No shortage of surprises on the farm

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lambs

The famous phrase “the best-laid plans of mice and men” could easily be amended to “the best-laid plans of those who labor in agriculture.” This work truly is a humbling experience in every season. You endeavor to keep all your proverbial balls in the air, and then one wind storm, one errant bacteria ingested by one sheep or one month without rain can completely upend any semblance of order you might have been cultivating.

As someone who wasn’t raised working with and on the land, I still subconsciously expect with enough effort and scheming to find a code I can finally crack so everything will just WORK. But year after year, those secret expectations are dashed against the rocky reality of dealing with livestock and weather, two entities only a fool would claim mastery over.

This week provided me with another lesson in this phenomenon. It’s been a quiet time in my little pasture. My ewes are bred and the weather’s been relatively warm and gentle for weeks, so mostly the flock stands around munching hay and growing babies. My husband put a large, round bale feeder in the sheep enclosure, which means I don’t even have to fork hay over the fence right now. Periodic health checks are all that is required.

Until this last week, that is, when I came up against the only hard and fast rule I know about ranch life: Even if you expect the unexpected, you will still be surprised pretty regularly. With this in mind, I went to check the sheep, and I knew I was going to see something crazy because nothing crazy had happened in far too long. We were overdue.

But, despite this premonition, was I still flabbergasted when the crazy thing I saw was a tiny, black-and-brown lamb leaping and jumping between and beneath the legs and the wooly bellies of the rest of the flock? Yes. Yes, I was.

My mind immediately started flipping through the Rolodex of possibilities while simultaneously counting backward through the calendar. “Five months before today would be early September … did the ram get out in September and I forgot?” I asked myself.

No, I was pretty sure it wasn’t that. Early September was when we’d weaned the previous spring’s lambs, however. We castrate most of our boy lambs, but I wanted to keep one intact as he was the last baby my oldest shetland ewe will have (she is now officially retired), and I wanted to ensure her genetics remained strong in the flock.

I slowly counted forward from the middle of May, when that ram lamb was born, to the beginning of September. Was it possible this surprise baby was the progeny of a barely three-and-a-half-month-old father?

Looking from the new baby to my now teenage ram, the resemblance was unmistakable. A quick Google search confirmed that although it would be highly unusual, it was possible because reproductive organs in a male sheep aren’t mature until at least 150 days, but spermatogenesis can begin as early as 80-100 days. Great.

I wrote in a December column that my new breeding management strategy is defined by two criteria — joy and ease. In my opinion, this boils down to two other terms — lamb vigor and disposition. Watching that feisty little lamb dancing like he was the star of his own Broadway show, I had to chuckle. He certainly has vigor covered. And now we know the new replacement ram is VERY fertile. Plus, as my husband said later, “Your new February lambing program has a 100% success rate,” which definitely sounds impressive.

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Online show. In other news, I am restarting my weekly online show, “The Perkins County Almanac,” and I’d love your help! The first episode will be about “Seed Catalog Season.” Send me your favorite seed company, the seeds from them you’ve had the most success with and what zone or region you are from. You can email me at elizabluesings@gmail.com or go the old-fashioned route and send a postcard to P.O. Box 133, Bison, SD 57620.

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