Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Death Before Breakfast

I'm not one for eating breakfast as soon as I get up in the morning. A few cups of coffee in front of the computer while browsing through email, Facebook, blogs and my favorite newspapers and then I'm ready to head out for what for morning chores.

But after a four a.m. check on my expectant does and a feeding for the bottle babies, I was ready for something to eat a little earlier than usual. I tossed last night's leftover collard greens and roast beef in my cast iron skillet along with half an onion and sizzled away while I suited up for what I thought would be quick morning chores.

Anyone in the Northeast knows that over the last 24 hours Mother Nature dumped a load of snow, sleet and freezing rain making life miserable in general for both humans and animals. And anyone who has raised livestock knows that is a big green light for go-ahead-and-give-birth so I was extra prepared and vigilant in my overnight watch. Ready to head out at a moment's notice, all that was needed was to slip into my coveralls, don boots, hat & gloves and go.

After a treacherous trek across the yard, an inventory at the barn had me believing my morning chores would be smooth sailing and I'd soon be back inside after feeding and watering. No one in labor, no new births and no more wrestling stupid maiden does who didn't want to nurse their kids. Hay and grain went to my horse, hay to Emma, the Jersey cow and hay to the ewe and her kid who had turned me into the Accidental Sheep Farmer a few months earlier. Only there was a problem...the ewe was dead.

You see, not only will animals give birth at the most inopportune time, they will also croak in the worst possible conditions. The ewe was no exception.

It's not like I didn't expect it. She had escaped death four times already by dropping a healthy ram lamb only hours before she was to be slaughtered and in return, she got to live. Keep in mind that when she arrived here, she was the Kate Moss of the sheep world.

Some animals just never thrive. Be it genetic or environmental, no matter how well this sheep had been fed, she always appeared sickly, hence the reason for culling her in the first place. I'm not certified organic and neither is the farm from where she came. Both of us had treated her for parasites with chemical wormers--a last resort--and still she never put on weight or her winter coat.

Nursing takes a lot of energy so when she lambed, I added a few pounds of 16% protein feed to her diet along with a healthy ration of good hay. The lamb grew well, but she continued to deteriorate. After a particularly cold night with a low of 12 degrees, I noticed the ewe had a hard time getting up for breakfast so I went back into the house for the .22.

When I went back to the barn, there she stood chomping away on the flake of hay and nursing her nearly 60-day old lamb. She looked at me and if she could have talked probably would have said, "I'll go out on my own good time, thank you." I walked away with the gun still loaded.

Despite her growing emaciation, there she was every morning ready for breakfast, her lamb in tow punching his muzzle against her bubblegum pink teats.

But not today. No, please, not today. Not in the crunchy, icy mess while my breakfast is warm and waiting for me to fry up a few of those wonderfully fresh and gorgeous green Araucana chicken eggs the Henrys graciously brought me and let their brilliant runny yolks ooze through the collards and roast beef. I was so hungry.

I slogged my way out to the bedded shed where the sheep hung out and sure enough there she was nestled in a bed of straw just far enough out of my grasp to require me to craw through frozen shit to get a good enough grasp on her leg to pull her out.

She may have been a skinny one, but that doesn't mean she wasn't heavy. The crunchy frozen crust on top of the snow created even more resistance. Fortunately, I had the forethought to bring along some baling twine making it easier to pull her body out into the open.

Given the conditions, getting out the tractor was not an option. First, the block heater hasn't been plugged in and even if I did heat it up, once the engine was running the lack of four-wheel drive would have rendered the machinery useless on the snow and ice. That meant manually dragging the body to where it would ultimately rest.

Normally, I compost mortality, but again, that would require the use of the tractor. Additionally, the pile of manure and dirt used to cover bodies was a solid frozen mass. Option number two would have been to bag the body and take it over to the local landfill, but I didn't have any bags big enough to hold her and I'd just taken my allotted load the dump yesterday. Her body would have had to wait for another week.

But most importantly, I thought she deserved better than to be tossed out with garbage. She had given me a healthy lamb and nursed him until he was of a weanable age. She had given me a gift and it was only fair I treat her death with dignity.

Breakfast waited as I loaded her body on to my plastic red sled and trudged through two paddocks down to the towering burn pile. Tomorrow night is the full moon and if there isn't too much wind, the dead wood and the dead ewe will go up in flames together under a watchful lunar eye.

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