Lambs to the Slaughter

The first batch of lambs went in to the butcher last night. As long-time readers of the blog know, we had a bumper crop of lambs born this spring; the 8 ewes had 16 lambs between them. One succumbed to disease and one was killed by a dog, but we had 14 survivors — and they’ve been extremely healthy. I credit several factors for this year’s success:

1) A clean, brand-new pasture with no parasite build-up from previously grazing animals;

2) Climate that is more similar to our flock’s native Iceland than the swelteringly humid Illinois summers we’ve had;

3) An excellent barn, providing better shelter, especially to newborn lambs;

4) Mineral feeders always kept full and sheltered in the barn — back in Illinois, they frequently ran out of mineral or it was ruined out in the pasture;

5) A switch from rain water (in Illinois, collected in tanks from building run-off) to iron-rich hard well water.

Yesterday afternoon, Scooter and I rounded up the whole flock and secured them in the barn. I then backed my old 1984 Ford Bronco 4×4 into the barn, put the seats down, and spread a tarp in the back. One by one, I selected the largest male lambs and hoisted them into the back; one of the children stood guard at the truck’s tailgate to ensure we had no escapees. We managed to fit seven large male lambs, plus the yearling female who was rejected by her mother and proved too small to be bred last fall (she also had a lousy set of horns, another reason to cull her). And to the great joy of Homeschooled Farm Girl, we also loaded up Biscuits (the pathetic goat kid who was so stupid, he never learned to drink water from a bucket and had to be bottle-watered his whole life).

So, down the highway we went, NPR on the radio, and Scooter the Amazing Wonderdog perched on the passenger seat with me for the ride. Actually, we deliberately avoided highways and made the 11 mile trip almost exclusively on deserted country roads. This proved to be a wise decision, as I had nothing to separate the testosterone-laden back of the SUV from the passenger compartment. Biscuits in particular seemed to be squeezing the last moments of trouble from his miserable life, repeatedly trying to climb onto the truck’s console and into my lap. I shoved him back each time, and each time he again stuck his face up to my neck and tried to nibble my collar. Had we been on a busier road, driving at high speed, I probably would’ve caused several accidents.

Finally, after one especially firm shove, Biscuits waded through the ovine hoard and made his way to the back of the truck. My first reaction was relief, but this proved premature. After smashing his long horns against the ceiling several times (destroying the headliner), I then noticed him trying to butt his head through the window on the tailgate. Being an old truck, we haven’t been able to latch that window in years. Each time he tried opening the window, I slammed on the brakes to force all the animals to move forward. This only worked, however, as long as the truck was rolling. At the next stop sign, Biscuits seized his opportunity — and disappeared out the window.

Disgusted, I slammed the truck into Park and got out to look for him. He’d hopped into a ditch, but appeared too stunned to figure out what to do next. I easily caught him, without even needing to get Scooter (I brought him along in case of a massive jail break). Once Biscuits was again loaded in the truck, we were fortunately only a mile or so from the butcher. We arrived without further incident (apart from complete destruction of the headliner).

This butcher, unlike the one we used in Illinois, has an extensive set of holding pens in a barn out back. At first I thought this was wonderful, as it meant I could bring the animals the evening before — rather than loading them up and driving early in the morning on the day of slaughter. However, once we began unloading the animals, the butcher and I immediately grew concerned: their gates are set up to contain commercial-sized meat animals. Standard breeds of sheep would’ve been fine, but we never would’ve used gates like these to contain Icelandics on our farm. We managed to get all of them into a pen far in the back; even if the lambs had worked really hard and gotten through a gate, there were two additional sets of gates they’d also need to negotiate to get totally loose. Also working in our favor: several members of the flock were too big to squeeze through, and because they were in a strange place we knew they’d all stick together. Plus, dusk was closing in and they’d want to stay in a shelter.

Even so, I worried about my flock last night and even considered driving over to check on them. These were our biggest animals, and represent hundreds of pounds of meat that would be literally impossible to replace on the open market. There was a busy highway not far from the butcher, and I imagined my little flock wandering onto it in the night. Funny how, even when the animals are within hours of being slaughtered, a shepherd can’t help worring about their safety and well-being. In the end, I decided to entrust them to the intercession of St Francis of Assisi, and told myself to get a good night’s sleep. This proved to be a good decision; I called over this morning, and they confirmed everything was alright. All the same, next time, I will bring the animals in at 8am on the day of slaughter.

It was a little strange last night, securing the barn and seeing such a reduced flock. I don’t exactly miss the lambs we took in, but it was an odd feeling to see so many fewer. A little sad. But those feelings evaporated this morning when I put hay out for the remaining flock, and saw how much easier it was for the smaller lambs to get at it now. We’ll give those little guys a couple more weeks to put on weight, and then take them in at the same time I pick up the meat from the first batch.

Yummmmm. I can hardly wait to enjoy some Icelandic lamb chops again.

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