Sunday, August 29, 2010

Thoroughly wet with the rain

"As soon as I was thoroughly wet through on the way home,
I became one with the weather and would not have changed the day.
It is only when one is dry that one is out of sympathy with the rain.
When one is wet through, one minds it no more than the trees do,
Having become a part of the day itself."
Sir Edward Grey

Some times we can put off working in the rain and sometimes, we can’t. Last Sunday, lamb buyers arrived with the rain clouds.

We have eleven fenced pastures. We rotate the animals through the pastures, hoping they eat the grasses down in each pasture in about a week. We return the animals to the same pasture about six weeks after they leave, giving the pasture grasses time to re-grow.

A six week rotation is our goal, but right now we have three groups of sheep rotating – fifty ewes, thirty-five lambs, and four rams. Obviously, four rams eat a lot less than fifty ewes or thirty-five lambs. So the rams usually rotate back and forth between our smallest pasture (the ram pasture) and the woods pasture that has so many trees that not much grass grows there.

The lambs go into each pasture first, to eat all the young, tasty blades of grass. After a week, we move the lambs to a new pasture and let the ewes into the pasture the lambs have just vacated to eat up the cheese plant and amaranth – species that the lambs won’t touch. Usually our rotation scheme works quite well. However, right now, the ewes are in the barn yard, the rams are in the next pasture and the lambs are in the third pasture out.

To sell a lamb, we have to put the lambs into the barn so the buyer can make a selection. First we have to move the ewes into a side pasture, move the rams into a different side pasture, and finally herd the lambs into the barnyard.

The ewes move easily, always hoping to move onto young, tasty grass. At this time of the year, just before breeding, the rams want to move anywhere that puts them closer to the ewes. They pace the fence line, anxious for the day we open the gate and allow them to mingle. The lambs, on the other hand, have not yet learned to herd on their own. They followed their mothers with no problem, but no single lamb has stepped forward as a leader. Last year, we kept Kali, the alpaca, with the lambs. But she didn’t like it when we sold a lamb and carried it off to be butchered. Unhappy alpacas can be quite vicious. Other years, Cedar the goat led the lambs (bringing to life the phrase ‘Judas goat’). But Cedar is old and struggles to keep up with the flock. We couldn’t ask him to lead the lambs to the barnyard on a daily basis. So this year, Dave and I move them without the help of a leader. On a hot day, it can be exhausting, on a cool, rainy morning, it is good exercise

Last Sunday, as we ran back and forth, circling the flock, herding the lambs closer and closer to the gate into the barnyard, it began to rain. The droplets cooled my face, saturated my windbreaker until the nylon fabric clung to my arms, and finally drenched my hair. I tasted salt and mosquito spray when I licked my lips. And yet, I didn’t feel uncomfortable. I was a wet Joanie, instead of a dry Joanie. I didn’t try to stay dry. I didn’t rush from one dry place to another dry place, hoping to avoid damp clothing, shoes, or hair. I had become a part of the rain itself, just as the sheep were..

Friday, August 27, 2010

Bad mother jerky

Before we breed the sheep for next years lamb crop, we need to cull the flock. I have never been good at culling – setting aside ewes that are not good mothers or that have aged enough to have problems lambing in the spring. I can set them aside, but I have trouble with that next step - getting rid of them.

When an animal has lived beyond her useful life, we really have only four options: 1) sell her as a cull ewe to the stock yard, 2) take her to the butcher ourselves, 3) let her continue to live on the farm, but don’t breed her, 4) do nothing.

Many years we do nothing. It’s easier at the time than making any of the other three decisions. We just don’t remember the hard part until we watch that ewe staggering slowly after the rest of the flock when they change pastures or until we see how pregnancy and lambing are almost more than she can stand and we end up with a sick mom and babies that need to be bottle fed. Doing nothing in the fall means a lot more work for the shepherds during lambing.

Sometimes I choose not to breed an especially good ewe, one with a beautiful fleece or an engaging personality. We just allow her to die in her home pasture at her own time. It is like watching a beloved pet die, an exercise in patience and repeated self questioning. Is this the best thing for her?

If we have a ewe who is a bad mother, the decision is much easier. Bad mothers abandon lambs, they don’t produce enough milk and they cause problems for the shepherd. We load bad mothers into the pickup and transport them half and hour to the best butcher I’ve found. He turns old ewes into summer sausage, Italian sausage and wonderful jerky. It’s a relatively rapid, painless and delicious end to a productive life. When I allow the lambs to be born, part of the agreement I make with myself is that I will also give them a good life and a good death.

And that is why I never use option four – taking the old ewe to the stockyard. The trip is long and the end is out of my control. Even a bad mother deserves a better end than that.

Tomorrow, we will take three animals to the butcher; two have had mastitis and can no longer feed lambs adequately, and one a ewe who has had several lambs with physical problems. I will thank those ewes for their lives when we load them into the pickup. We will give thanks again when their meat appears at the dinner table. And when we lamb this winter, I will give thanks a third time for having had the wisdom to pick bad mother jerky instead of bad mothers.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Golden days

By late summer, the golden rod are a glorious golden yellow, the sumac are beginning to turn a deep russet and the southern most leaves of the maples are shifting from green to orange. Intellectually, I know that fall is still a month away, but I am not ready for it. I am ready to be done weeding and done watching the grass grow faster than Dave can cut it. I am ready for the mosquitoes to be gone. But I am not ready for the end of summer. I need some more of those lazy days that are almost too hot for work, days that beg you to go swimming, days when an ice cream cone with a scoop of coffee ice cream seems right next to paradise. Days when my book calls to me much louder than the weed whacker, the lawn mower or the chain saw.

I remember those days from childhood. Summer recreation was over. No more bike trips to school to make craft projects. Swimming lessons were over; so we could swim during the hot time of the day instead of in the cold mornings and we often took a picnic lunch or dinner out to the lake with our swim suits and towels. But best of all, we could read. Weekly or at the least biweekly trips to the library kept us well supplied with books. I read Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Follow My Leader. I found new authors – Edgar Allen Poe, Mary Stewart, Alistair MacLean, Andre Norton.

As an adult, I know that we still need to find more hay for the sheep. We need to put up fire wood for this winter and that means cutting lots of small, very dead trees whose wood is absolutely dry. We need to can tomatoes, freeze broccoli, and harvest squash and potatoes. I need to look at the farmers market for more of those gigantic onions grown just across the fields from us and store them in the cellar along with the cans of tomatoes and honey and syrup.

As an adult, I know we need to do all those things before the temperatures drop and the cold winds blow, but the golden days of summer have caught me in their hold, and for this afternoon, I lay back with an old Alistair MacLean book and relax.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Hawks and gophers

Photo by J.R. Douglas, from

For the last few days, a red tailed hawk has been screaming as it soars over our pastures. I really didn’t think that a hawk could carry off a seventy pound lamb, but we have a few closer to fifty pounds, so I was worried. Turns out that the hawks eat squirrels, gophers, and mice - never something as a large as a lamb, not even a baby lamb. So I can listen to their screams with enjoyment. I can watch them soar over the pastures and know that they are using their extraordinary vision to spot chipmunks, squirrels and gophers, their favorite foods.

Anything that eats gophers is fine with me. We struggle with pocket gopher mounds in all our fields. Gophers especially like alfalfa roots, so our hayfields are a perfect habitat. Gophers dig holes and leave the dirt outside the hole on the surface of the ground. When we drive over the field in our haybine, the triangular cutting blades cut into anything they encounter – alfalfa plants, thistles, and piles of dirt left by the gophers. But the dirt dulls the blades, shortening their useful lifetime. After cutting dirt, Dave has to replace broken or dull cutting blades – a real waste of time.

Most farmers trap or poison their gophers because of the amount of damage one animal can do to a field and a haybine. We used to poison ours, but weren’t very successful at it. Now we hire a retired farmer to do the job. He sections our field in a four wheeler right after we finish baling hay. When he finds a gopher mound, he digs a hole in it and inserts a trap.

The township still pays a bounty for gophers. Trappers catch the animal and then have to save a piece to prove that they have trapped it. One year it will be right ears, another year, left front feet. The Pelican Township board meets at the Pelican Rapids Public Library. One day, I made coffee for a program in the meeting room. I opened the coffee can off the top shelf, and found it full of mummified gopher feet. Someone had been working hard and brought his gopher feet into the Town Board for the bounty. You can’t get rich trapping gophers, but you can earn the undying gratitude of a farmer or give fodder for nightmares to a group of people waiting for a cup of coffee.

One of the exciting things about planting prairie grasses instead of alfalfa is that pocket gophers don’t like grass roots as well as alfalfa roots, so maybe we’ll have fewer gophers. Another exciting aspect is that bull snakes like prairies and they like pocket gophers. If we plant some of our hay fields to prairie grasses, we may be able to control the pocket gophers with bull snakes waiting patiently on gopher mounds and red tailed hawks screaming overhead.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Another kind of beauty

I walked across the pastures, my eyes searching for flowers. Bumble bees visited the fat red clover blossoms with their tiny pools of nectar at the base of each petal. Small spheres of white clover were almost hidden by the grass, their leaves the three leafed clovers of legend. In the distance, feathery stems of deep purple alfalfa shifted in the wind. I stepped through the gate from high grass to the freshly cropped turf of the pasture the sheep were presently grazing. There it was, a small, star-shaped vertebra blooming in the grass, it’s central hole dark against the bleached white bone. A few steps beyond it lay a leg bone, long and thin, knobby cartilaginous ends gnawed away by whatever animal had dragged the bones from their resting place in the woods. Beyond the leg bone, two ribs nestled in the grass, curved slivers of white in the verdant green.
I gathered the bones as I walked. These bones were from a lamb - small, almost dainty, beautiful in their color, in their sculptural form. Not so much parts of a dead animal as pieces of art, waiting to be recognized. Art that had lived beneath the wool, the skin, the muscle of a bouncing, cuddly lamb. A lamb who had died, for some reason, lack of attention by the shepherdess most likely, but a lamb who was not wasted. Worm food, fox food, fertilizer. And finally, simple beauty. Flowers of a different kind.