Spring Sheep Herding

We sure enjoyed some spectacular weather over the weekend. Homeschooled Farm Girl and I got out for good rides on Saturday (55 miles) and Sunday (34 miles), and then for another 22 or so miles yesterday. In addition, HFG has been taking the lead on getting the garden worked up for planting; between doing all that work with hand tools, and logging all those long miles on the road, she’s probably going to be able to ride circles around me at Calvin’s Challenge this coming weekend.

The pasture is almost ready to turn the animals out on … but not quite. We want the grass to get some good growth before the sheep and goats begin munching it down. Problem is, they can see all that nice grass just on the other side of their fence. They know it’s there. And they’re sick of hay. And we’d sure like to save some of that hay for next winter. What’s a farmer to do?

The answer was literally right in our back yard. This weekend, the lawn behind the house was getting quite long, and definitely in need of trimming. I’d gotten the lawn tractor out of mothballs, fired it up, and was going to have the 13-year-old begin mowing.

And then I wondered … why should we let all that good grass go to waste? Why not turn the sheep loose on it? The only danger was them getting into the front yard, and eating Mrs. Yeoman Farmer’s shrubs. So, they had to be supervised. No biggie. I parked a couple of our cars sideways across the driveway, to discourage them from even thinking about heading toward the front of the house. I got a couple of kids to help with the supervision. And then I opened the gate.

The whole flock came charging out, bellowing at the tops of their lungs. The 23 lambs didn’t know quite what to make of it; most stayed close to their mothers, some danced all over the place, and all of them made a lot of noise.

The kids and I positioned ourselves at strategic points in the yard, to prevent the sheep from going where they shouldn’t. That turned out not to be necessary. They were so busy with the fresh grass, they barely looked up.

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This time of  year, when dandelions are emerging in full bloom, I’m always amused by the people walking around their yards and hitting each yellow flower with a shot of herbicide. Who needs Round Up when you have a flock of sheep? Besides, one person’s weed is another person’s sheep food. Within minutes, we didn’t have a single dandelion anywhere in our back yard. The sheep absolutely love those tender greens, and the flowers.

Did supervising the sheep take time? Sure. But I actually kind of enjoyed watching them. It’s unbeatable entertainment. And the boys started tossing a Frisbee around as they helped. It was time well spent.

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As yesterday was a work day, however, I didn’t have a lot of extra time to tend sheep. The flock was no less hungry for fresh green stuff, though; the grazing experience had definitely whetted their appetites. Every time they spotted me through the gate, they would bellow and complain.

The solution: our power push-mower. Every time I needed a little break from work, I fired the thing up. Using the grass catcher, it didn’t take much time to collect a nice load of clippings. The grass (and dandelions!) on the garden pathways were getting especially long, so I focused on those first. I positioned some large tubs just over the garden fence, in the livestock area, so it was easy to dump the grass clippings straight into their feeders. I got some for the sheep, and some for the goats. When at one point I had to walk through the sheep area, they absolutely mobbed me trying to get at the stuff in the grass catcher.

On my various breaks from work, I began chipping away at other places where we couldn’t turn the flock loose. The edges of the hay field are especially good for mowing this way. We can’t harvest hay that’s too close to the fence — but we can certainly cut it with the lawn mower. Having this nicely-mowed strip along the fence also makes it easier to access the hay field later in the spring, when the grass in the field gets really high.

When you live in the Midwest, and you’re enjoying a a 78-degree April afternoon, you have a pretty good idea what might be rolling in that evening. Sure enough, the thunder began rumbling around 9 or 10pm, just as forecast. The sheep are really good about coming in to the barn (from their fenced enclosure right behind the barn) when it rains, so I didn’t worry about them. By 11pm, when I was getting ready for bed, it had begun raining pretty hard. I knew I should make one last check of the animals, and secure the barn doors, just in case.

I sprinted through the driving rain, lightning flashing on the horizon (fortunately, the most intense part of the cell passed to our north). All appeared normal in the sheep part of the barn, so I closed and latched the door. However, the more I looked, the more something didn’t seem quite right. I called and called, but there was no sign of the little runty lamb we’ve been bottle-feeding. Usually, when a human enters the sheep area, she comes running. Ditto a second little lamb, that we’ve also had to bottle-feed.

I opened the door back up, and waited for lightning to flash. When it lit up the outside enclosure, I looked carefully. No sign of either lamb. Another flash. Still couldn’t see either one.

I couldn’t go to bed not knowing where they were. I sprinted back inside, again getting drenched. I grabbed a flashlight, and sprinted back to the barn. “Little lamb!” I called, as I walked around the outdoor enclosure. At last, I could hear a BLEAT in reply. “Little lamb!” I called again. Another bleat. It took me a moment to figure out where it was coming from: she’d crawled inside an empty, tipped-over, rubber trash can. She now stood in the opening, bleating at me. I jogged to the can, and found both lambs inside. Both were dry, but not real happy. I hugged them both, and hustled them into the barn with the rest of the flock. Only then did I go inside, dry off, and call it a night.

It’s funny how, soon after we began our farming adventure, both Mrs. Yeoman Farmer and I made the same observation: the agricultural images and parables in the Bible make so much more sense to us now. Now we understand a lot better why Jesus used examples such as the parable of the Lost Sheep. Any of his listeners would have identified with it. When you have a flock, and the littlest and most vulnerable one or ones is missing, you don’t hesitate. You put everything else on hold, and you go searching — because you can’t rest until you’ve found the missing one. That’s such a great image of the love that God has for each one of us. Each of us is, at some point in our lives, that pathetic little lamb that can’t even find his or her way fifty feet back into the barn. But God doesn’t give up on us, any more than a good shepherd would give up and go to bed without doing everything he could to track down what was lost. When you have a flock, it’s just what you do.

I’m glad we got that grass cut yesterday; it’s far too wet to mow today. Looks like we’ll be feeding hay for a little bit longer. Hopefully soon we can get the flock turned out to pasture for the rest of the spring. We’ll just have to make sure every single one of them makes it safely back to the barn each night.

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