It’s that time of year, finally. The bucks have been waiting, sometimes patiently (spring) and sometimes not so patiently (fall), but after ten long months, it is time for them to join the ewes, thus ensuring a spring lamb crop. We took a load of blackface bucks to the Black Tie reservoir area at Powder Wash, where they joined the ewes there. We had an experience we hadn’t had before–the guard dogs puppies, born last spring and now ambitious adolescents, did not like the strange bucks joining the flock. They’d never seen rams before, and they correctly ascertained that the rams did not have honorable intentions. The barking and chasing did damper their lust, until we called the dogs in and convinced them that the presence of the bucks was OK. It’s been a dry early winter, but a snowstorm did come in today.
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Has anyone else noticed the prevalence of “Fun Day” to describe gatherings in our community–and it’s true. We in the Little Snake River Valley really know how to have fun! Right after Labor Day, we have an end-of-summer, about to plunge-into-fall-work, guess-it-will-be snowing-soon celebration. This year the Community Barbeque included a barbeque (go figure), bouncy big toys for the kids and some grown-ups, live music, an arts and crafts display, and, of course, The Mostly Peruvian Soccer Tournament. One of our neighbors donates the use of his hayfield, next to the museum, as a soccer venue. Most years, the hay is put up, and the stubble is a little stiff. This year, due to generous (some might say overabundant) rains, the field featured somewhat soggy windrows, some of which had been raked aside to allow for clear soccer fields. This year, eleven teams played. A few were turned away, after being deemed to be too far afield and too semi-pro to participate. This gives you an idea of how many Peruvians are employed in agriculture in our area and surrounding communities. This is a day that the players look forward to all year. Even though several of our sheepherders left their flocks for the day to play for our team, the Osos de Ladder Ranch, alas, our guys did not prevail. Still, a good time was had by all–truly Fun Days!
We are in the midst of docking lambs. We have to hit the “sweet spot” after the lambs are big enough to dock without too much stress, before they get too big–which is stressful to the crew, and soon enough before we trail to the Forest to recover and be ready to follow their mothers. We also have to dodge stormy days, the schedule for artificially inseminating the cows, and the imminent arrival of the wool truck.
Our Peruvian sheepherders are glad to be through most of the lambing. Now their biggest worry, and ours, is the loss of the lambs they worked so hard to deliver, to coyotes. Yesterday, we lost 10 lambs altogether in the various bunches–and that was just one day.
Docking means that we have moved the portable corrals to the temporary site where we have set up the day before. The herder has the sheep staged to go into the corrals early in the morning. We hope to do this in an orderly manner without the lambs running back and scattering into the brush. Once the ewes and lambs are in the corral, we start bringing them up in small groups, dropping the lambs into the small front pen, and paint branding the ewes in the forward pen, counting, and turning them out. We keep bringing them up in small groups until the last lamb is docked and the last ewe is counted.
On the docking line, each lamb is earmarked with our distinctive earmark. Buck lambs are castrated and the lamb carriers carefully place them in the “Dinkum Docker”–a mechanical holder which restrains them as they are vaccinated and slowly slide down to the bottom. The “tailer” sits at the bottom and sears off the tails with a hot knife. This is the safest and most humane way to remove the tails, since it is quick and leaves a clean wound. Another crew member holds the back legs to ensure that the tailer does not get kicked in the face, and applies a gooey mix of creosote and pine tar. This has antiseptic qualities and keeps the flies away. Finally the tailer flips the lamb over on his lap so that the brander can stamp on the paint brand.
The brander is often a child. It is a skilled job, since the brand needs to be in the middle of back, and stamped on without too much wasted paint. The paint is formulated to be scourable after the wool is sheared off. Pat always tells the brander that the other lambs will make fun if the brand is off-center or incomplete.
The days unfold–one warm dry sunny day after the next. The neighbors gather and talk of only one subject–when will it snow? We all have tales to tell. Only two years ago, we were lamenting because we had to start feeding hay two weeks before Thanksgiving. This year, some of us still have some rough feed we can use for the cows and horses–the tall dry grasses left under the trees that couldn’t be reached by the mower during haying season. Some have been feeding hay for months, after the summer pastures came up short and the fall pastures were used early. Some have shipped animals out because of the lack or expense of feed. Drought in the corn states and demand from ethanol have made corn–the staple of livestock feed–prohibitively expensive. The government’s mandates, and lack of action on disaster programs mean that the livestock sector has been sacrificed as farmers are being encouraged to grow fuel in place of food. Cattle and sheep, but also dairy (especially dairy!), poultry, hogs, and even catfish are being driven into loss as corn prices soar.
We continue on, unhampered by storms or ice or cold.