Choosing joy and ease


December is date month on our ranch — as least as far as the sheep are concerned. After a few years of trials and a whole bunch of errors, we finally decided to try lambing during the month of May. Dec. 1 the bucks went in with the ladies, and then we waited.

It turned out May was a great time to lamb; it was warm, the grass green and sweet. Every morning and evening, I’d make a round through the pasture to check the mamas and new babies, my own wee one cuddled close in her baby carrier as this was when Roo was an infant. We’ve lambed in May ever since.

So, here we are once again, with only a few days until date month commences. Things have gotten a hair more complicated, however. When I got my first buck, I only had four sheep. He did his work well and seemingly overnight our flock more than doubled in size.

Since then, I’ve bought a lot more sheep, including a small flock of Shetlands. The Shetlands involved their own set of trials and even more errors — turns out they weren’t the best fit for the open range. As a knowledgeable shepherding neighbor said: “Anything less than high stone walls isn’t going to keep those critters fenced…”

Still, at its largest, my flock was only 60 head. By the standards of most of our neighbors, this isn’t very many. What made it tricky, however, was the variety of sizes and basic genetics — namely, who is related to whom.

Long story short, despite our small flock, in order for the right-sized, genetically appropriate ram to be with the right-sized, genetically appropriate ewe, we’ve often had multiple pens with multiple rams and all kinds of makeshift fencing solutions to keep them “shetland-proof.” I won’t bore you with the details, but it’s been a temporary solution to a permanent problem.

Currently, our flock is much smaller again and about half the flock is “normal” size. These ewes are mostly Rambouillet and Targhee crosses. They are also mostly former bottle lambs and therefore tame as the day is long. To sort them, you just walk past, and they usually follow.

The Shetlands, on the other hand, are small as badgers and just as wily. We can’t keep them fenced for anything and with the exception of a few sweet-eyed gals, they are completely feral — they see a human and they bolt. You’d think this would make sorting easy, but you’d be wrong.

Consequently, after years of struggle, we’ve finally decided to throw away all hope of keeping large rams and large ewes separate. Two years in a row, we had a small ewe get in with a large ram (and then get back out without us even realizing it!) and the results were decidedly not good. So, this year we are using two small rams for big and little ewes.

The result is going to be tiny, adorable, multicolored babies who will not fetch good prices when it comes time to sell them in the fall. Our breed programming, in other words, will be based on joy and ease, not on profitability, and I’m pretty excited about that.

Joy and ease are two things I’ve written about a lot over the years and have aspired to embody, but wanting to be filled with joy and ease, and actually choosing joy and ease when push comes to shove are not the same thing. I feel like I might finally be on the cusp of understanding the difference, and for that I am very thankful.

Meanwhile, we are about to dive head first into the holiday season, a time where joy and ease are especially lauded while, ironically, are often especially difficult to come by. I wish both for you, Dear Reader! I hope we can all find ways to transform that longing for joy and ease into a reality. Much love to you all as we enter the season of giving and receiving.


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Eliza Blue is a shepherd, folk musician and writer residing in western South Dakota. In addition to writing her weekly column, Little Pasture on the Prairie, she writes and produces audio postcards from her ranch and just released her first book, Accidental Rancher. She also has a weekly show, Live from the Home Farm, that broadcasts on social media every Saturday night from her ranch.



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