and sheep—and its self-sufficiency “income”—gardening, orchards, small fruits, poultry, firewood and lumber, and foraging and hunting.

It is a point of pride that we haven’t bought meat at a grocery store in 16 years. Providing for ourselves adds joy and confidence in ways that are hard to measure. Providing for customers is a way to pay the bills and to feel valued for the life we live. Don’t under estimate that latter, for without the steady stream of people raving about our pork, beef or mutton, the soul of the farm would drift away into a purgatory.

Throughout July, we have been selling lambs as breeding stock and marketing mutton; foraging wild mushrooms; harvesting tomatoes, eggplant, garlic, onions, and peppers; canning produce and cutting hay for the winter; and selling the odd batch of chicks.

We spent part of yesterday, the second time this season, canning tomatoes. Forty pints is the minimum to get us through winter. We have 36 on the shelves now and can easily double that amount in the next couple of weeks.

That is if one wants to avoid the shame of purchasing at the grocery store what could have provided by one’s own efforts. There is a point each winter when the hens fail to provide. That’s when I find myself in the grocery, skulking around like a man buying pornography, with a dozen eggs clutched close at hand. That perceived shame is the special preserve of the small farm.

Harvest continued today with honey from the hives, a small amount for our own use, about 30 pounds. That may seem like a lot, but between making mead and using honey for most of our sugar needs, it seems to disappear fast.Honey 3 001

We still call these months the harvest season. But if I approached the term with the right mindset, I would say that “harvest season” is really 12 months long. Even in the deep of winter, the land and the farm provide. Cutting and storing firewood, hammering plugs of oyster mushrooms into stumps, bringing in armloads of turnip greens on a cold December day—all are acts as surely a part of harvest as the plucking and eating of a ripe tomato in July.

Regardless of the “when,” a careful harvest, with work and planning, is renewable, an object lesson in resource use we would all be wise to learn and relearn.


Reading this weekend: Peter May’s The Blackhouse and Todd Openheimer’s The Flickering Mind.

Basic Farm Lessons

The Lessons:

  1. Hogs: After you have been face down in the muck with pigs thundering over your body, check for broken bones first, launch temper tantrum second.
  2. To-do lists: Whatever I did with my time in the city, my farm to-do list makes that former “active” life seem downright sedentary.
  3. Phone calls: “Are you missing any cattle?” This question usually translates into, “You are missing cattle. And they are on the highway (or in my front yard or garden).”
  4. Fencing: First, it is never done. Second, even a secure fence means nothing to a hungry steer or a horny bull. I’ve watched steers clear a five-foot-high fence flat-footed and bulls uproot a 10-foot-wide gate from its hinges to enjoy the company of a cow in heat.
  5. Deer hunters: They routinely cut fencing, nail slats up trees for steps, leave behind deer stands, screw peanut butter jars onto trees, disturb the quiet and take a one-time permission to hunt as license to spend the winter in your woods. That said, if the sheer number of deer in the landscape is any indication … they are mostly lousy shots.
  6. Closing gates: The injunction to close the gate behind you means it should also be latched. Just pulling it closed doesn’t count. Trust me.
  7. Number of muscles: Most folks have no idea how many muscles are contained in the body. But I know, because over the past 16 years each has hurt at one time or another.
  8. Bad weather: When the temperature is in the 20s and the wind is blowing with gale force and you’re facing the elements as snow and sleet slants sideways, you tuck your head and keep working. Because the sow that needs shelter for farrowing can’t build it herself.
  9. Life and death: Wendell Berry’s “The Mad Farmer” says: “Listen to carrion—put your ear close, and hear the faint chattering of the songs to come.” The cycles of life, just barely understood when I lived in the city, are an intimate presence of each day on the farm.
  10. Watch the skies: A circle of vultures over the back pasture is the signal that there is a newborn calf or a dead yearling steer.
  11. Farm life: No one ever reminisces about summers spent with Grandma in her suburban rancher. Our race memories are of the land, and the land is where we return.

Don’t Come Back In Until Dinner

I grew up in a household with strict rules. Foremost among them: Get out of the house. When not in school we were expected to be outside. We spent our days doing chores and fishing, looking for pirate treasure along Contraband Bayou or building forts, swimming in ponds or going to the library. Whether on bikes or on the bayou, that landscape was full of kids. On days spent inside because of rain we would play board games or read, watching TV was off limits.

Today, where our farm is located, in East Tennessee, the countryside is mostly empty. You see the occasional activity outdoors, usually men on tractors. But only once in sixteen years have I seen a kid cross the seventy acres of our farm. Never have I had to yell at a kid for building a fort on our land. No kid has ever darkened the door to ask permission to hunt rabbit or squirrel, or fish in our ponds.

Our companions in this landscape

Our companions in this landscape

There are homes nearby where I have never observed a person outside. Cars appear and disappear in the driveways. But the owners are not once glimpsed. I’ve cut a hay field; long hours, three days in a row and never spotted a person outside a neighbor’s house. A house, I add, that often had four cars in the drive.

While baling that hay on the final day, I saw one of the cars start up and move down the driveway. It drove the 150 feet to the mailbox. A youthful arm extended out of the driver’s window and collected the mail. The car reversed back up to the house.

It would be tempting to ridicule the generation of kids who spend their lives in darkened rooms, zombied in screen-time with their gadgets. But their parents, who by example, are equally to blame. With all of the challenges we face to our civilization and planet, it seems somehow dishonorable to while away one’s life in such an unproductive manner.

That the rural landscape is empty in the very place where hands and eyes are needed is troubling. Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson refer to the benefit of “eyes to acres”. They mean that the understanding and the correction of problems in our landscape begin by an intimate daily familiarity.

In a way, it seems like a modern day Highland clearance; where blame rests partly with forces that have devalued the local in favor of the global, removing those eyes-to-acres. But it is a blame shared by us for our willing collusion in that withdrawal, as passive consumers of this life.

Understanding our land begins with engagement, even if it is just a kid rambling along on an idle afternoon across a pasture and a wooded hill.

Maybe our inner mom needs to say, “Get out of the house! Don’t come back in until dinner.”


Postscript: Hopefully the weather is finally breaking towards spring. Our final crop of lambs are being born, we have piglets to castrate and potatoes to plant. So the navel gazing tone to this blog should return to more mundane topics of the farm in the coming weeks…or not.

At least our farm isn’t in Boston

“Winter is beginning to lose its grip.” What clueless chump wrote that bit of wisdom last Sunday? After penning those wishful words, I’ve watched our world here in East Tennessee fall into the deep freeze.

Our average high at this time of year is 53 degrees, with a low of 31. That comfortable range is one of the reasons living in Tennessee is such a joy. Each of the four seasons has a clear character, none too extreme, and about the time we tire of one, the next arrives. There are, of course, on occasional years, the extremely cold winter or the miserably hot summer. This is clearly one of the former.

Last Saturday we had a teaser of above average temps, which prompted the above bit of optimism. That was followed by a very cold week here on the farm. Yesterday, we had a brief respite, as the mercury climbed into the middle 40s. We spent Valentine’s Day thawing hoses and refilling stock tanks; we set posts in concrete and drove T-posts and stretched woven wire on the new horse paddock.

While we worked to complete this project, Bonnie, our newest work horse, eyed us from a neighboring corral. Pregnant ewes stuck their noses through the gate to conduct their smell test on her. Roosters chased hens under her feet, and Delores moseyed about her paddock next to the corral with piglets in tow—new experiences all for a horse that had spent her days working on a dairy in Minnesota.Bonnie 003

We completed the back fence on the new paddock around noon. Cindy began setting up the propane burner and chicken-plucker for our friend Sara. She had called earlier in the morning with a surfeit of male birds vying to be cock o’ the roost. Sumptuous dishes like coq au vin and dumplings lay ahead, but first the killing, plucking, and cleaning of eight bloodied and bruised roosters.

While Cindy helped with the butchering, I sneaked off to buy a late Valentine’s card to present during our evening dinner (Cindy having done the same earlier in the morning). By mid-afternoon we had settled down in the house, she for a nap and I to finish a mystery by Martin Walker. Coffee at four and then we headed out for a couple of hours of chores.

We fixed together a dinner of roast leg of lamb, mashed potatoes and “squishy greens,” and cheesecake for dessert and turned in early for a well-deserved rest.

This morning the low registered 13, with a projected high later of 29. Four to seven inches of snow are in the forecast for this evening and tomorrow and a low of minus 3 for Wednesday night. The cattle need to be moved to a late winter pasture, ice will be broken on troughs, and there is a bit of fencing I need to repair in the back forty. The sheep are bawling for hay—three ewes were due to lamb last night. I hear Delores snorting for feed. It is time to call the dogs and do the chores.

With the week ahead calling for another significantly cold week, I wonder if my ancestors had some ritual, besides sipping whisky, to bring on the warmth of an early spring. God knows I’m ready for it. At least our farm isn’t in Boston.


Reading this weekend: The Crowded Grave by Martin Walker, Our Only World by Wendell Berry and A Guide to the Good Life: the ancient art of stoic joy by William Irvine.