Sunday, January 1, 2012

We Kept Sheep

I thought I'd kick off 2012 with a farm story from a January long ago. Happy New Year.

We kept twenty or thirty sheep across the road on a three cornered patch of low pasture, maybe four acres. A creek ran through it and it was too wet to farm. The triangle was created before I was born when they changed the path of Illinois Route 9 between Bloomington and Pekin. The new road, we called it the hard road because it was concrete, cut through our small farm at an angle different from the old road. Our corn crib stood on that three cornered patch. The sheep kept the pasture clean and were easily tended. We’d throw ears of corn to them from the crib and take hay over to them when snow covered the ground. Dad used to put a bale of alfalfa on his back and walk down the lane with it towards the crib. When I got old enough I took it in a wheelbarrow or on a sled. Taking care of the sheep became my job.

The ewes lambed in the winter, usually January, often on the coldest nights. They would have their lambs in the crib driveway, not that it offered much shelter, but that’s where I would find the new lambs. Lambs need to nurse soon after birth. They are up on their feet almost immediately but they need their Mom’s milk quickly to make it. Sheep often deliver twins. Sometime a ewe will take to one lamb in a set of twins and ignore the other. Or she’ll deliver a single lamb and walk away from it. On a cold January night a lamb without milk or its Mom’s attention dies quickly. Sometimes I would find little orphan newborn lambs cold and dead by the crib. But other times I would find them alive. Weak but alive. Like this time.

I stepped inside the crib and saw the lamb, a little huddle of tight black wool. He looked dead. I picked him up. He moved his head ever so slightly. I looked at the sheep and saw the ewe that had just had him. I knew by the mess on her hindquarters. I ran across the road with the lamb in my arms and yelled for my Dad. As he came up from the dairy barn I handed Dad the lamb. We went into the house and down to the furnace room. “Go get a cardboard box and an old towel,” he told me “and put some milk on the stove.”

While I was doing that Dad sat on the step by the furnace room door and put the lamb between his knees, legs up. He kept a box of stuff in the furnace room just for this. In the box among other things was a bottle of Kessler’s Whiskey and an eye dropper. Dad tipped the bottle and loaded up an eye dropper of whiskey. After getting his finger inside the lamb’s mouth he pried it open and pumped a dropper full of the stuff into the little guy’s mouth. He didn’t respond. Dad looked at him closely and gave him another one. He wanted a reaction from the lamb and finally got one. The little lamb snorted softly, twisted its neck, and gave out the weakest most pitiful little “baaaa” you could imagine. Then Dad rubbed the lamb’s belly, it’s legs, it’s head, and turned it over to rub it’s back.

“We gotta get the blood flowing in this little guy” he said.

“Why do some ewes do this?” I asked.

“People can learn things but with animals it’s all instinct. They don’t learn to lick their lambs and get them to nurse, they just do it. And with instinct, animals either have it or they don’t. Now go get the milk and put it in a pop bottle.”

We always had empty returnable pop bottles on the porch. I liked the way the milk looked in the green bottles so I grabbed an empty 7 Up and filled it with the hot milk from the stove. I did all this really fast, as if the lamb’s life depended on it. It was exciting.

Dad kept black rubber nipples in the furnace room lamb rescue box. He made a nipple bottle by fitting the short black nipple on the bottle where the cap would go. He tried to get the lamb to stand but it couldn’t so he put him on his back on his knees and put the nipple in his mouth. He wouldn’t suck. Dad worked his jaws with his fingers, compressing the nipple then letting go, so the milk ran down into the lamb’s throat.

“Rub his throat will you? Let’s see if we can get him to swallow.” I stroked the lamb’s nubbly little throat with my finger saying to myself ‘please swallow little guy, please.’ If he swallowed I couldn’t tell. Lots of milk ran out of his mouth. We got as much milk in the lamb as we could and then Dad said, like he always did, “Well, we’ve done everything we can. The rest is up to him.” I was afraid he didn’t get enough milk.

I put him in the box, covered him with the towel, and put the box by the big coal furnace. The lamb just laid there, sleeping. Dad went on with his work and I tried to do other things, but all I could think about was the lamb. I checked on him all the time. No change. If we could get them to the house alive, we almost always saved them. That’s what I kept telling myself.

Later when we were almost done with supper we heard the bleat of a stronger lamb. Noise travelled well from the furnace room, up the hot air ducts and around the house. Hearing the lamb was the best sound. My Dad looked at me and smiled. “Looks like he made it.”

I ran down the steps, jumping the last four, and threw open the door to the furnace room. The lamb was standing up, its head just above the top of the box. I ran back upstairs, got the bottle from the icebox, stood it in a pan of water to reheat it, and then flew back to the furnace room to give him the rest of the bottle. He sucked well and his tail wiggled as he ate. For days the lamb would just eat, sleep, eat, and sleep again. It was true. If we could get lambs in the house alive we could save them. Dad was good at that, like he was at everything it seemed. I thought it was miraculous.

When the lamb was big enough we put him in a pen in the dairy barn and raised him there with the calves. I fed him every day. The next time Dad and I were in the sheep lot together, feeding corn and hay, he said “Can you pick out the ewe that left that lamb out in the cold?”

I knew the sheep pretty well and pointed right at her. “Will you remember her in the summer when we ship lambs?” I nodded yes.

“Okay,” he said. I’m counting on that.” I didn‘t know what he meant.

The lamb grew big and became a pet. We named him Shadow because he followed us around all the time. He hung around the house like a dog, combing the lawn for white clovers, plucking them from among the blades of grass and chewing them slowly. We tried putting him back across the road with the other sheep but he just stood at the gate and cried.

“That lamb doesn’t know he’s a lamb. He thinks he’s a cow or a person for gosh sakes. Bring him back.”

Later that summer when the lambs were eighty to a hundred pounds, long after we’d cut their tails off, we looked at them all, kept a few of the biggest and best looking ewe lambs, and brought in the truck to ship the rest to market. They would become leg of lamb and lamb chops for city people in short order. We never ate lamb or knew anyone that did. We were keeping Shadow to be the buck for a little flock of sheep that a friend of ours kept on the other side of Danvers. We weren’t real sure how he’d do as a buck for a flock but Dad promised to bring him back if he didn’t perform. Farmers would trade buck sheep back and forth to keep from inbreeding.

As we were loading the lambs into the truck Dad said “Where is that ewe that left Shadow to die in the cold?”

I looked at the group of sheep that were standing watching the goings on. “She’s right there.”

“Let’s see if we can get her up here.”

Dad went to the crib and threw out a few ears of corn. The sheep came running. He dropped some more ears nearly at our feet.

“When she gets close let’s grab her.’

Sheep are pretty easy to catch. They don’t resist long. If you grab them and hold them for even a short time, they’ll give up completely and lay there like a sack of potatoes. Sometime they’ll lay there all defeated even after you’ve let them go. Anyway, this ewe didn’t put up much of a fight
“What are we going to do with her?” I asked.

“We’re going to ship her with the lambs. No need to put another lamb through what Shadow went through last winter. She’s not a good enough mother to keep around.” And with that he picked her up and put her on the ramp going up into the truck.

“What will happen to her at the stock yard?”

“Well, she may be a sheep today but she’ll be mutton tomorrow.”

That’s the way it was on the farm. We saved lamb’s lives and decided the fates of their parents. It was all part of the work.