Pondering Spring Rites of Passage

My husband, Steve, and I are chasing yearlings and shearing sheep so it must be springtime.

A county road runs through the Graham Ranch and, when the temperatures warm up, tasty morsels of brome grass peak through last year’s old grass. As the road climbs a steep grade, the builders used quite a lot of fill. Our barbed-wire fence stands at the bottom of the fill so that tasty brome grass grows tantalizingly off limits to the cattle. Even during mild winters, snow piles on that slope, breaking wires and pulling up posts.

Yearling calves remind me of teenagers — always hungry, curious and ready a the drop of a hat for another adventure.

This combination leads to a lot of wire stretching and fence staples. We keep a 1964 Chevy loaded with all of our fencing necessities and I think the sheriff’s office has Steve’s cell phone number on speed dial.

The calves seem to know what they are doing. As we herd them down the road to the gate, they trot along in a bunch, sometimes kicking up their heels, sometimes pausing to savor one more bite. Of course, the grass inside the pasture grows abundantly, but this forbidden forage beckons.

So I make a trip to the co-op for another roll of barbed wire and some staples.

The sheep feel springtime, too.

During the cold winter months, the flock will move slowly as the sheep graze, bunched together against the wind and cold. But when I open the corral gate and point them to the pasture at this time of year, they are off on a trot. During the day, they roam over the entire pasture, nibbling on green sprouts and soaking up the sun.

The shorn ewes especially like that warm sun.

Steve and I shear a few sheep every day and then go about our other jobs. We have more than half of them done, but the push is on. The ewes will start dropping their lambs soon.

This year, I have been shearing the ewes’ bellies and then Steve shears the rest. I’m slow and he is fast so usually we are both done at the same time. We trim feet and vaccinate at the same time. Then I pack the wool in big canvas bags while he takes care of the clippers.

Shearing stretches every muscle and the wool covers us in dirt and grime. After shearing a few ewes, we both straighten up gingerly, feeling the burn throughout our bodies. When I pack the wool, I stomp on it just like traditional wine makers crush grapes with their bare feet. I can feel muscles in my thighs and hips that I never feel at any other time of year. The craziest part of shearing is that I miss it if we skip a day. I must be feeling the same rush that joggers describe as a runner’s high.

I don’t think Steve gets the shearer’s high.

He even expects to be paid. I suggested payment in the form of ibuprofen, but he prefers medicine from a square bottle, imported directly from Lynchburg, Tennessee.

So after I stop at the co-op, I make a trip to the liquor store.

Aaah, the rites of spring.

Lisa Schmidt and her husband, Steve Hutton, raise Montana natural, grassfed beef and lamb at the Graham Ranch near Conrad.

Lisa Schmidt