Lambing Day

The fog was thick, as the warm air met the frozen ground, still covered with a thin layer of snow.  Though it was after sunrise, the sun itself had yet to make an appearance.  Today held promise, however.  The first day in over a week to get above freezing.  I got up, still sick from the exposure and exhaustion of the past week.  Regardless, the sheep must be checked and fed, the hogs as well.  But my attention is on the lambs.

As I go about my chores, opening hay bales and setting them in place, I notice one ewe off by herself under a cedar tree bordering the sheep lot.  For the last week, I’ve kept the sheep up in the corral area adjacent to their feeding lot.  Easier to take care of.  Everyday I’ve gone down to the lot to feed hay, break ice in the water trough, tend the newborn lambs in the stalls, and check the ewes to see who might be next to birth.

Freckles’ daughter had had her lambs this morning, picking a dry spot under the cedar tree, two nice white lambs with brown spots, covered in dirt, struggled to get to their hooves.  “FD” cleaned them off, licking the afterbirth from each lambing, thereby forever knowing the scent and the sound of her lambs.  Nineteen and twenty had made it into the world without my help.  The day was going to be warm, so there’d be no need to put them under the warming lamps in the stall.  Dixie, the amazing border collie, and I returned to the house.  Coffee had yet to be made.

Hannah came over a bit later.  She’d been taking care of the night checks  since I’d come down with the crud.  Coffee, sausage, oatmeal, eggs, cheese toast.  Breakfast is eaten like a king here.  We talk about the farm, what today’s work will look like, prospects for the future. I take and make several phone calls, all part of keeping this farm running.  These days I live for the emails to arrive with the week’s orders attached.  Finally warmed up, it’s now time to go outside.

We check the tractor, and it is what I feared; the radiator is empty and the crankcase has coolant in it.  The extreme cold has cracked the block on the engine.  This is fatal.  I do get the tractor started and move it to another location where I can work on it.  Hannah and I discuss the alternatives.  I simply need a tractor with a front end loader.  It’ll be a challenge to replace this.

Walking back to the barn where the sheep are, I notice a ewe in labor.  We go on about our business.  An hour later, I check back – no progress.  Something is wrong.  Hannah gets the nitrile gloves from the shed, and we set about to get this ewe, A16, up in the stall where it’ll be dry and reasonably clean to work on her.  We ended up tackling her in the corral, Hannah going face first into the fence, as A16 was doing everything should could to disrupt our plans.

A quick examination revealed the issue at hand; the lamb was breech and upside down.  I told Hannah this was not going to end well.  I worked on the lamb nearly a half hour with very little success.  I could get the hind legs out, but couldn’t rotate its body. The lamb was dead.  The issue now was to save the ewe, and it didn’t look promising.  Hannah asked to switch, as she’d been holding A16 down and comforting her.  And so Hannah took over.

It’s an amazing thing to see your child function as an adult.  Hannah stayed working on the lamb for over an hour.  With her small hands, she could partially rotate the lamb’s torso and move it gingerly past all the sticking points.  Finally, it was out.  The body was a mess. They are simply not supposed to be born that way. But it was out.  The ewe would live.

We put A16 in the stall she’d been so reluctant to go in only two hours before.  She needed warmth; she was in shock.  We needed a shower, clean clothes, and lunch.  By this point, Dixie needed a bath, for she’d been frolicking in the gully while we worked the ewe.  We relaxed around the table.  Pasta from our good friend Gianni – a combination of sausage tortellini and pansoti.

We began the afternoon feeding and egg gathering.  Hannah will be 20 this year.  She has worked with me nearly all her life.  She knows how I think, she’s not afraid of hard work, and she’ll nicely tell me when I’m full of crap.  I return the favor.

As I’m feeding the sheep, I notice another ewe in labor, but not progressing.  Hannah and I both recognize the ewe – Henrietta’s daughter.  A slight chill runs up and down our backs as we consider dealing with the psychotic offspring of the most skittish sheep in the fold.  I half -jokingly ask Hannah if I should simply get the gun now.  We both envisioned another horrible ordeal, this time multiplied by a ewe with an attitude.

This time, we’d try to at least tackle her on dry ground.  And we did.  I got hold of a hind leg, Hannah grabbed a front, and we flipped her over on her side.  I gloved and probed in – front hooves!  I worked the head and soon the baby was out and breathing.  I went back in to check for a twin, and trouble awaited me.  The second lamb was feet first, but the head was slung back over its shoulder.  The ewe’s hip had it pinched.  I worked the lamb back, created just enough room, and could move the head around into the correct positon.  In short order, the second lamb was out, the mother up and licking them, and soon they too were up in the stall (You might wonder why it’s easier to get the ewe in the stall after the lambs are born.  The ewe will follow the lambs.  I pick the lambs up, and just like a carrot in front of a horse, lead the ewe where I need her to go).

I’m not sure the last time I took two showers during the work day.  I’ve also done more laundry today than usual.  I love what I do.  I love the heartaches as well as the triumphs because it is all part of the tapestry of life on this farm.  There’s simply nowhere I’d rather be.  And Dixie got her bath.

James Bourne

Jan. 9, 2018

PS:  Hannah did the 10pm check and found “HD” (the last ewe in our story) had prolapsed her uterus.  She was in full contractions attempting to push it out.  I called our vet who confirmed my suspicion; recovery was unlikely.  She was suffering with no reasonable hope of recovery and so I put her down.  Hannah took her two lambs and is now engaged in bottle feeding them – in her bedroom.  I still love this life, but damn, it’s hard on your heart.

Home Comfort

Growing up on the family farm, I’d often go over to my grandparents’ house, a mere 200 feet away (somehow, my mother never objected to living this close to her mother-in-law).  One of the fixtures in their house was the kitchen stove.  The “Home Comfort” was an old fashion wood cook stove, complete with oven, cooktop, warming boxes, and hot water heater.  This stove continued to be used into the 1970’s, my father dutifully splitting wood and carrying it into the wood, box, which sat on the back porch.

I learned a bit about splitting wood from my father.  How to drive a wedge, use a maul and an axe, and about working with the tree’s grain.  Oak splits great and burns well; while gum may burn well, you’ll be all day splitting it.  Poplar isn’t worth the trouble unless you need a quick fire and are willing to deal with a lot of ash.  Hickory’s reputation is well earned.

When the energy crisis occurred in the seventies, Dad gave up on the electric baseboard heat in our brick rancher and put in a fireplace insert.  He cut a lot of wood and we wore a lot of sweaters.  For some reason, the house never felt warm that winter.  I don’t know whether it was the wood or the stove, but there was a bit of grumbling among the ranks that season.

These many years later, I still heat primarily with wood.  I have a wood burning forced air furnace in the basement, several excellent chainsaws (one of which I found at the county dump), and now, a brand-new log splitter.  This is the second one I’ve owned – I literally wore the first one out.  I’d replaced the engine years ago, put a new pump on it, the works.  And it worked well.  For twenty years, I’d used it.  Some years more, some years less.  The last five years I’ve been using wood pellets.  Convenient, but there’s really no romance there.  There is romance in a forest.

I love wood.  I love my woods.  All eighty acres of them.  I’ve worked in them most of my adult life.  Hunted in them, escaped to them, found respite because of them.  For firewood, I harvest the trees that are dying or otherwise not healthy.  Trees overgrow the edges into the fields, conspiring with sinister forces to pull me off the tractor as I cut hay.

I enjoy using a chainsaw.  Because I work in the woods on a regular basis, I’ve no need of rollercoasters and the like.  Running from a tree doing the unexpected is the best near death experience you can have.  Cutting a tree almost thru and having it settle back on the stump and pinch the chainsaw – priceless.  “Why did I leave the felling wedges at the barn?!”

I figure the cost incurred in a new log splitter is offset by the savings in my electric bill, as well as the good exercise I get. No need for a gym membership here.  Twenty degrees outside? Just about right to split firewood.  And right now – I’m figuring out a way to open some windows to get a bit of the heat from the fire out of the house.  Home comfort…


Jan. 3, 2018