Readers who expect a loving story about the glories of ranch life should turn the page now. This one will not be pretty.
My husband, Steve, and I have been ready for calving to start — as ready as a person can get, anyway — for a couple of weeks. In the below-zero temperatures that we had last week, Steve laid out extra straw bales on the snow drifts. The heifers graze in a nearby pasture where we can check them frequently. Our first calf was born while the temperature dipped to -15F. Steve found it as it nursed its mother, milk-foam icicles hanging from both sides of its mouth. The rest of the calves are hitting the ground in this warm weather.
But I was not ready, mentally or physically, for the ewe that was trying to lamb when I went down to the barn to milk Helga last week. I know the rams found the ewes for about an hour last October, but this was too soon even for those offspring. Yet, this ewe had blood dripping down her legs and she stood stock still while the rest of the flock roamed out to breakfast.
Two bad signs.
I set down the milk pail and moved closer to investigate.
The ewe was Walnut, one of my orphan lambs from two years ago.
We don’t name all of the sheep by any means, but my son, Will, gets to name the lambs that we bottle-feed and we keep two ewes from that crowd each year.
Two years ago, we kept Walnut and her sister, Cashew, because of their want-to-live attitude. They were born in a late-April blizzard that piled up snow for three days. Steve and I thought both newborns were dead when we found them stiff and laid stretched out in the wind. But one of them twitched her tongue when I stuck my finger in her mouth so I tucked them inside my coat and hustled both to ER, under the heat lamp in the mud room. After two hours, they bleated hungrily and Walnut and Cashew have been following the feed bucket ever since.
Until a week ago.
The temperature hovered around zero and I wondered how I would keep Walnut and her lamb — or lambs– alive as I quickly built a jug and layered it deep with straw. Then I placed more straw bales around the outside of their little pen to block the wind.
Walnut smelled like rotting flesh.
That reek told me the lamb inside was dead. The stench almost overwhelmed me, but my job now was to try to save Walnut from the deadly infection.
I stripped down to one shirt and slipped my arm into the stinking goo. At first, Walnut’s cervix was not dilated so my hand met tight quarters. Eventually, she opened up enough for me to reach deep inside. Lambs come out as if they are diving into the world’s swimming pool, front legs cradling the head with the body and back legs following.
I hoped I could pull the front legs along and the rest of the body would follow. Instead, I felt one leg, but could not find the head. Then I felt another leg, bent at the knee against Walnut’s pelvic bone. Finally, I found the head, turned back toward its tail.
I reached and pulled and slipped and tugged and reached again for three hours. Steve finished feeding the rest of the livestock and came to help, but his hands are much too big for this kind of job. He kept Walnut still and repositioned her when I needed it.
I pulled the lamb’s corpse out in four pieces.
Walnut laid on her side, panting with exhaustion.
I gave her a bucket of water and a flake of hay, then took a shower to clean up and get warm. Then I gave Walnut a shot of penicillin and hoped I had done enough.
The next morning, I optimistically took the penicillin with me to the barn, just in case Walnut needed more antibiotic.
She had gone to a better place.
As I stood there feeling like a failure, Lemon nudged my hand.
Lemon is more of a poster child for unreasonable sentiment than potential economic benefit to the ranch — or maybe she is a cat with nine lives disguised as a sheep.
Lemon started life as a starving triplet, but Will fed her day and night until she could feed herself.
As a yearling, she managed to get in the way of a rolling 1700-pound bale of hay, which mashed her hip a bit, but I held the bale up enough so Steve could pull her out from under it before she suffocated.
As a two-year-old, Lemon fed her twins so well that she almost starved herself to death.
The other day, Lemon laid with her back downhill so she could not stand up until I helped her.
Others might say Lemon is a classic sheep, looking for any and every way to die, but I say Lemon made me feel a little bit better about Walnut’s demise.
Lemon exemplifies why we allow ourselves to become especially attached to a few of our livestock. How cold and dark our world would be without a little nudge once in a while.
Lisa Schmidt and her husband, Steve Hutton, raise natural, grassfed beef and lamb at the Graham Ranch near Conrad.
She has two children; Will, 12, and Abby, 4.