We lost a lamb to what was almost certainly pneumonia overnight. He’d developed a terrible wheezing hack in his lungs last night, and was struggling to catch his breath. He hadn’t seemed that bad earlier in the day, and I’d wanted to give him a chance to beat it on his own; the sudden nose-dive at 10pm caught me by surprise. I told Mrs Yeoman Farmer that I’d take him to the vet if he survived the night…but that has turned out not to be necessary.
Losing an animal as valuable as an Icelandic lamb is always a big disappointment, but the incident has led me to reflect on a couple of thoughts:
First, animal deaths have gotten much easier to take — and now cause much less emotional distress — than when we we first began farming. The very first animal we lost was a baby chick from our initial batch of broilers. MYF brought it inside when it was having trouble standing up, and we did everything we could to keep it going, but it just wasn’t meant to survive. I remember feeling a sense of personal inadequacy, like I’d failed in some fundamental way. That sense of personal failure would grow more intense when we lost more valuable animals — like the time I fed what turned out to be poison hemlock to our baby goslings, and four of them keeled over dead in the brooder within minutes of each other. The worst of all was when we lost fully-grown sheep to worms or white muscle disease; these were mature breeding stock, and to see them go down was a big blow.
As time has passed, it’s not so much that I’ve become calloused or hardened to the deaths of animals…but rather that I’ve grown to realize that unexpected deaths are simply a natural part of life on a farm. We certainly work to take good care of the animals, and don’t neglect them, but sometimes deaths still occur despite our best efforts. It isn’t a personal statement about us, and I’ve grown to learn not to take it personally. Instead, this morning, I turned to the 13 healthy lambs and gave thanks that we still have so many — and that this is the first lamb we’ve lost in well over a year.
Which brings me to the second point: We have lost far fewer lambs in Michigan than we did in Illinois. And we haven’t lost a single mature sheep here, whereas we lost a few of them in Illinois. MYF and I were discussing this, and we think there are three main reasons:
- Hard Water. In Illinois, we didn’t have water pipes leading out to the pasture. Unless we ran three long sections of hose from the house to a stock tank (a huge hassle to do every day), we had to rely on rain water for the sheep. We collected plenty of rainwater off the barn, stored it in an enormous water tank, and released it into the sheep stock tank as needed. We realize now that this ultra-soft water may have been fine for watering a vineyard or supplying poultry water, but the larger mammals would’ve benefited from the iron and other trace minerals in well water. Here in MI, our water is very high in iron, and we have pipes in the barn. Pretty much all the water our sheep and goats drink comes from that well. Not surprisingly, we haven’t had a single case of anemia here — whereas in Illinois we lost many lambs that way.
- Mineral. Here in Michigan, the sheep come into a nice secured barn every night; in Illinois, they’d had more simple pasture shelters. It had been very difficult to ensure a steady supply of supplemental mineral. Here, they have a mineral feeder in the barn that never gets rained on and never gets knocked over, and I keep an eye on it every morning — and am constantly filling it. I am buying much more mineral here than in IL, which is a good thing — it tells me that we weren’t using nearly enough of it before. I’m convinced it’s contributed greatly to our flock’s overall health.
- Pasture. We have a much larger grazing area here for the sheep, and the grass is much longer. In Illinois, they’d eaten it down so low, they were constantly grazing in their own droppings as they looked for fresh grass. Here, they have lots of long grass and leafy brush to feast on, so they’re never ingesting parasites that may have passed through their droppings. This leads to the parasite chain being broken or at least greatly weakened.
Farming and animal husbandry are a constant learning process, and require frequent adjustments. Often, it’s trial and error (and experiences of failure) that are the best teachers. The lamb we lost overnight will almost certainly not be our last, but I’m trying to keep the focus on how far we’ve come and how much healthier our flock is now…and what practices will help keep us on that upward trajectory.