If you have livestock, you’ll also have dead stock.–Anonymous
One of the reasons I started this blog was to share our weird crazy wonderful life. However, I think it’s only fair if I share the heartbreaking along with the hilarious. I think we get so caught up in the perfect families on Facebook, Instagram, and blogs that we feel their lives have something ours is missing. So, in an effort at providing you with a more realistic view of our life, today were going to touch on a bit of the heartbreaking.
I’ve told you before about our small flock of St. Croix sheep. They’re fun, funny, and better entertainment than the average television program. They constantly test the fencing and occasionally test my last nerve, but as far as livestock goes they are some of our favorites. Last night wrapped up our 2017 spring lambing season. We came out with six healthy lambs. Three little ewes that will be added to our flock, and three little rams. One of these is pre-sold as breed stock to another farmer, and the other two will eventually feed my family. However, we had a total of nine lambs born this year.
The first ewe to lamb had twins. They were both a good size and appeared healthy. However, one of them was (hmmm, I’m searching for an inoffensive p/c term)…mentally deficient. Yes, that will work. This little lamb would wander around trying to nurse off the other ewes or the ram, even when Mom was calling her. The lamb would get on one side of a fencepost and scream for Mom, who was standing on the other side of the fence post screaming back.
The biggest problem was that the lamb had a very uncoordinated suck. Mom kept trying to feed it, but it was making her teats sore with all its efforts and it was too uncoordinated to get any milk. So, we tried bottle feeding. We could get some milk in her, but not enough. I dropped a feeding tube for a few days, hoping that she would become stronger and better at feeding, but to no avail. Eventually, we made the choice to humanely put her down. She’d begun to decline and would have been suffering if we had waited any longer. (I should note, that she would have been culled from our breeding program if she had survived. We only keep the strongest and healthiest for our future flock.)
After spending days bottle feeding and tube feeding a cute little white lamb, it’s disheartening to lose the battle and the lamb. We knew we made the best decision for the animal, but it still left us with ‘what if’s’. What if we’d tried this or that? What if we did more harm than good in our efforts? What if we put our kids in a heartbreaking situation needlessly? What if the more compassionate thing would have been to put her down when it became clear she couldn’t feed alone? What if this is genetic and we eventually have to cull Mom? I’ve discovered, that much like parenting, ‘what if’s’ go hand in hand with farming.
The second ewe delivered a healthy set of twins, who hit the ground running and never looked back. However, the third had issues. The third ewe was number 31. She’s a family favorite. We have a theory, that she was a bottle baby. She’s friendly, inquisitive, and all up in your business. She came from a lady who put collars on the sheep instead of ear tags. When she was young, we think she got caught by her collar and her ‘voice box’ was damaged. So, her bleat sounds like a six-pack-a-day smoker recovering from a botched tracheostomy, while trying to do the Tarzan yell. Last year, she had her first lamb, a beautiful healthy singleton ewe wth her mother’s friendly temperament. Unfortunately, she was killed later in the season. So, this year, we waited with great anticipation as number 31 became wider and wider.
I arrived home from work to find her laboring and in distress. Grace and I spent a miserable couple of hours tending her. Eventually, she delivered an adorable perfect ram lamb and a stillborn ewe lamb. The stillborn was underdeveloped, but seemed to have no obvious defects. So, I’m not sure what happened. After sixteen hours working and driving in the city, no sleep for over twenty-four hours, and two or three hours in a cold pen (31 wasn’t interested in moving to a loafing shed), losing that lamb left me emotionally wiped out. It started a whole round of ‘what if’s’. What if I’d been home? What if 31 became infected? What if there was a genetic issue? What if we continued to lose lambs? What if I hadn’t made it home just then, and the kids had to deal with it alone? The whole family was very disappointed to lose the ewe lamb from our lead sheep. Number 31’s temperament helps keep the whole flock gentle, and well, we just really like her.
We thought we finished the lambing season strong, with healthy twins from a first-time ewe. This was the notorious number 29. However, we had one ewe whose breeding didn’t take….or so we thought. Yesterday, Grace noticed that she was acting odd. She told Liam. Then, Sam noticed she was acting funny, he told Grace. Then, I heard her bleating more than is typical. I wondered if the breeding had taken after all. Since I was arriving in from a class (in dress clothes), I sent Jonah to check on her. He reported back that she showed no signs of labor and was just staring at the house bleating. His theory was that she was wanting more grain.
At 2:00 am, I came downstairs. (Night nurses sleep weird hours.) I heard her bleating again and went to check on her. Jonah heard me going out and came out to see what was up. (He’s his mother’s son and a chronic insomniac.) Grace heard us and came down. She insisted on getting up to help. We call her Little Bo Peep. The sheep fall largely within her purview, especially when I’m at work. We found the ewe (Number 16) standing over a stillborn lamb crying. It was so heartbreaking. She kept looking at us like she expected us to fix it.
Our other deaths this year were twins, so the moms had another baby to focus on. When Number 31 had a stillborn last month, she kept trying to clean her baby, and she kept trying to bring me to it. However, it wasn’t the same as this ewe. There was something human in her cries and in the confused helplessness of her expression. (Yes, sheep have expressions.)
It was a very emotional and dramatic moment, so allow me to be a little melodramatic in my writing for a moment: We stood in the middle of a pasture in the dark of night. The moon hidden behind clouds. Swirling wisps of fog surrounded us. Our flashlights reflected off the fog and made the scene smokey and otherworldly. We could hear the coyotes yipping and barking in the distance, and that somehow made the death feel obscene. It was a sad and eerie moment for us all.
Then, I watched my kids’ faces change. I could see the conscious decision to push aside their feelings and do what was best for the animals. Not just for the little lamb, but for the mama who was still looking at me and crying. We had to distract her and deal with the little body safely and discretely. (Remember the coyotes. Improperly disposed of animals will draw predators close to the livestock, and that puts the flock at risk.) I love that my children, while understanding better than most where their food comes from, are so incredibly compassionate and nurturing to our animals. They protected the flock, consoled the mother, and respectfully dealt with the body all without guidance from me.
This last death brought up a storm of ‘what if’s’. There are so many ways we could have handled it better. What if Liam had told me? What if Grace had told me? What if I hadn’t had to be off the farm at a class that day? What if I had taken the time to change and go look for myself? What if Jonah missed something when he checked on her? What if she had been crying earlier and we couldn’t hear over the sound of life in the house? What if we’d figured out she was pregnant and watched her more closely? What if’s are hard, but when you know you really could have done things better, they’re even harder.
So, we look at the six adorable lambs bouncing around like popcorn in the pasture. We square our shoulders, take a deep breath, and promise ourselves that we’ll do better next time. There are days when I stand in a sun-drenched pasture breathing in the scents of horses and wildflowers and farming is perfect. Other days, farming is exhausting, and we fall into bed aching, but satisfied. Some days farming is hard, and I want to go hide in the bathtub. There are even days when farming is scary, and I want to stand guard over all my little charges. However, there is never a day that I want to walk away from farming. That’s a ‘what if’ I’m not willing to consider. Even on the hard days, the sad days, and the scary days, farming is still perfect and satisfying for our family.
Please leave a comment if you have the time. I want this blog to provide a place for community. You can share the good, the bad, and the ugly of homestead life here, and we won’t judge. (Unless you don’t like chocolate. Then, I’m totally judging!)
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