|Life - and Death - on the Farm
by Laurie Ball-Gisch
Springtime on the farm - close your eyes, what do you see when you imagine spring's renewal? Perhaps you see greening fields and daffodils
opening their sunny arms; spotted calves or long legged foals; maybe the peep peep in the hen house signals the hens have been successfully
nesting. Or, as on our farm, perhaps new lambs bouncing energetically through the pastures signals a new spring arriving. We usually think of
spring as a time of renewal, of birth, of babies; it is usually a time of celebration.
Those who don't live on a farm sometimes don't realize that where there is "livestock," there will also be "deadstock." It is the hidden dark
side of farming that isn't often talked about. For all the articles you will see in magazines which speak of all the joys of raising sheep (or any
livestock) we usually don't read of the other side of farm life - which is - death. This darker side to farming is seldom discussed, except under the
guise of "how to treat 'xxx' disease or ailment." There is a very real emotional toll that impacts each shepherd and farmer. I think it is time to
acknowledge the reality of both sides of life's cycle and to recognize the courage and wisdom that livestock producers must gain - indeed, their
ability to persevere, in order to keep doing what they do.
When I acquired my first four sheep, I was sure they would all die of old age. Yet that didn't happen. We have lost sheep - to accidents, to a
viscious parasite that is the bain of all shepherds - barberpole worm; we have seen the hideous effect of unforseen bloat and cast; and we have
lost lambs at birth and shortly after birth. Sometimes a sheep (or chicken, cow, horse, pig, cat, dog) is dead and you're never quite sure what
happened. I believe I am a vigilant shepherd, and I know my sheep well. I see them every day, many times a day. Yet in spite of the best care I
know how to give, I have had sheep die. And every time a sheep dies, it is a heart wrenching experience that has me second guessing myself and
makes me question whether or not I should be a shepherdess.
You're never prepared to go out at day break, and find a dead lamb in the barn. I mourn each lost life deeply. When my husband found me
sobbing outside holding a dead lamb one spring morning, he told me that I must learn to live with death or I will not be able to continue
shepherding. In the paddock behind me, just at that moment, there were lambs chasing each other, and he asked me to look at those healthy
lambs and decide: "does the joy of raising sheep outweigh the sorrow and the pain of losing sheep?"
A friend, a new shepherdess, in her first year of lambing, had already had her first losses and she wrote to me in pain and sorrow; she was
rethinking farming. I asked her the same question my husband asked me: does the joy outweigh the sorrow? Would she miss the animals if they
were no longer there?
When we are charged with keeping animals safe and alive, we feel deeply the responsibility for their deaths, even when it is not our fault.
Animals die. We do the best that we can. We try to understand the reasons for those deaths and hope to prevent similar losses in the future.
Each death teaches us more about our animals. Perhaps these young lives are sent here so that we can learn from them. And if we listen and learn
from their deaths, then their deaths were not in vain.
Each year my sheep, both the live ones and those that have been sick and/or died, teach me valuable lessons. In trying to save one small lamb's
life, we had to do a tricky procedure that helped us gain confidence in our shepherding skills. When I had to do my first assisted lambing (a lamb
being presented was showing its nose and only one foot) I knew that the other leg must come forward; it was obvious from the ewe's distress
that she needed help. I put on surgical gloves and put my hand in and found the leg bent backwards. I was able to maneuver the leg and move it
forward and helped deliver a healthy lamb.
One of the best ways to know when sheep need your help, is to know what "healthy" and "normal" is. The more time you can spend quietly
observing your flock, the more quickly you will notice when something is wrong. In addition to watching, listen to your flock. There are the
normal calls of dams to their lambs, of sheep to each other - but there are also cries of distress. Any time a sheep is bleating incessantly, it is
important to investigate. A sheep may have a horn caught in a fence; a lamb may have gotten separated from its dam. Any time my sheep have
been "too noisy" there has been something amiss that needed my attention.
I am always eager for lambing each spring, but I also await the ewes' upcoming labors with a mixture of excitement and fear. I hope that I will
be around if they need me. But I cannot sit in a barn all night; I also have a family to take care of and if I don't sleep, I can't be a good mother or
an effective farmer.A shepherd's on-going dilemna during lambing is whether or not to let the ewes alone to do their jobs or to hover and help if
needed. There's a fine line there that shifts with each individual animal's age, experience, situation and personality. I chose the breed of sheep
that I raise (Icelandics) because they are - for the most part - easy lambers. I don't want to have to assist in the births. If I do, then my sheep are
not the independent, sound breeding stock that I want to perpetuate in my sheeps' bloodlines.
It will be through observing normal healthy births that you will also be able to recognize when something is wrong. I try to find a quiet place,
enough away from the ewe in labor, so that I do not distract her, but near enough that I can observe. Many new shepherds err on the side of
trying to help too early. But there are signs to watch for - familiarize yourself with what a normal presentation looks like (a nose and two small
hooves presenting), so that if what you see is not normal, you will know to intervene. One ewe had delivered her first twin just fine, but when
she lay back down and pushed, I could see her pushing was more labored. When she stood up again, I could see long legs, no nose. I recognized
immediately that this was a breech presentation, and I moved in, grabbed those legs and pulled quickly, down and out. Because I was fortunate
enough to have been able to see this particular labor, this lamb was fine.
As each new season comes and goes, I will continually re-evaluate my sheep maintenance program. Feeding the ewes, especially pregnant
ewes, is an art form in itself. Ewes must be in top condition going into the breeding season. Our Icelandic sheep must not be overfed during late
gestation. This breed developed an ability to survive on scant feed in Iceland over the centuries, so overfeeding them can quickly produce lambs
that are too big - especially if a ewe singles. (Here's where we have to "throw out the books" in terms of management; traditional feeding
programs of heavy graining do not work for Icelandic ewes in late gestation). Our ewes do very well when the lambs are the right size for easy
labor and delivery (5-7 lbs is just right). But should a ewe single and eat too much the last 6 weeks, she may end up not being able to deliver her
lamb on her own; large single lambs and labored deliveries are probably the biggest cause for stillborn lambs within our breed.
My job is to be observant and to learn. But the learning sometimes comes at a very high price. It really is the ultimate "school of hard
knocks" and one must develop a strength and courage to continue in this profession.
There is often a real sense of inadequacy, shame, fear and failure when one loses an animal. It's important to have a network of friends who
are experienced in shepherding to call on when things go wrong. They will provide you with emotional support that you will need. Some lucky
shepherds have veterinarians who are supportive of sheep raising who will be invaluable resources in analyzing problems and creating solutions,
but unfortunately for many of us, these professionals are not to be found. Therefore creating a network of fellow shepherds can be a real lifeline
- for both the sheep - and for yourself.
One of my friends, who is also a shepherdess, told me that if she were to ever die and come back to this earth as a sheep, she would want me to
be her shepherdess. If she trusts me that much, then it is time that I learn to trust myself too.
Not all of a shepherd's lessons result in death, fortunately. I don't mean to imply that it is all sorrow and death. But I wanted those who have
never farmed livestock to know that the dark side to shepherding must also be acknowledged.
There is nothing more lovely or comical to watch than the spring lambs bounding through their pastures. Our sheep have an uncanny ability
to "bounce" as if their feet are on springs, and when you see twenty some lambs go "bouncing- boing, boing, boing" and then break into an all out
race - just for the sheer joy of being alive, you know once again you were meant to be a shepherd. The barnyard in springtime resembles a
school playground at recess time. There is chaotic "energy in motion" as vigorous, healthy lambs grow bigger and stronger each day. Does the
joy of watching them play outweigh the sorrow over the ones who died?
Yes, this day, it does.