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Monday, August 10, 2009

The eternal holiday

Normally by the 1st of May or so we are able to sleep in past 6am. We wander out to the barn once a day to make sure there is nothing amiss, but we don’t have to do a whole lot of hands-on caring for the animals. They have been weaned, medicated, and kicked out of the lambing pens. We are basically on holiday from our farm work, except for tending the garden and doing some minor maintenance. But this year, we are at August 1st and I am still trudging out to the barn in the mornings, my eyes barely open, to feed the fattest-assed lambs you have ever seen.
We were expecting 80 to 100 lambs this year, from our 44 ewes-in-waiting. Last year each ewe had at least two – and some had three or four lambs. But after a rainy summer of 2008 that yielded moldy hay, Mama Nature decided to cut back. The ewes didn’t have more than one or two lambs this winter, and they rarely got to keep more than one. We lost a lot of lambs, due to the cold snap in February and the poor hay, which equals poor milk. We ended up with only 30 lambs surviving. It was incredibly depressing. I was ready to turn in my lamb-feeding bottles for good.
Since we had so few lambs for our efforts, we didn’t want to lose any more to viruses, parasites or any other mysterious ailments that always seem to strike a few of them down when they are first turned out of the barn. So we kept them in. Some of them have been in there for seven months now.
The ewes went into confinement just before Christmas. The first twins were born New Year’s Day, and the next bunch started January 18. They kept coming for the next month or so, as we battled day and night to keep them alive. The Farmer built them an infirmary playpen in the basement. I ran home on my lunch hour to bottle feed orphans. We warmed the frozen ones in a blanket in the bathroom, over the furnace vent.
It was exhausting. By April, things were fairly well under control. We stopped losing lambs, as we had found a combination of whole-grain corn and molasses-laced sweet feed that seemed to supplement the dusty hay quite well. We even taught our two youngest lambs to self-feed from calf bottles strapped to the side of the pen. I’m going to try that on a larger scale next year.
Now when I go into the barn at night, I am sure to carry a flashlight. Not because I don’t know my way to the light switch by now, but because I might get bowled over by a huge lamb – with horns – that is lurking in the aisle after having stepped out of its pen. After seven months, layers of hay and manure have accumulated to elevate the lambs so that they are on raised platforms. The walls of the pen are easy to step over now. They look like they are doing the hokey-pokey. “I put my right hoof in, I put my right hoof out…”
When they see me moving toward the old freezer that holds the sweet feed, they get frantic. They are hooked on that stuff, big time. After filling the feeders with fresh hay – beginning with the big pen on the right, then the one across the aisle, then the smaller ones at the back of the barn (always in the same order), the bawling begins. They know my routine. When that last feeder is stuffed, they know the sweet feed is coming next. I quickly sprinkle a pailful of sweet feed over each pile of hay. They climb on top of each other to get it. Eventually they each get their snout into some, and the noise stops. Except for the one lamb who grunts while he eats. He has to work on his table manners.
While they are chowing down, I fill their water buckets. Then I often have to climb up onto the bales – I use a stepladder for this, to knock some more hay down for the next feeding. By now I am sweating, my clothes are full of hay, my hair is a halo of dust, mosquitoes and damp wool, and I am tired. This has been my main source of exercise all spring and summer.
It is all about to end. The lambs are going on an eternal holiday. The males ones, anyway. I have not named them. Unfortunately, I know some of them without names. I recognize the one who came on stage with me at the Literary Follies. He gets his fat head stuck in the feeder every day now and lies there waiting for me to free him. I know the New Year twins. They have horns and are the biggest of the bunch.
And then there is the full male. He was never castrated, and his tail was never bobbed, because we didn’t think he would make it past his first few days. But we kept him in our basement infirmary and fed him stolen colostrum until he was strong enough to return to the barn. I am hoping that someone will buy him and start their own herd with him as their ram.
In any case, the boys are going to market on Monday morning. They are getting a free pass to the Greek Festival, if you catch my drift. We will keep the girls, medicate them against parasites, and put them out on the pasture next week.
I can’t wait to see their little faces when they feel the warmth of the sun and smell the fresh green grass for the first time.
And then my holiday will begin.

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