Monday, April 25, 2011

Sheep are amazing alchemists

Sheep are amazing alchemists. If not alchemists, then wonderful machines. They convert grass into wool and meat. Amazing. Those little lambs, so fragile and tiny, so quickly turn into stocky fellas, able to leap manure piles in a single bound.

You remember my story, was it last week? getting rammed by a couple of the little ones when we cornered them in the barn.

Well, several of the little guys have gone to live on other farms, mostly to be 4H projects for young ones.

Today was the day that last year's little baby lambs, now great big ram lambs, were slated to go on that long journey to West Virginia.

We have been going to West Virginia to a butcher shop for several years now. A family owned place, about an hour and a half more or less. We have had a hard time finding a USDA certified butcher, but these guys are friendly, competent, and have always done a great job for us. And I kinda enjoy the drive. Sometimes I go by myself and listen to music, and fret and pray. At times I listen to a book on cd or chat with a friend. Today Nora accompanied me since kids are on spring break.

But first, let me tell you about getting ready to head to West Virginia. Patrick and I made sure NOT to shower first. We rounded up the sheep, moved them into the barn, and separated the big ram lambs, the yearlings, into a stall. I remembered our early days on the farm when we didn't know how to round up sheep and move them easily into the barn.

Maggie opened and closed the gate as we separated the ewes and this years' little lambs. For a few seconds Patrick and I looked at the rams, their horns swept back, their eyes glaring. These guys are a mischievous bunch, akin to Peter Pan's lost boys. Mostly wild. Full of spunk and glee. Quite possibly the perfect metaphor for a full dose of testosterone. After having been taken down a time or two, during shearing or sorting, one might go into this sort of job with a small bit of trepidation.

We did.

Yet, after a few years, I have noticed that both Patrick and I have gained significantly more confidence in the sheep grabbing department. And it helps that Patrick has gained a great deal more muscle mass, too. Perhaps there are a few big guys out there (you probably are NOT reading this blog) who have no trouble plucking 175 lb rams up and throwing them in the back of the truck. But for us, it is a stretch. Patrick grabbed horns and moved the fellows toward the barn door. I grabbed the wool on the backside and the two of us maneuvered them toward the waiting truck. One of us would throw open the tailgate, heave, ho and get the dead weight up and into the hold with his comrades.

In our early days of farm animal maneuvering we would typically have at least one or two breakouts. But not this morning.

I was pretty proud of ourselves.

So Nora and I said our farewells and we headed west.

She played with her dolls and I listened to a murder mystery. The redbuds were so pretty as we entered into West Virginia. I remembered all the joy I got from watching the six comrades leap and run and eat grass out in our pastures. The picture of healthy, humanely raised animals.

We pulled into the parking lot, I waited my turn, then backed up to the chute. I remembered the first couple of times I delivered animals, I had to ask the nice man to back the trailer up for me because I just couldn't do it. I would freeze and then jack knife, and then blush, then try again, then give up. Now it isn't quite so hard.

We got situated. The fellow from the slaughterhouse came around, with tags and notebook, I opened up the camper top and tailgate, and waited.

Those lambs, so darn eager to avoid the truck, would not budge to get out. I asked them nicely. I prodded them gently.

No go.

Never mind that I had already changed out of my sheep wrestling clothes and into my go to town clothes. And shoes. Never mind that the back of our truck was now a not so pretty sight after six non-potty trained lambs made that trip through the mountains.

The nice fellow with the notebook seemed a little afraid of the rolling eyes and the swept back horns.

He lit up a cigarette.

Nora stood off to the side, watching to make sure no fellows broke loose.

No one seemed too terribly interested in breaking loose.

After a few minutes I realized I was going to have to get them the hard way. I climbed up into the dirty back of the truck, grabbed a set of horns and pulled. And pulled. And jumped down and dragged the stubborn thing off the truck. Hoping that the rest of the fellows would follow.

Not so.

By the time I had reached the fourth lamb, I had a few streaks of manure on my clean clothes and shoes, but that was okay. Then he decided to make a break for it.

Thank goodness for horns. I grabbed him, threw myself into a slide and got dragged pretty much under the truck. Now thoroughly scraped and covered in manure and sheep grease from top to bottom.

Oh well.

At least he didn't get away! The other two followed, with only minimal dragging, I put in our cutting order and then Nora asked where we would have lunch for our special date.

We went to Hardees, I sheepishly headed to the bathroom to wash the hands and arms, hoping the smell of the french fries covered up the smell of the sheep debacle.

I guess it seems weird, but I think I will miss the physical aspect of farming. The feeling of satisfaction that comes with doing hard things, making my own body work like a machine. A sheep wrestling machine. The feeling of muscles, sore, and a bit bruised here and there, but at least alive.

Glad to have been a part of the process of bringing healthy, delicious food to the table for quite a few families. Those lambs got to live their albeit short lives, fully expressing their personality, enjoying green pastures, fellowship, spunkiness. We got to be a part of the whole process, from the day of their birth to the end.

PS Today was a hot day. Pretty sticky, threatening thunderstorms that never came. When I milked Coco this evening, the breeze was so sweet. Felt like summertime. Leaves are lush. All is green.

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