When my wife pulled our Pilot into the parking space at the graduation party, I had no idea my life was about to change forever. Then, as soon as my door slammed, I was struck, literally in the face, with the realization that I wasn’t a kid anymore. There, reflected in the window, dressed in farmer’s ball cap, plaid, short sleeve shirt, and blue jeans was the image of a 60-year-old man.
Wait! I don’t look like a 60-year-old man! I look like my friends! … Oh.
Yes, I guess it’s true. Most of my friends are 60-year-old men, or thereabouts, and the ones I’m thinking about, Harry and Larry, like me, also raise sheep.
And, yes, we do tend to have similar taste in fashion. Although we may obtain our shirts from different places, be it Penney’s, TSC, or that bastion of style and comfort, L.L. Bean, it’s pretty obvious our favorite color is plaid.
We do differ, however, in the type of sheep we raise. Larry raises club lambs, and has done so for more than 50 years. These are the black-faced sheep, usually of Suffolk or Hampshire parentage, that most of the 4-H and FFA kids take to the fair. Harry has also raised these over the years, as well as Dorsets, but now has a fine flock of Polypays, that pay for themselves in “poly” ways.
I, of course, if you’ve read many of these columns, raise Southdowns, which I proudly claim to be “the Angus of sheep.”
I’ve known both of these guys for quite some time. Harry was one of my first clients, and he introduced me to his sheep shearer, Larry, a couple of years later when I ventured into the business.
At 66, Larry is our elder. Although he can’t shear as many sheep in a day as he once did, Harry and I can’t even shear one with our bad backs. Larry is in amazing shape.
So I was kind of surprised, shocked actually, when Larry admitted that this lambing season had taken a toll on him physically. Although I didn’t know it at the time, a few weeks later, I would be haunted by his words.
My season of blessed events began uneventfully with just a few ewes lambing the first week. By the second, though, 20 ewes lambed over a three-day period, 40 over eight days. Throw in 27 sets of triplets, stress from exhaustion and the flu, and the very real possibility that I had too many sheep, and I began to have doubts if being a sheep farmer is what I really wanted to be when I grew up.
Fortunately, I was rescued by one of my lambs, his new mother, and my neighbor, Karen.
Early one morning, I found a ewe with stillborn lambs. Sadly, when this happens, about the only thing left to do is put the ewe on “the list.” The list is not something you want to be on. It is the cull list, a stark reality that one’s services are no longer required. Life on the farm is harsh sometimes. Rarely does a ewe come off the list. One way to do it, though, is to take over the care of another’s lamb.
A couple of hours later that lamb was born, a triplet needing a few more groceries than his own mother could provide. Karen showed me a trick learned from her shepherd father. With salt in her hand, she held it up for the ewe to lick. Then she slowly brought the ewe’s head close to the lamb and put some salt on the lamb’s back. The ewe continued to lick the lamb, and almost instantly the maternal bond was formed.
The lamb was a different story, however. He was a bit stubborn. If his mouth was placed on the ewe’s teat, he sucked well. But he would not latch on by himself, paying no heed to what was whispered in his ear.
I apologize for the slight vulgarity, but “The titty is life,” a snippet of wisdom garnered from 40 years of raising livestock, is shared with each lamb that requires assistance in nursing. In the critical time post birth, the ability to nurse is absolutely the difference between life and death.
On my last barn check of the night, much relief came when it was apparent the lamb had finally “heard” me, as he was vigorously nursing his new mom’s teat. In this case, this meant life for both of them. And after a few rough days, it meant a great deal to this old shepherd as well. Maybe everything. Thank you, Karen.
Dr. John H. Jones practices at Delphos Animal Hospital.