As our cold snap continues, I’m floating back in my time machine to my youth. My parents live on a hobby farm outside New Ulm, and when I was younger, they always had sheep in the barn.
Full disclosure: I hated those animals. They may well be the dumbest creatures on this planet, and they were an awful lot of work for what we got out of them. Still, as with many things in life, I can look back and realize the full value of the experience.
We mainly had Suffolk sheep, the black-faced variety. Dad never had more than maybe twenty sheep at a time, so it’s not as if I had to spend hours outside taking care of them. Really, sheep are pretty self-sufficient, as long as they have a pasture in which to roam and access to water. We had quite a bit of room in the pasture and a creek running through.
What were my responsibilities? I would bring them some feed once a day. I’d get them hay when needed. And then there was the lambing process.
This is what I’ve been reminded of during our cold winter. This was always lambing season, and the ewes seemed to pick the absolute coldest days and nights to give birth. Dad and/or I would be down in the barn, trying to coax these newborns into a safe, warm environment.
Did you know that it’s much more common for a ewe to have twins than just a single lamb? That made for some work when a mother needed help. You’d barely get one lamb cleaned up and suckling than the next would arrive. When triplets arrived, it was even more hectic; after all, it’s not like we did ultrasounds to see how many were coming!
One time, I got home from school and headed down to the barn in time to help a ewe deliver quads! I was probably 13 or 14 at the time. More than two can be trouble. The mother only has two places with which to feed, so anything more than two can lead to problems of abandonment. Often, a third lamb would have to be brought in the house to be bottle fed and kept warm.
In this case, the fourth lamb was quite small. I hastened to clean out its nose and mouth, but wasn’t able to in time. I recall being devastated when that lamb died. Now remember, I really disliked these animals. But that one moment in time really helped me understand the value of life and the difficulty of a farm life. The mother may never have noticed, but I’ve carried that memory with me ever since.
We showed sheep at the county fair for 4-H. This was a lot of work as well, getting them cleaned up and set to go. The week of the fair might have been my favorite every year. It was a week at the fairgrounds, and luckily, the sheep show was always the first night; the rest of the fair was ours to enjoy.
The work ethic I gained through these experiences was invaluable. Pitching manure wasn’t pleasant, but it taught me to not wait on big tasks or they will become even bigger! Carrying five-gallon buckets of water to the barn from the house to keep expectant ewes hydrated taught me to do as much as I could at one time (six buckets was my record).
And then there was baling hay. Understand, I have some allergies, and hayfever is first and foremost among them. Still, there I was three times a year on the hayrack, stacking the bales as they emerged from the baler. Usually, there was rain on the way and we were in a hurry, but trundling along in our small field and the local ditches also taught me lessons.
First, I learned to fight through my impediments. I was generally miserable and sneezing my way through this task. But it had to be done.
Second, I learned that when you’re the dad, you get to pick the task you want. Dad got to drive the tractor. THAT’S the job I wanted, but it wasn’t going to happen. I think one time, after the rack tipped in a ditch, with me and about 20 bales on it, Dad let me drive tractor for a while, but that was about it.
I sometimes think that every kid should spend a year in a farming scenario. My own kids need to toughen up a bit, and I’m sure there are plenty more that could use some of these same lessons I learned, along with the idea of getting your work done NOW, not when you feel like it. I may not have liked it at the time, but my farm experience has made me a better person today, thanks to my parents.
Word of the Week: This week’s word is yare, which means ready or prepared, as in, “The farm boy was yare when the call came out from the neighbors to help finish baling hay.” Impress your friends and confuse your enemies!