My Woolly Baaaackground (Or, In Which I Explain Why I Talk About Sheep So Much)

Black and White LambContinuing a look at sheep and a shepherd’s relationship to them. Today, I’m taking a walk down memory lane as I look back at my personal sheep history. Here’s the first post

One of the benefits of studying at land-grant universities was the presence of school farms and animal science research centers. While at Purdue, I was a member of Block and Bridle, an organization for animal science students and livestock aficionados, and served as the sheep chair one year. This meant that I helped organize the Royal Showmanship Contest, in which students demonstrated their skills in exhibiting livestock. Several species were shown in the contest. I coordinated rides for the sheep show competitors from campus to the sheep unit of the Animal Science Research and Education Center and helped the beginners train their animals. I also brought in speakers for meetings and developed relationships with shepherds from around the state.

While I pursued a graduate degree at Penn State, I helped host a farm day for some local elementary students as part of the Agronomy Club. We took the children on tractor rides, let them dig in the soil and brought animals, including a lamb and its mother, from the university farms for them to pet.

The preacher at the church I attended in State College was an emeritus professor of animal science who kept three sheep so his wife could look outside the kitchen window in the morning and see them grazing in the pasture. She always smiled when she talked about seeing sheep while she worked. Their daughter had exhibited sheep as a 4-H member, and the walls of their home were covered with pictures of prize-winning Dorsets and horses from the days when the professor traveled around the country with Penn State stock to shows like the International Live Stock Exposition in Chicago at the Union Stockyards. Beautiful paintings of draft horses and farm scenes accompanied them.

One of my first sheep shows in an outdoor practice ring at a summer sheep association meeting, age 9.
One of my first sheep shows in an outdoor practice ring at a summer sheep association meeting, age 9.

But the story of my work with sheep starts long before my college experiences. As soon as I could walk, I toddled through the sawdust of the arena at county fairs and the State Fair, holding the end of the sheep halter as my parents led the show animals for the judge. I exhibited a sheep on my own by the time I was five. Sheep are often shown without a halter, but with younger children, halters are used as they offer more control. I had moved from showing with a halter to showing without one by the time I was nine or ten.

When I entered 4-H, I began showing beef cattle, as well. I had grown up with the creatures, as my dad is a cattleman, but hadn’t begun exhibiting them as soon as I had started showing sheep. It was a good combination. Beef cattle and sheep complement each other well as the systems in which they are cared for are similar and they can graze together or one after the other.

Despite the fact I enjoyed showing both, I still found myself leaning toward a favorite. I thought about it a lot, as Dad would often ask me which species I liked better. For a long while, I was neutral. But during high school, that changed.

In my last year of 4-H, I won second place with a little ewe lamb I had won Reserve Grand Champion with at the county fair.
My last year of 4-H with a second place lamb at the State Fair.

My favorite became the species that Mom had introduced me to. Her father, my grandpa, bought my first ewe lamb for me when I was four years old. I named her Kelsey, and I loved her dearly.

Often, I think about my sheep according to the relationships we had with them. I’ve had lambs relax so much in my arms that they almost fell asleep. Ewes walk up to me when I visit them in the pasture. There’s a peace that hushes over the group when everyone is fed and has all the water they need. Bill Hurst, one of the best shepherds in Indiana that ever was, once said he enjoyed watching sheep and found it relaxing because they were so peaceful, wandering around the pen, lying down, chewing cud, playing…just living.

And often, I remember watching my favorites do just that. I remember their names:

Felicity: Daughter of Kelsey, named for my favorite character in the American Girl series, who was independent and rode horses

Winner: Bought at a sale in 1998. I don’t remember if she won any awards, but she had a winning personality and would just stand there smiling while I scratched her belly. I could let go of her chin, and she wouldn’t go anywhere. I enjoyed showing off this trick in the ring, but was warned that if she became startled, she would be gone before I could catch her.

Lucky Charm: Out of Kelsey’s line. A friendly ewe, she won second in her class at the State Fair.

Missy: Oh, Missy. She was the best ewe I’ve ever had. There will never be another like her. She was my first Grand Champion Ewe at the county fair (2003), and she received third at the State Fair that same year.

Missy at the 2003 Indiana State Fair.
Missy at the 2003 Indiana State Fair.

We bought her from a farm in Ohio. I had picked her out of a group of ewe lambs and wanted her badly, but the price was out of our range. Dad tried to help me pick out a different lamb. Even though I didn’t say much, my heart was set on lamb #59, and the shepherd could tell. He said, “I know she wants that ewe lamb, so if you take home two, I’ll move the price.” It was a deal.

I still remember the security lights shining through the fog as the shepherd marked a new plastic tag for the ewe and tagged her as I held her in the stock racks in the back of the truck. Now, her number was 03-059. As I worked with her, I learned she was a calm ewe and would come up to me for a scratch under the chin, eyes relaxed, smiling mouth, ears flopping down. Almost every time I was out in the barn, she came up.

Then, one day, the summer I lived in West Lafayette and worked as a farm broadcast intern at a local radio station, my dad called, waking me up from a Saturday sleep-in. He asked me about my day and how the week had gone, and then he said, “When I went out to the pasture this morning, I found one of the ewes under the trees. It was Missy. She’s gone.” I couldn’t comprehend it. A sheep can live to 10-14 years, and she was only five. There was no reason at all for it happening. Dad could see no signs of sickness or coyote attack, and she had just been fine the day before.

And it had to be Missy.

Then he said, “I saved the tag for you.” I said thank you, and after I hung up, I cried bitterly into my pillow. That ear tag has come everywhere with me, from Purdue to Pennsylvania, always displayed on my desk. Since my recent move, I haven’t been able to find it anywhere, and I have a bad feeling the tag was in one of the boxes that was stolen from my back porch on New Year’s Day of last year. I have a picture of the tag somewhere, but I can’t find it, either.

Most days, material stuff just doesn’t matter, but there are some days where one thing just plain does.

Tansy: A ewe I raised from birth, she won Grand Champion at the county fair in 2005. She also won second place at the State Fair. She had a similar temperament as Missy. After she had her first set of lambs, she contracted mastitis, and we had to sell her. Dad took her to the sale barn while I stayed home. That was not a good day.

Miss Wild: That’s what I called her, anyway. Her name became Laura because Mom didn’t like the name I gave her, which I stubbornly insisted was well-deserved. Despite working with her, she wouldn’t calm down, and at one of the first shows of the year, the All-American Junior Show in Franklin, Indiana, she bolted as soon as the holding pen gate was opened.

She was bigger than me, and I wasn’t prepared for her to escape. My small, 9-year-old arms jerked straight forward with the halter, I fell flat on my face, the halter ran through my hands and my glasses went all askew. Two of the nearby parents picked me up and dusted me off, giving me my glasses. They also handed me Miss Wild’s halter, and I went back out in the ring. I remember this so well that I can still see, as I’m sitting here writing, the moment where she burst out of the pen, the color shirt I wore (black with red trim), the feel of the ring, the falling on my face, the color of the sawdust, which side of the arena I was on, getting picked back up. I don’t remember actually showing the ewe, but I still have the medal from winning, after all that, first place in the class.

The picture drawn from the photograph I took of Shania.

Shania: Yes. Named for Shania Twain. (Hey, I was only nine.) She is forever portrayed in a photograph I took in 1998, one that is still a favorite, my first artistic well-done livestock portrait. She was lying in a pen at the Indiana State Fair with one of her buddies standing behind her. Then, an artist friend used the picture as a base for a sketch he did for me, which I then gave to my mom for Christmas.

Sid the Southdown: He was a wether. We bought him at a sale because we planned to show him at the All-American and wanted to see if we could do well with the wether show (this is when it was still called the wether show and not the market lamb show, which is what it is nowasdays and females can be shown as market lambs; I still slip up and call it the wether show every so often). He didn’t actually do that well, but he was loveable, and that’s what counted. We have a picture of him riding in our Radio Flyer Red Wagon. He was the only deviation from showing Shropshires we made. (We had Dorsets when I was very young, but I hardly remember them, so I claim Shropshires as my breed.)

What a good group of sheep.

And that’s it. All that is why I talk about sheep so much. The relationships. The adventures. The peace of sheep. The frustrations come — Missy, the missing tag, mastitis — but it’s so worth it.

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