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Thursday, October 30, 2008

A Baaaa'd Day in the Company of Many Sheep

I was raised in the country but I know nothing about farming. After several seasons of life’s twists and turns I returned to my hometown and married a sheep farmer. Overnight, I became The Accidental Farmwife.

Remember that Saturday a few weeks ago when the mercury hit 30 before noon? Well, that was the day when, just after his first cup of coffee, my new husband announced, “Come on, it’s the first of the month. Time to work the sheep.”
The Farmer “worked the sheep” the first weekend of every month. He gave each of the sheep their worm medicine, along with a quick head-to-hoof checkup to make sure there was no incidence of injury, infection or disease.
I like to be hands-on in my new role as farmwife. And that doesn’t mean hands on the rolling pin or the vacuum. I like to help out on the farm, feeding the animals, pitching hay and mending fences. It’s good, honest work. It’s cheaper than going to the gym for a workout, and just as effective. It can be very rewarding. It makes me feel alive.
So I picked up the canvas liquor bag filled with bottles of penicillin, 8-way vaccine and syringes, and followed the Farmer out to the barn.
There, standing just inside the door, were four creatures I had completely forgotten about. Our cows.
“Do they get a needle too?” I asked, eyeing the sweaty beasts.
“Yup. And they also need ear tags,” Farmer Fisher muttered, stopping just in front of the barn to sum up the situation. He had fenced the animals in, and steam was beginning to rise from the hay with the heat. I won’t say I was sweating like a pig because I think I was sweating more than a pig. I started squelching my way through the manure and mud on the way into the barn, careful not to lose a boot.
The only way out of the barn for about 100 sheep and 4 cows was through a rough chute that the Farmer had fashioned out of plywood, cedar rails and posts. Within seconds of opening the chute door, it filled with sheep. About twelve of them.
When the sheep realized that they had not passed through the barn door to freedom, they began to heave and lurch toward any breaks that they could find in the makeshift fencing. Two of our patients wriggled out under a fence rail. I lowered myself down into the chute to block the rest of the sheep from escaping.
Farmer Fisher began the vaccinations, grabbing the sheep one at a time by the scruff of their woolly necks. I moved the animals gently forward, pushing them into a tight bunch so that none of them could break free.
The sun was beating down on us, and those sheep were hot. My legs ached from bending and squatting, and my arms were fatigued from bracing myself against the straining sheep. My skin itched from the greasy lanolin. I sat back on a fence rail for a rest.
Seeing her opportunity and seizing the moment, a frantic ewe bolted in my direction. Realizing that I had left the escape hatch under the fence uncovered, I quickly squatted down and opened my arms wide to “catch” the leaping sheep. I caught her all right. Her high-heeled hoof caught me square in the chest, knocking the wind out of me. I sat down hard, in hot, steamy mud and manure. Squish.
After a few seconds I opened my eyes. Twelve sheep and a Farmer were looking at me. My husband asked if I was ok. I considered, for a moment, asking if I might be excused. I sat there, slowly regaining full consciousness, and marveled that my reality involved sitting in manure at the end of a sheep chute. I reminded myself that the stupid, panicky sheep looking at me wild-eyed were just a few months ago the cute little things that came to my call. Not anymore. Now they saw me as nothing but a barrier between them and freedom
My husband regained his focus, grabbing sheep, vaccinating them and shoving them through the end of the chute to freedom. The newly inoculated sheep twitched and squirmed as they wandered away, reacting to the sting of the medication. I wiped the sweat from my eyes and took a drink from my water bottle. A bruise was beginning to form on my chest where the frantic sheep had shoved me.
Finally, all 100 sheep had been treated.
We turned and looked at the cows.
The calves Tyson and Mocha wandered gullibly into the chute, led by the sound and smell of sweet feed that I poured into an upturned garbage can lid. The Farmer put one leg on each side of the chute and straddled, like a bucking bronco rider at the rodeo. Tyson took his shot like a man and strutted confidently out into the barnyard. Mocha was another story. She bucked, twisted and wriggled until she was bent in half and facing backwards. The Farmer gave her an injection, and then realized she also had a bit of congestion. With the other needle, he gave her a shot of penicillin.
While we were working the calves, their mothers were getting extremely agitated.
Betty tossed her head back and forth, mooing in protest. Ginger pushed against her prison bars until the top rail fell down.
“We’d better get those cows in here before they break out,” I suggested.
The Farmer looked nervous. And that is never a good thing. We opened the door to the chute and Ginger promptly took her place. I slid the barrier bar in behind her so she couldn’t back up. It didn’t take eight seconds to realize that the chute wasn’t going to hold Ginger for long.
The dosage on the wormer said that cows should receive 50 mls. That meant each cow had to be stuck with a needle 5 times. The Farmer scratched his head and asked me to read it again. He grabbed hold of Ginger’s slack skin around her neck and poked with the needle. It promptly broke in half.
That was the end of that. Apparently we can provide the same dosage of worming medicine in a mouth swab.
But first we need to buy a proper head chute, and we need to teach Ginger and Betty to open wide and say “aaahhh”.

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