For two years you'll carry buckets, fork hay, rotate pastures and muck out paddocks. Expect to be slobbered on, pushed around, bellered at and stepped on. Two years of daily attention can be a daunting commitment, but when the time is up and the pasture stands empty, your heart will ache for it.
Two years ago Hank and I brought home Rusty and Bumper. They were just a few months old so twice a day I mixed buckets of warm milk in the house and carried them out to the barn. They pushed their heads down into those buckets and came out still suckling on their own tongues. Those first few months, whenever they heard my voice or the rattling of plastic buckets, they'd get excited. My red Carhartt jacket was quickly shellacked with slobber.
That first Winter we pastured Rusty and Bumper with the ewes until we noticed they had ringworm. Highly contagious, we immediately separated them from the girls. Because of the lanolin in their wool, sheep don't typically contract ringworm, and we'd never had to deal with this before. After giving the cows a healthy deworming, I snapped on rubber gloves every day and smeared anti-fungal cream on the sores around their eyes. When the weather warmed up, the ringworm seemed to be gone so I headed into the barn and bleached down every surface I could find. Thank God I never caught it!
Out of the temporary barnyard and back in with the rams they went, while Hank planned out new, more cow-friendly pastures. We decided that we'd extend both the rams and ewes pastures, adding another two acres. This required several gates to not only effectively rotate the animals but also to keep the ewes, rams and cows separate as needed. Before even half of the posts were pounded, Rusty and Bumper quietly pushed down a section of woven wire one day and tip-toed out to freedom. You can imagine my surprise when I looked up from my sewing project to see Bumper staring in the dining room window. The new pasture project was allocated to the top of the Priority List.
Finally settled in their new, cow-only enclosure modeled after Fort Knox, Rusty and Bumper were really filling out. After the drought conditions in the Midwest and our subsequently small hay crop, we knew we wouldn't make it through the winter and started looking for round bales to feed the boys that second Winter. After having just spent the extra monies on fencing and gates (have you priced out metal posts lately?), we were less than pleased at this new feed expense. Taking into consideration the costs and the extra work required for feeding and cleaning up, I was really starting to appreciate the simplicity of raising sheep.
Pick-up...just yesterday the butcher backed his trailer up to the gate. With a pan of corn, I stood inside the trailer, talking sweetly to coax Rusty and Bumper in with me. I felt like such a Benedict Arnold. There were three other beefs in the truck. Two had diarrhea and one had snot all over his nose. What do these farmers do to their animals? I felt like a protective mother who didn't want her children associating with the other "less than desirable" kids. They had only ever been in wide, open spaces and hesitated at the small enclosure. Once loaded, I climbed on the running board and reached inside to scratch their chins. It broke my heart to know that for the last 24 hours of their life, my boys would be scared and stressed in unfamiliar surroundings. How I wish I had the strength to finish things at home.
I've always thought of myself as a pretty stoic person. Hank and I have had animals of one species or another on our farm for the past 15 years. We've had goslings die from exposure and laying hens die from old age. We butcher our own broilers, turkeys and ducks. We send lambs off to market almost every year. Heck, I did a little dance when the pigs went off to butcher! We have had to put down sick ewes and bury them in our pasture. And there are more cats buried in that same pasture than I can even name. Typically I can take it all in stride. But somehow not this time. No matter how many jokes I cracked about them being tasty and for all their hardwork and mischief, Rusty and Bumper really got to me. But this is part of it too, I know. God made a Farmer to delight in the sunny days and to shoulder the dark ones. And in the dreary days of Fall, when the pasture stands empty, it quietly holds the promise of the coming Spring, if only you can see it.