Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Date Night

     The barn was quiet tonight when we pulled up to check on the sheep. The first group of forty ewes is just about finished lambing, but Joe wanted to make sure there would be no lamb surprises in the morning. This has been an interesting lambing season. One ewe dropped her lambs out in the pasture bottom in the snow and they died before we discovered them. She wasn’t supposed to lamb for another month, but apparently the buck jumped the fence. Two other ewes have lambed out there, but Joe found them in time to bring them back to the barn where they enjoyed a snug stall until the lambs were ready to be turned out.
     Another ewe gave birth to quadruplets. Four strapping lambs that made us wonder how in the world they all fit inside. She dropped the lambs out in the small meadow where the imminently expectant ewes spend their days. The quadruplets are several days old now and so far we haven’t had to supplement their mama’s milk with a bottle. As big as a child’s-size basketball, her udder is well…udderly fantastic. The lambs take turns ducking under and butting at it before they latch on and suck. It seems she never gets a moment without at least one lamb bumping her and grabbing on, but she bleats contentedly in her stall, and the lambs are full of pep. I’m certainly glad my boys didn’t have to butt at me that way. Sometimes, after the lambs are about a month old, you can see them out in the meadow hitting mama’s udder so hard that they lift her back end off the ground several inches. Ouch!
     Joe has spent almost every afternoon in the old barn, numbering and docking lambs. The mothers wear numbered plastic tags in their left ears and their babies get the same number painted on their rear ends. Tonight I am along to help. Joe catches the lambs and hands them to me where they dangle from my arms with their bellies facing him. If the lamb is a boy he gets a band on his testicles and one on his tail. If it’s a girl, just her tail is docked. After the banding, I flip the lambs around and Joe dips the metal branding irons into the red paint and presses them onto the lamb’s left hip. Then they are placed gently back into the pen with mama who has been nickering softly in concern. The banding hurts the babies for a little while, so they usually lie down in the hay until the pain subsides, but in an hour or two, they will be up and butting at mama for more milk. Banding prevents poop from accumulating in their tails. I’ve seen undocked sheep in the summer, their long tails covered with brown feces. This creates a breeding ground for maggots, so it’s healthier for the sheep to be tail-less. And of course the little boys can’t have all their parts because they can begin to breed at a fairly young age. This would lead to continuous in-breeding and weaker stock.
     When we finish, I stand for a minute in the feedway, just admiring all the history in the hand-planed, wood pegged beams that hold up the massive walls. This barn is almost a hundred years old, and looks ready for another hundred years. Then we turn off the lights and climb back into the warm car. It’s been another wonderful date night on the farm.

Midnight in the Barn

steam rises
animals exhale
a quiet breathing
sheep bleat
cows moan and
hay shuffles
as kine and swine
and recline
summer’s leftover

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