Earlier this week Missy, one of our “named and tame” black Katahdin ewes, lambed early, right in the middle of what I hope is our last blizzard. Our sheep production model aims to have the ewes bred for April lambing because by then the pasture grass is coming on strong and we believe that good grass makes awesome milk. And awesome milk makes strong, rapidly growing lambs. Suffice it to say, things don't always work out the way you plan.
Quoting a good friend, we had a fencing malfunction last year -- so our big ram George (a great grandson to Wendell Berry's ram) managed to connect with at least one of the ewes. I have to say that George is very respectful of fences good and bad, but this particular ewe has a mind of her own and a knack for finding holes to slip through. The grass is, after all, greener on the other side. So, I have no doubt that Missy slipped through the fence into George's paddock because I caught her on the way back out. I figured there was the chance of some February lambs and that figuring was born out on an incredibly cold and snowy day.
We had been monitoring the flock and noted that a couple of the girls looked mighty big. The night before the snow flew, signs of immediate parturition were absent, although our sheep are allowed to keep their tails, so it isn't always possible to get a good look at all the signs. Early that fateful day, my Partner In Culinary Crime had slipped on the ice and racked her knee and ankle bad enough that she was imobilized (she managed to hobble and crawl back to the house). So she didn't brave the blizzard to check on things mid-day. The ewes had plenty of hay and plenty of water and the snow was piling up -- I would check them when I got home from work. By then it was about 7 degrees and the wind was howling out of the north east.
I fed the hogs and poultry. Broke ice where ice needed to be broken and was about to deliver a fresh 1800-pound hay bale to the cattle when my mind registered something odd with what my eye had seen. There was a little black snow-covered lamb standing next to a snow-covered black ewe over by the mineral feeder. Huh?! Oh ya, there was that hole in the fence. As I jumped off the tractor to have a closer look I heard a little lamb voice coming from the hay stack. Missy pretty much always has twins and this time was no different. I checked the lamb by her side; he was strong and his belly was full. The little girl had been cleaned and was breathing, snow-covered and half frozen in the hay. I tucked her into my coveralls and raced her into the house, but no amount of massaging, heat and warm colostrum drench could bring her back. Our terriers licked her face, cuddled with her and stayed on the job for about an hour after she expired. What a bummer.
By the time I got back to haying the cattle, Missy and her lamb were nestled down in the open-front shed, out of the wind and the weather. That little guy has experienced nights with temperatures into the negative teens and continues to thrive. What a way to come into the world. Fixing fence is a top priority for me this summer, but malfunctions are always expected on the farm.
Hank Will raises hair sheep, heritage cattle and many varieties of open-pollinated corn with his wife, Karen, on their rural Osage County, Kansas farm. His home life is a perfect complement to his professional life as editor in chief at GRIT and Capper's Farmer magazines. Connect with him on Google+.
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