Our birthing pens are full this weekend, with a waiting list stretching into March. It's lambing season, a season full of life. By March our barnyard will be filled with running, jumping, playful lambs. By May our pastures will be green again and we'll hear the calling of lambs to their mamas, who've wandered away, following a trail of fresh grass.
When everything is going well, life is the normal, the routine, the expected. It's something I don't really think about. What I do think about, a lot, is what can and does go wrong. For a couple months in the spring, life and death are intertwined in our barnyard in a dance so close it makes me question my line of work. Any number of things can go wrong during lambing season. I once read a list of lamb deaths, written by a brave farmer. The long list ranged from the mundane to the horrifying to the accidentally humorous. (Much could be said about farm life in general.) Once while hauling a bale of hay into the barnyard I nearly drove over a small white, newborn lamb, frozen to death in the snow. For all our careful checking, we still miss things. We don't make it in time.
This season I found a large newborn lamb beside his mother, half frozen with severe hypothermia. I wrapped him in my arms and carried him to the house where we tube fed him colostrum. He spent the evening with us by the fireplace, lounging in The Box, an open-front, open-top cardboard box and a cover with a hole cut into it, through which we place an ancient hairdryer (complete with a garage sale sticker reading "75 cents") to create a small warming environment. It's difficult to bring lambs back from hypothermia this bad, so we feel triumphant when he's strong enough to go back out to his mother the next morning. She was anxious to see him, recognizing his bleating from the other end of the barnyard. There's nothing as affirming as bringing a sickly lamb into the house, warming him up, tube-feeding him if necessary, and then delivering him back to his mother, restored and vigorous. It happens often enough that we know it's possible. So rarely that we know it's borderline miraculous.
We haven't had any difficult births this year, but it's still early. Too early. Our rams broke through our new fences more than once over the summer, which gave me a few great interval training workouts, getting them back in. It also gave us lambs in 7 degree weather. I'm relieved birthing has gone well so far. Assisting a difficult birth can be rough, hard, delicate work. We don't want to interfere when we shouldn't, but it's sometimes a judgement call. It takes a lot of experience to make a good judgement call. This is not my first lambing season but the learning curve is still steep. I read, study, get advice, get my boots dirty, but it's stressful and demoralizing when actual death is a part of that curve. "How can this be right," I think. Other farmers shake their heads and say, in that way only farmers can, "It's happened to us too."
Our birthing pens are full of strong, vigorous little lambs, but in a way, the interesting part is when something goes wrong. The signs, the symptoms, the process of something going wrong gets filed away, broadening understanding, sharpening instincts, and teaching so much. Things go wrong in every enterprise, farming or otherwise. It's all just a part of life.
Author: Anna Anderson / annaanderson.org