A Farm Story for June 11, 2011
Deb Potter, Merciful Hearts Farm
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Our lambs started coming in early February. Now that about four months have passed their mothers are starting to wean them. We allow all of our animals to dam-raise which means that we do not separate the babies from their mothers and we let the mothers decide when it is time to start pushing the little ones away when they try to nurse. That time is rapidly approaching.
Our Shetland sheep are our smallest breed with most of our ewes not much larger than a medium sized dog. These fifty pound mothers are getting tired of their lambs, who are now about three quarters of their own size, zipping up next to them, ducking down and smacking their udders. Lamb instinct is to rapidly butt their head on mama’s udder to let down the milk. When the lamb is small the system works perfectly but when the lamb had grown to the point that it is almost as tall as its mother the let down bump sends mama’s hind feet off of the ground. I can almost sense mama flinching as she sees a hungry almost-grown lamb approaching. The poor lamb has to lay on its belly in order to get its head low enough under mama’s belly to nurse. It is definitely time to stop and the ewes are beginning to rapidly pull away from their lambs and even gently kick at them when they try to nurse.
It seems the harder the mothers try to wean their young, the more desperate the babies become. Although the babies wander fairly far away, they seem to keep one eye on mama, waiting for her to stand up after a nap so that they can shoot towards that udder. Now the babies are not doing this out of hunger. They have been eating well for quite some time as they graze the pastures, have all day access to lovely fresh oat hay and get a daily ration of grain. Nursing on mama is a nice treat but also a reassurance that they are still loved and protected. Often when a baby is startled or suddenly looks up from where it has wandered and realizes that mama is not right next to it it will bawl and run up underneath its mother. It may take a quick nip as if to nurse but seems just to be comforted to be snuggled in a cozy familiar place even if it has grown too big to barely fit into that place.
The kids and lambs become more daring as they grow up. When they are tiny not only do they want to stay close to their mothers but the mothers often don’t let them go far, gently nudging them back should they wander. The instant a small baby is out of sight its mother bawls and anxiously searches for it. This connection is something we use all the time when a lamb or kid is born. We can walk a mother all the way up the hill, across the pasture and through several gates into a cozy stall in the barn just by holding her newborn at nose level and walking a few steps ahead of her. She really picks up the pace if the baby should cry out for her. Walking slowly and dangling a baby from the pasture to the barn is a lot easier on us that trying to carry or drag a newly delivered mother any distance.
As they grow, the babies branch out and most of the mothers relax so that they don’t mind if their little ones wander a few yards away for a while. Now that the babies are a few months old they are becoming quite independent. There are several gates that the babies can slip through but that the adults cannot. One of the areas that the babies now congregate is in a building we call the tractor shed. It is now almost filled with hay and the bales are stacked within about a foot of the rafters. As the hay is fed out to the sheep the stack of bales ends up as stair steps all the way to the rafters. And it is up at the rafters where I’ve found quite a few little lambs and kids climbing lately. Sometimes they stop and nibble along the way but mostly they seem to want to practice scaling the huge mountain of hay bales. Occasionally I will hear a baby crying for mama from the tractor shed. It is usually temporarily stuck up high and uncertain how to wind its way back down from its perch. Mama will come to the gate of the hay shed to offer encouragement but cannot slip through the gate so is forced to watch her little one experiment with ways down or wait for me to climb the bales to gently nudge it down a safe path. Fortunately, an accidental tumble just results in a distressed baby landing safely in a soft pile of hay.
Usually the wandering is not a big problem but we now have one little buckling twin who has taken it too far. His brother is a climber but he is our escape artist. He started by slipping through the fence to the neighbor’s field which is loaded with poison ivy, a special goat snack. A few weeks ago I returned from town to find a young lady standing in my driveway with the white kid in her arms. She said she’d pulled him out of the road. He had wandered all the way from the neighbor’s back pasture to the highway. And he got into trouble again on Wednesday.
I walked out for a quick trip to turn off a dye vat. That trip turned into an hour outside. On my way to the stable I heard a baby bawling. The little white fellow was on the neighbor’s side of the fence knee deep in poison ivy. I was hoping I could reach through the fence, sacrificing as little of my skin to the poison ivy that I could, grab him and hoist him up and over the fence while trying to avoid the strand of hot wire at the top. He would not cooperate, avoiding me as I reached through the fence. After lots of attempts I called my sweet husband to tell him of the predicament. I did not want to go over to traipse around the neighbor’s property as poison ivy does not agree with me. Al offered to come home for a late lunch and to grab the little guy. I was afraid to leave him alone for fear he’d end up walking along the far side of the fence and ending up in the highway again so I stood in the hot pasture and talked kindly to him for the half hour it took Al to drive home.
Al did manage to wade into the poison ivy and grab him but only after he’d tried to come under the fence one more time. This time he caught the tip of his ear on the barbed wire that runs along the bottom of the fence. He panicked, jerked back his head and pulled the tip of his ear right off. Because of the way the tip of his ear folds he tore a little upside down “v” in the end of his ear. He bled a bit and bawled for his mother who was quick to comfort him once he was back to our side of the fence. I found the tiny tip of his ear, no bigger than my fingernail, still hanging on the jagged barb. The next morning I checked his wound and it was already scabbed over. It was easy to find him as he was tightly nestled against his sleeping mother’s side as his brother scaled the hay bales in the nearby tractor shed. I am hoping he won’t be wandering again anytime soon but we shall just have to see. And I immediately scrubbed well with dish soap and have no signs of poison ivy so far.
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