Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Puzzle

This morning I walked up the hill to check on the lambs I was worried about, the ones out of Split Ear. I had a warm bottle of milk replacer and a tube of lamb paste in my pocket. As soon as I made my way up the hill I heard the cry of a baby looking for his mother and I felt a wash of relief. That sound sent a smile over my face faster than any cup of hot coffee could. These two little lambs seemed weaker than they should have been, born smaller than Brick's lambs and had a mother with a bum teat. So yesterday they each got extra lamb paste and I started some bottle feeding to supplement mama's milk. They had a heat lamp and I was checking on them every few hours.

When I made my way up to the sheep shed I saw one lamb laying down in the snow, head up, enjoying the sunshine. So that was the little squeaker I heard? I did not see the other. So I went inside to the shed. What I discovered was a very sad sight. One of Split Ear's lambs did not make it through the night. There the three-day old lamb lay, quiet and stiff. Split Ear was behind me walked up to the dead babe. She pawed and pawed at the lamb to wake it up. It was heartbreaking.

I scooped up the remaining lamb and it felt so different than the last time I held him, as if he was full of air and bones. I brought it to my lap and sat under the heat lamp and started offering him the bottle. He took to it, and he took it well.  Soon he lost that light feeling and was standing and alert but shivering even under the lamp on a fairly mild morning. I made the decision to bring him inside and walked down the hill with a dead lamb under one arm and a live one in the other, Split Ear following me till I stepped over the fence. It was a very small funeral parade.

The lamb was fed replacer and warmed by the fire. He is perking up and walking around the living room as I type, sucking on my flannel coat and dog bothering. I hope he makes it. He seems to have a lot of fight in him, something I respect in all animals.  I will be feeding him regularly and hoping to keep him outside with the rest of the flock if he does. At this point I don't know if he will or not. I accept either outcome, but will keep working for a healthy ram lamb.

And since I am writing about this, I'd like to address something. Every time an animal dies here I write about it. And every time I do that critics think I'm a failure and irresponsible. I also get an opposite response. I'll get emails from people offering money for vet care and telling me I should save the animal no matter what, and anything else is heartless and horrible. But for me to call an emergency vet to come to this farm would cost more than I could ever sell the lamb for, nearly double. And I am not calling in a vet for an 8-year-old ewe with half-dry udder either. Not because I am cold or cheap, but because I am being realistic. If she was a prize winning, 3 year old, I would. If she was Brick, I would. But not for this sheep. I know that sounds harsh, but that is the reality of farming vs keeping pets you eat. I would rather keep living the life of my dreams than appease angry people on the internet. I am still here with my own life to lead after they close their browser windows and go to the grocery store to buy more bacon.

I don't see myself or Cold Antler Farm as a failure, ever. I do not see this old farmhouse I bought in my late twenties and fight to keep as a failure. I don't see four years of paid mortgage bills, 2 of which I have been self-employed at my dream job, as a failure. Nor do I see the two gorgeous lambs out of Brick, one already sold and a flock of 6 healthy sheep as a failure. I don't see my dream horse, paid off in full, standing there on the hillside as a failure. I don't see the mother/daughter team of Alpine goats with kids on the way as a failure. Nor do I see years of kidding healthy little goatlings as a failure. I don't see the four fat pigs, soon to be butchered for friends and neighbors, as a failure. I don't see my beautiful sheepdog, or my 15 year old Husky, as a failure. I don't see my two original goslings, Cyrus and Saro as a failure, out there with their daughter Ryan splashing in the creek. It is so easy to look at one horrible thing and not realize what a small piece of the whole it is.

Not to say there have not been failures here, oh, there have been plenty! If you consider losing an animal a failure, that is. I see it as a learning experience that builds every season, helping make me a better farmer and stronger woman. But regardless of these mistakes I know that ten years from now I will still have sheep, and those lambs will still occasionally die, too. That's part of this.

This post is not about a dead lamb, or angry people, or the bottle baby here at my side. This post is me talking to all of you out there with a farm and animals, or the dream for a farm and animals. The bigger picture is what needs to always be in the front of your mind. It is not irresponsible to lose one lamb, but spending all of my attention, resources, and money on him while the other animals are waiting to be cared for is. This ability to see a farm as a puzzle and not the puzzle pieces. You do your best to keep the pieces crisp and clean and organized but in the end it is the bigger picture that matters. You can still see the final image if pieces are missing, you just need to accept that it isn't perfect. That is what this post is about.

Friends, I am writing all this next to the fireplace on my laptop. The little ram lamb is here warming by the fire, now sleeping. Soon as the sun warms up a bit more he will go outside to be with his mother and I will feed him throughout the day. He may spend the night inside, I'm not sure yet. What I am sure of is  that four years ago I probably would have lost both lambs. I didn't know what a weak newborn vs a hearty one looked like. I didn't have the experience of bottle feeding and paste in stock on the farm shelves. I wasn't the woman I am now. I was still putting the puzzle together.

I'll end this post by sharing this. I got an email from another farmer this winter who said "I can't believe you are brave enough to raise sheep and write about it. I can't think of another farm animal that is harder to help." She is right, but these are the livestock that got me into larger animal farming and they are the ones that have taught me more than all the other animals combined. I raise them because they force me to be better. They are fidelity and courage on four hooves and the animal I am most terrified and proud of. Even if they are the missing pieces sometimes.


39 Comments:

Blogger Kim Vance said...

Excellent.

March 10, 2015 at 11:43 AM  
Blogger Christine Marble said...

Heartbreaking (the little lost one and his Mom.) Inspiring (you.)

March 10, 2015 at 12:04 PM  
Blogger Em said...

Did you find out what was wrong with Split Ear's teat? Is that one just dry from past issues, or is there a danger that she has active mastitis? As sad as it is to lose a lamb, don't forget to keep an eye on the mama too.

March 10, 2015 at 12:05 PM  
Blogger Jenna said...

Well said, Em. I don't think it is Mast, as there are no lumps, no heat, no pus, no stringy milk... just a dry teat. I am not about to cull her or anything but I think she is doing better (health wise) than last winter due to the extra feed and I kept graining them past fall flushing - which is why I think out of 2 ewes I ended up with four (now 3) lambs

March 10, 2015 at 12:16 PM  
Blogger Jenna said...

Thanks all. Writing this stuff is scary. I'm going for a jog and will check back in later this afternoon. Need to get hay, help out with the new kids at Common Sense, bottle feed this little guy and work for two design clients scheduled.

March 10, 2015 at 12:18 PM  
Blogger Denise said...

People who don't have a farm or have never been around farms don't seem to understand how expensive it can actually be to have one. These are not pets. You do the best you can. Jenna, you're a good farmer don't let them say any different.

March 10, 2015 at 12:27 PM  
Blogger Jennifer Montero said...

Yup. As a fellow shepherdess, I think you are right. It's a balance between welfare and economics. And not all lambs are strong enough to make it no matter how much veterinary care you throw at them. You take each case as it comes, and usually it comes at midnight in the pouring rain when you're already overtired. That you can think straight enough to write a blog post about it as well as manage it, well, I take my hat off to you.

March 10, 2015 at 12:42 PM  
Blogger Ella said...

Jenna, my husband and I struggle with the same issues. Right now I have a very large sow with a damaged front leg (from freeze/thaw/freeze/thaw and probably a slip or stumble or two), which can only mean slaughter, if I can get her in the trailer. I struggle every time I feel like an animal has paid the price for my ignorance or honest mistake. But I also know that I don't make the same mistake twice, and with every mistake comes a renewed round of extra education, above and beyond the specific issue (e.g. should have penned the hogs in with our weather, but I've also learned a fair bit of anatomy that will help me in the future). Here's to having honesty about our oftentimes conflicted but also dead certain feeling about animal husbandry.

March 10, 2015 at 12:56 PM  
Blogger Sherry Bowman said...

Sometimes animals will die regardless of super-human efforts. You can just hope and/or avoid any suffering they may endure. Farm life is tough. Personally I don't live on a farm but have a sense of what is required. Good luck & hope you get a little better weather.

March 10, 2015 at 2:10 PM  
Blogger Carrie Drake said...

My dream as a young woman was to live alone in the woods and be self sufficient...I am now the most "middle class " 60 something...thank you to you for living my dream and writing about it for me to read. I think you're amazing!!

March 10, 2015 at 2:39 PM  
Blogger Glyndalyn said...

Great post, Jenna. I have had limited time for blog reading this winter until recently. I imagine most of your criticizers are city people. Great if someone wants to live in a rural area. Learn how before you come. Otherwise, I invite city people to stay in the city, where they belong.

March 10, 2015 at 3:29 PM  
Blogger Beth Brown said...

Great post. Dealing with dead livestock has been my biggest challenge. I absolutely love your blog!

March 10, 2015 at 4:16 PM  
Blogger crashdown said...

Jenna, I'm curious why you say you won't be culling that ewe. She's quite old, and after this problem, most of us wouldn't ever think of breeding her again. Why do you want to? Why not just breed healthy, good mothers?

March 10, 2015 at 5:52 PM  
Blogger Jenna said...

Thank you guys for the comments, supportive and asking questions (and both)

March 10, 2015 at 6:05 PM  
Blogger Jenna said...

Crash - If I was raising sheep as my main source of income or even a sizable portion of it I would not keep the ewe. But since she is only one of two proven breeding animals and her offspring, even if they are bottle babies, may provide ewes for this farm that are healthy and raised well - it is worth it to me to keep her. The breed isn't common here and if I can get just one more ewe lamb out of her she will be worth it. But you are right, any sensible shepherd would cull her out.

March 10, 2015 at 6:07 PM  
Blogger Jenna said...

Having written all that, I might cull her. I'm torn. She's clearly no star breeding animal, but like I said above - one more ewe lamb out of her would be worth it. If I save this ram lamb and sell it - that is income this farm would not have. But the idea of breeding animals that are not ideal may not be helping anyone in the long run, so it will be something to think about long and hard. Thank you.

March 10, 2015 at 6:12 PM  
OpenID 5a92456c-c777-11e4-8cd8-c34fe4be99ad said...

Your post is about resilience. Getting up every morning and dealing with what nature and the world throws at you. It is not easy. If it were, everyone would be doing it.

We have been in your boots. Most people just don't get it.

March 10, 2015 at 6:46 PM  
OpenID 5a92456c-c777-11e4-8cd8-c34fe4be99ad said...

Your post is about resilience. It's about getting up every day and dealing with what nature and the world throws at you. It is not easy. If it were, everyone would be doing it.

We have been in your boots. Most people just don't get it.

March 10, 2015 at 6:49 PM  
Blogger margaret minetti said...

well hell even dogs have stillborn pups or pups that dont make it thats life, ignorance is for the non doers. keep her or cull her if shes doing okay thats up to you, but might proove to be a genetic thing that could be passed on to the next ewe. you know more about that then me. i have raised dogs for a few years and still dont know all there is by a long shot , its all from experience, which is the only real way to learn. keep up the fight, hope the little dude makes it!

March 10, 2015 at 7:31 PM  
Blogger Ngo Family Farm said...

This is the way of farm life - the whole if it, and I'm grateful you share all of it with us. It does the world a great disservice when we have a bunch of curated blogs that hide the sometimes unpleasant truths (although I totally get why people want to avoid the criticism, I'm not sure I could handle it either!) But, thank you, Jenna, for your courage and the vulnerability you endure so that we can all learn something from the life you're living!
-Jaime

March 10, 2015 at 9:59 PM  
Blogger Shelley said...

In life, there is death. Farming with animals means there will be dead animals. Hopefully not many, but it is inevitable. We are living in a society where we are so far removed from death, that we sometimes forget that death is part of the lifecycle. Nature has its own way of taking care of things and we are not ever going to be able to stop it. If a person chooses to have pets and baby them and treat them like their children, that is fine, but when a person is trying to make a living in farming, it is not good sense to throw good money away on weak livestock. Our grandparents knew this, it is common sense. Somehow our modern society has lost this practical knowledge and that is sad and frightening.
Don't second guess yourself Jenna, for people that have probably never spent time in true discussion with a real farmer or quality time on a farm!

March 10, 2015 at 10:10 PM  
Blogger Alison said...

Yeah, well, screw the naysayers. This kind of harsh-light-of-day reality is why I continue to follow your blog. I want to keep in the forefront of my mind all the dirty, hard work and sacrifice others make so I can eat animals. I don't have a problem being a carnivore, but I want to be an honest one.

March 10, 2015 at 10:46 PM  
Blogger Mary Schroeder said...

Hang in there. Everything you wrote is on the money in my eyes.

March 10, 2015 at 10:57 PM  
Blogger Sharon said...

I understand the death well. I had my best cow lose a 5 month fetus last Sunday. I have lost 3 other calves over the past 10 years. I am always sad for the mama cow, she certainly mourns the dead calves, even though they are born dead. I am watching the mama cow carefully, for any signs of illness. She still has her 11 month old calf, to keep her happy. You are brave to face this, and share it on your blog.

March 11, 2015 at 12:15 AM  
Blogger Erik said...

So sorry you lost him, but you're really doing well and I look forward to the day when I can emulate your spirit. I think Split Ear will be fine, but this may be her last year of lambs?

Don't forget about the Clan blog too, you can always rant or cry to us there. X3

March 11, 2015 at 12:53 AM  
Blogger aart said...

Great Post!
As long as that 'bad' udder doesn't make the rest of her body sick, maybe try one more time to get a ewe out of her.

March 11, 2015 at 7:03 AM  
Blogger Holly said...

I belong to a couple facebook homesteading sites and the reality of lambing season is that some do die. It is very sad but it is a fact that despite all efforts animals do die on a farm. People are posting all the time that this animal or that one took a turn for the worse and they found them dead. Sad but true. It is a part of the life of a farmer.
On a positive note: I have 3 week baby ducks now to add (eventually) to our farm!

March 11, 2015 at 8:38 AM  
Blogger Chuckie Choo said...

Good insight in your article. Raising animals on a farm is always about living and dying. Farming with stock animals is not about raising them for a great retirement in later life. All animals including humans are not always born healthy and live. Some die, it is a fact of life. I have been farming for five decades with cattle, hogs and chickens and not every animal survives. Keep up the good work and keep learning from your experiences.

March 11, 2015 at 10:33 AM  
Blogger Tanya T said...

Jenna I never read your posts with judgment because to me you are sharing a story. It's the story of a life and as we all know, life is unpredictable and sometimes unfair. Sorry you lost one of those cute lambs.

March 11, 2015 at 12:05 PM  
Blogger Kitty Dilatush said...

As odd as it sounds there is usually something not right about a newborn animal that doesn't make it. It is natures way of taking care of things. You just give them the best care you can and hope for the best but it doesn't always have a positive outcome. It is just the nature of the beast so to speak. When you are a farmer or a rancher large or small you have to look at the overall big picture and make decisions based on what is going to be the best all around for all of the animals not just one. I am sorry you lost the newborn lamb and I know it does tug at your heart but you are giving it your all and doing what is best right now.

March 11, 2015 at 4:44 PM  
Blogger Margaret said...

Your post today was written with wisdom and maturity that only good common sense, excellent judgment, and several years "in the belly of the Beast" could equip you with.
I am old enough to be your Mom, and if you were my daughter I would be mighty proud of you. The life you have chosen takes courage, stamina, resourcefulness, patience, a tough spirit and a strong stomach! You deal with isolation and have no one to fall back on. You do it all, and still find the energy to write it all down so that many of us vicariously can share a life we might have chosen, but went in a different direction. Good for you, Jenna!

March 11, 2015 at 4:46 PM  
Blogger Margaret said...

Your post today was written with wisdom and maturity that only good common sense, excellent judgment, and several years "in the belly of the Beast" could equip you with.
I am old enough to be your Mom, and if you were my daughter I would be mighty proud of you. The life you have chosen takes courage, stamina, resourcefulness, patience, a tough spirit and a strong stomach! You deal with isolation and have no one to fall back on. You do it all, and still find the energy to write it all down so that many of us vicariously can share a life we might have chosen, but went in a different direction. Good for you, Jenna!

March 11, 2015 at 4:46 PM  
Blogger A.N said...

We are grateful for the time we have been giving and in this life, like all lives, the great wheel turns us from life to death to life again. You are a woman, tending animals alone. You are cut from the cloth of bravery. Most of your critics cannot seem to get through three hours without another human to validate their exist, even if it is only by another long, drawn hateful comment. They are cowards. You are a breed apart, lady of Cold Antler.

March 11, 2015 at 7:38 PM  
Blogger Dana "Aurora" Johnson said...

I appreciate your sharing the realities of the lifestyle. Death is certainly part of it - sometimes by accident, sometimes by nature, and sometimes by desire (food).

March 11, 2015 at 8:17 PM  
Blogger sandalfoot said...

If people would only get it. Your farm versus the factory farm. The lives of your animals versus the lives (and deaths/killings) of animals on factory farms. Seems to me you are doing the best you can and with a conscience. Judgement comes easy for those of us who haven't a clue.

March 12, 2015 at 12:23 AM  
Blogger sandalfoot said...

If people would only get it. Your farm versus the factory farm. The lives of your animals versus the lives (and deaths/killings) of animals on factory farms. Seems to me you are doing the best you can and with a conscience. Judgement comes easy for those of us who haven't a clue.

March 12, 2015 at 12:24 AM  
Blogger Gowan Batist said...

I'm a vegetable and livestock farmer and some death is inherant in farming, good farming includes culls and deaths. When I choose to not transplant the spindly broccoli plant and instead plant the thick healthy ones the spindly plant withers and dies. That's farming. But no one writes hate mail about that, animals are just much more emotional even though the same exact truths apply. We've had deaths on our farm, and the reality is that it's usually our fault in some way, because we are not perfect. There is no other way to gain experience, and still experience does not always change outcomes. Lambs sometimes don't make it. I had one situation when I was younger in which I chose to "do everything" for a pet dwarf Nigerian who was accidentally bred while I was boarding her. I got her a C-section, IVs, medication, and oxygen and we slept next to her for a week, and she died. Our policy now is that we don't take drastic intervention, we practice good husbandry and then let nature speak for itself. I'm nowhere near this extreme but a very experienced rancher I know has a policy of never bottle feeding lambs, because she says that if that lamb is going to die without intervention then it needs to die for the good of the flock. She's a professional rancher with 1,000 head, and she knows more than me. I'm a vegetable farmer with a flock of sheep for brush control. I can feed some lambs, that's my decision, but I'll definitely try everything I can to avoid it.
I would have done the exact same thing as you in this case. Sometimes things suck. You're homesteading and that means daily confrontations with your own lack of control over nature and inability to manage every aspect of an infinitely complex system. Just do the best that you can and take your hits when you get them. My gentle advice is to simplify as much as possible. When we started we had cows, pigs, chickens, goats, sheep and ducks, and acres of veggies. Now we have many more acres of veggies and a small flock of sheep. You don't need to do everything, and you can't. No one can. But it takes trying things to find your niche, and trying things is a sometimes brutally hard process. I suggest buying Richard Wiswall's book The Organic Farmers Business Handbook, its written for vegetables but the same processes can be applied to animals. I've found them massively helpful and they've informed my planning. Good luck!

March 12, 2015 at 2:57 PM  
Blogger Curt said...

"I would rather keep living the life of my dreams than appease angry people on the internet. I am still here with my own life to lead after they close their browser windows and go to the grocery store to buy more bacon."

Amen.:)


"This post is me talking to all of you out there with a farm and animals, or the dream for a farm and animals."

Thank you for this post Jenna, I am still in the dream for a farm and animals and believe it will happen some day.

March 14, 2015 at 4:05 PM  
Blogger Christina S said...

Long story short, the first time I had chickens, and they were old enough to be in their own coop...we built an awesome coop with a giant fenced in yard...we were sooo excited. After a week of them being in the coop, our dogs dug underneath and killed like 15 chickens...5 remained (3 meat, and two egg layers). We were devistated....and felt like we failed the chickens...we reinforced the chicken coop with cement blocks...and got some new chickens...we learned from that, an continue to learn every day!!! Just wanted to let you know you are not alone, and to thank you for sharing your experience with us!!!

March 16, 2015 at 12:23 PM  

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