While people can be terribly predictable, life on the other hand is very good at throwing us the unexpected. This is especially true on the farm, where the anchoring of routines like chores can be completely disrupted at any moment — a storm appears on the horizon, the pigs escape, a predator is spotted ... the list could consume this entire article.
Homestead-style farming is a lesson in remaining ever-flexible. The day you planned to work the garden is pouring down rain, the horse jumped the fence and is gallivanting out by the chickens, and (recently) oopsie lambs are born, months ahead of your planned first delivery date. Nothing is gained by losing your cool on moments like these. Instead, take a breath, assess the situation and form a new plan. Adaptability to the situation is what can turn a meltdown into a reasonable response — a skill that can save lives.
Lambs in July was not a planned experience this week. Currently, we breed our ewes in the spring for a fall lambing, starting late September. This will be our third year for off-season breeding, and Kara kept a close eye on the pregnant girls through that horribly hot stretch we had earlier. The yearling ewes, however, were not scheduled to be with the ram until this coming spring, and Kara had separated them from the male lambs before they were six months old, which is before the girls should have been fertile.
But we’re going to have to split the lambs up earlier next season, as Kara announced the other day that she was seeing some small udders on a handful of the yearling girls — not something that they should be developing at that age! Those rascal ram lambs ... someone was up to sheepy shenanigans in the barn, way too soon. Step one for handling the unexpected is observation: Kara noticed the udders, even though they were small. This gave her a little time to act, and she did.
We typically lamb in the south wing of the historic 1919 Gambrel barn, and Kara set to work cleaning it out and preparing the panels for the small jug pens that hold the ewes and their fragile lambs for the first week or two of life. She was even able to rebuild parts of the space to allow the soon-to-be-sorted group to be grazed in the barnyard, where we could watch them closely. Step two for handling the unexpected is to anticipate need: Kara prepared the space for birthing and raising lambs in response to seeing those developing udders.
Yearlings, however, never show their pregnancies like a mature ewe. They’re teenagers, and they don’t understand what’s going on. Some are even terrified of their babies, running away after giving birth. All the process of pawing a nest and pacing that signals a ewe is imminent in labor is often skipped altogether as the yearling tries to hide her body’s changes, hoping it will just go away. So, when Kara discovered a lamb in the pasture at evening chores, it was not surprising that there had been no warning signs. Step three for rolling with the unexpected is to act right away upon assessing the situation and calling for help if needed.
The alarm was sounded that there was a fresh, vigorous lamb on the ground, and both Mom and Steve mobilized to assist in catching the ewe, tending to the lamb, and scouring the pasture to see if there were any more surprise babies to be found. There weren’t, as the second was still inside the mother, who gave birth to two small, but healthy twins. After settling her into the jug pen and helping her calm down with her new family, we prepared the rest of the barn for the remaining, potentially pregnant crew.
A massive storm was on the way. After shutting down Farmstead Creamery for the night, I joined the crew for the sorting of sheep and the much-needed poultry hatch-battening that preceded the arrival of the stormfront. Even with the added chaos of bad weather afoot, we all stayed focused on the task at hand, working together to troubleshoot the situation. Step four with the unexpected is to remain focused but also allow in new information as it arises. As the oncoming weather worsened, we upped our efforts to make sure all the animals were safe.
Step five is to evaluate and see what could be done better, which comes once the imminent crisis is abated. Setting up the barn cameras so we could better monitor the remaining yearlings means we’ll be much more likely to catch the next labor sooner. Also, we’ll make certain to separate the girls and boys at four months of age, rather than six, so this oopsie business is less likely to happen again in the future.
How easy it would be to want to point fingers, blame, excuse, resist, complain, bargain, freeze, whine and such, but none of these is helpful in the face of the unexpected and only drain one’s energy and ability to focus. Next time you run up against the unexpected and realize that you need to adapt, remember the five steps from the homesteading experience: observe, anticipate need, assess the situation (and call for help if necessary), remain focused while allowing in new information, and evaluate to see what could be better next time.
Your unexpected might be an adjustment to the new normal, a family emergency, an accident or finding an injured animal. This skillset can help you with any of these adversities and more. Try using them and see if they help turn anxiety into action, resistance into focus. I hope they can help you as they helped us this week, and we’ll see you down on the farm sometime.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. She can be reached at 715-462-3453 or www.northstarhomestead.com.