Thursday, May 10, 2007

A Matter of Life and Death

I played God today. I decided who should live and who should least among my sheep.

Trust me, I didn't feel very God-like at 5 a.m. when the alarm rang, a few short hours after I fell into bed last night. Groggy, yes. Godly, no.

I took 4 sheep to the meat processing plant this morning. Some will be sold as individual cuts (leg of mutton, mutton chops, etc.), and some will be blended with pork and made into a special summer sausage. This is the beginning of the process of significantly reducing the size of my sheep flock, from more than 25 to about 10 in the breeding flock. So the sheep I took to be slaughtered today were not market lambs, these were adult (or at least yearling) animals that at one time had been selected to be part of the breeding flock. Not part of the overwhelming anonymous crowd of spring lambs, but animals that I've really gotten to know as individuals, animals with distinct personalities. It doesn't upset me, but it is not something I'm flippant about. These were my friends, and I had them killed--in a manner I consider quite humane--today.

With these four, the decisions were fairly easy.

The yearling ram did not sire any twins this year, only singles, one still-born and premature: none of this necessarily his fault, but at the same time I've taken a hint from a friend's breeding records that showed a dramatic increase in twins when she changed rams after using the same ram (ironically named "Increase") for several years. I'll be keeping both his sire and dam, so perhaps I can select a better individual from that lineage another season.

The young ewe was very small to begin with, and had given birth to a still-born premature lamb a couple weeks ago. She was trying to steal lambs from other ewes, but had no significant udder development and wasn't producing any milk. It turned out, upon slaughter, that she had a cystic kidney nearly as large as the lamb she had aborted.

A middle-aged ewe, Venus, should have lambed in March. She didn't even look pregnant, and turned out not to be, despite being with a ram continuously since September. Either she never bred, for some reason, or miscarried unobserved. No loafers in my flock--I can't afford to feed them. She had an undistinguished fleece, and was one of my few remaining Suffolk cross sheep--really too tall for my handling chute. I'm breeding for slightly shorter sheep now, for ease of handling.

Bertha was chosen for age and management issues. At 10, she was a very old ewe, and she was a longtime favorite. She was born the first year I had lambs, of Lincoln parentage. She and another Lincoln ewe lamb were sold to a farm with dairy goats to start their sheep flock. A year later, the owner called me in a panic. They were moving out of state, and she thought she had found a buyer for the sheep (only Bertha and the ram were still around) but the buyer had never come for them. They were leaving TOMORROW. Would I come get them, for free? and throw in some equipment like a milking stand and a barn cat.... (I still have the stand, and used it when I was milking. The cat was Jack, who was a truly wonderful cat until he was found dead, apparently of poison.

Ordinarily, I would not take back stock that had been on another farm, for biosecurity (disease and parasite control) reasons. These, at least, had not mingled with other sheep, and the goat flock had a clean bill of health. So I went and rescued them.

It turned out that Bertha's lamb had died at birth several months earlier. For ease of chores, Bertha was kept with the dairy goats, and got along with them just fine. But she was eating the same rich diet as the heavily lactating does...while producing nothing but wool herself. Bertha was FAT! You could poke her left hip, and her right shoulder would jiggle like jello. With such a high-protein diet, her hooves grew really fast, too--they were 4 inches long and turned up at the toes.

Bertha's first lambing with me was difficult. Pregnacy is not a good time to go on a weight reduction plan, but obesity wasn't going to help her lamb, either. She ended up requiring intensive daily care for pregnancy toxemia for several weeks before lambing. But she went on to produce twins nearly every year after that.

The challenge was always to get Bertha's lambs nursing on the right set of teats. Bertha had extra teats--4 instead of 2. This is not too uncommon in sheep. Usually the "spares" are very small and non-functional, and the lambs quickly learn to seek the normal ones. Bertha's main teats were HUGE--as big as a dairy goat's--and newborn lambs couldn't really get hold of them. And her extra teats were the size of normal teats, and produced a small amount of milk. So the lambs would learn to suck the extra teats, and starve, unless I intervened. Super glue, sheep bra made from an old t-shirt, many creative ideas were tried to "hide" Bertha's extra teats from her new lambs.

This year, Eider and Bertha have been-co-mothering Bertha's lamb (born the same time as Eider's lamb, see previous post.), so I knew that removing Bertha wouldn't unduly stress the lamb.

Taking sheep to the processing plant started last night. Picked up truck from shop which had installed wiring for trailer lights. Got gas, got plastic trashbags to put the hides and guts in. Hides I clean, dry, and send off for processing into machine-washable sheepskins; guts had always had to be brought home & disposed of there (I compost them in a special pile). Drove home. Hitched trailer by myself in the dark. Backed trailer up to loading ramp. Sorted sheep, including leading Venus by the collar through the vegetable garden (a risky business as Venus outweighs me by about 50%, and has 4-foot drive). Got sheep to go up loading ramp into trailer (sometimes not an easy feat, but always easier than trying to pick them up). Readjusted all the fences and gates. Tire on trailer is flat. Of course it is. Sharpened the knife I use for cleaning hides. Put everything in the truck. We won't talk about what time it was....

Got up at 5 to leave in 15 minutes, allowing time to fill up the tire at the one gas station where the air is in a pull-through area. Uneventful trip, arrived very close to 6 on the dot, as planned. Back up to unloading pen, unload sheep, convince them to go into the building: the gate looks scary. Once they are in, they settle down almost immediately, looking calmly and curiously at their new surroundings.

Watched the kill--more details on that another post. Started cleaning fat and extra bits off of hides while they finish up.

And then a miracle occurs--The staff informs me that after decades of insisting that sheep guts couldn't go to the rendering plant, the company that picks up the guts and bones has decided to pick up sheep guts. I DON'T have to go home and dig up the special slaughter waste compost pile to add new guts! Glory hallelujah! That was a relic of the historical "war" between the sheepmen and cattlemen on the Western ranges. Perhaps there's hope for peace in the Middle East someday, after all!

Home, stopping on the way to pick up a 50 lb. bag of fine rock salt to salt the hides (salt draws moisture out of the skin, and prevents flies from laying their eggs on the hide while it's still wet) and to talk with longtime orcharding friends.

Salt the hides on a tarp in the garage--hope we have enough dry weather to have them gone before the upcoming potluck. Feed sheep, feed chickens, feed dogs, feed cat.... And finally--a hot shower, the grand finale of a slaughter day.

But, it's time to go drive the bus....


tweetey29 said...

Sounds like and ineresting life. I got your name from Wondering Coyote this morning. Stop by anytime.

Catlady said...

Don't know that I could watch the kill, not sure if I'll be able to read about it....

Can only imagine the difficulties in selecting those four.

Making the same sorts of decision here again already, too... Spud probably won't see another winter.

Wandering Coyote said...

Wow, what a lot of work! I am gaining a new appreciationg for all the effort, time, and muscle power that goes into running a farm - and I know yours isn't that big, either!

I liked the part about the sheep bra; that was funny.

Gardenia said...

Interesting read! I kept thinking of a counterpart of human life though - how would we be chosen to send to the slaughter? As I get older, I related to these guys/gals as they go away.....

Yet, I love a good piece of lamb chop!

Natalya said...

I decided when I first started raising sheep that I HAD to watch a kill to be honest about what I'm doing (selling lambchops for a "living"). They were finishing up hogs before the sheep that I saw that first, then someone else's sheep, then mine. It was so interesting that I ended up working there for several months to learn more. A small family-owned shop with great people.

The inspector and I were chatting last time about how we both wish we could just have someone do that to us when the time comes...instead of suffering through long painful illness and decline. Personally, although I've probably got another 50 years ahead of me, I'm at a point in my life where I could "go to the slaughter" any time now without too much balking...just as these did, reluctant at some of the gates along the way, but with total indifference at the last moment. I've lived a lot, and done enough that I feel content.