It is the Year of the Sheep according to the Chinese Zodiac, and all I’ve written about so far this year are cattle. There have been a few pictures of the horse here and there, but it’s mostly been cattle since they are the most numerous creatures currently on the farm, and there are always plenty of adventures with cows.
However, there was once a time when I would bundle up and plow through the snow on a January night, stars shining and air crisp, and open the barn door to a warm, golden glow of straw bedding and the bleats of newborn lambs searching for their mothers. With the woolen warmth around me, I could shed my outer layers and set them aside. After checking on everyone, I would sometimes sit in the straw bedding, leaning against the sheep panels, watching the lambs sniff my coveralls and boots.
When I was in high school, the family flock consisted of around 20 ewes with up to 40 lambs born each year. When I moved to Purdue University, their care fell to my parents and brothers, who were focused on sports and school. We eventually reduced the sheep numbers, keeping enough ewes to let the youngest finish his tenth year of showing sheep in 4-H. Once the show season was done, the last ewes were sold. By then, I was in my second year at Penn State, too far away to do much with livestock back home.
I hadn’t realized I talked about sheep so much while I was in Pennsylvania until a traffic engineering friend told me, “I dream about subways in New York City like you dream about sheep!” That always stuck with me. To many, sheep are a funny thing to dream about. They are often thought of as the worst of the livestock. They’re seen as stupid barn rats, they’re near-sighted, they can die easily by just giving up. People who like sheep are asked how they can deal with them.
An article by Clark BreDahl in the February 2015 edition of The Shepherd told the story of how the author was asked what personality traits were needed for being successful in raising sheep:
He queried again: “What bit of chemistry is it that binds some people to a lifetime of pride, accomplishment and perhaps even profit raising the animals, while others – even people who have been successful elsewhere – may try sheep only briefly before throwing up their hands in exasperation and walking away?”
I leaned back again, glassy-eyed this time, because I was drawing a complete blank.
The author thought about the question for several years, and the answer finally hit him when his vet was worming, castrating and vaccinating his fall calves. BreDahl asked the vet if he could help a ram lamb with water belly. The lamb needed surgery because the home remedies he tried had failed. The vet had never done the surgery before, but with some persuading, he agreed. The vet’s assistant stood by, commenting a sick sheep was a dead sheep and there were better ways to spend a nice afternoon. After the procedure was finished, the assistant predicted a dead lamb by morning. BreDahl said, “No,” and the vet said he was “hopeful.” A wager was on.
The lamb did well with a week of individual care. The vet’s assistant lost the wager, and he paid $10 toward the vet’s bill. After the vet told BreDahl about his bill,
We both laughed and that’s when it hit me what that elusive intangible ingredient is that separates those who can work with sheep from those who can’t. It’s respect!
Webster defines respect as holding some thing or someone “in unusually high regard or esteem.” I’d be hard pressed to think of any successful sheepman who, above all of his or her own faults and shortcomings, didn’t have an abiding respect for the animals in their care — an appreciation for what they can do as well as a clear-eyed understanding (and acceptance) of what they can’t.
I’m not sure what creates that respect or what kills it. I know the young vet’s assistant I met recently didn’t have it. And I know when it’s gone, so are the sheep.
Respect for sheep, and any other farm animal, yields tremendous results. After all, there’s a whole year every twelve years that celebrates sheep.
And who could resist this little guy?