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.

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