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Lessons in farming: Lost and Found

May 25, 2016

I have an amazing story for you. One that I thought when I began writing it was going to end sadly, but now has a VERY happy ending.

On Monday’s very rainy afternoon, we had a special delivery, our new Moorit Icelandic ram lamb. I bought him from a special farm, a couple who are really fantastic Icelandic breeders. I met them last year, when we bought our ram Henry from their farm. They are so great to drive a few hours to deliver, being that with still working remotely full-time, it’s a challenge to make full day trips off the farm. Plus they used to live near here so they enjoy visiting the area.

We set little Cornelius up in the stable with hay and water for the day and later that evening when doing chores we opted to close the gate on half the stable and keep the main door open so he could become familiar with the other sheep and get some fresh air. The wall that separated his area from the rest is a solid wood wall about 4ft high.

So the night went off without a hitch, and in the morning David did chores and mentioned to me that the little lamb really wanted out and kept jumping, but not to worry, he was jumping nowhere near the height of the wall. An hour after David left for work, about 8am, a neighbor pulls into our driveway and asks my mother if we were missing a little brown lamb, which they had seen running down the road. I was wrapping up Coltrane and I’s morning in the yurt and heard a commotion and once I heard what was going on, I took off down the driveway. By the time I reached the road, the lamb had disappeared into the miles of national forest across from our farm. I tracked his tiny hoof prints a 1/2 mile down the road and into the woods. I stayed out there for nearly two hours, walking a mile up and down the road, calling, whistling, baa-ing for him (yes, I was baa-ing). Earlier in the morning I had read a special passage, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” Psalm 46 verse 1 and as we looked for that lamb those couple hours, and later in the afternoon and again in the evening, I remembered that verse and although I was heartbroken at what felt like a definite loss, I just prayed and trusted, and knew that there was at the very least, an important lesson to learn in all of this.

The day went on, with design work and stressful work meetings, some more visits outside to call for the lamb, a migraine, a sick kid and a visit to the acupuncturist. As I drove to my appt late that afternoon with a heavy heart, I found myself dwelling on the negatives of the day, I lamented why the day had to be so crappy. I recalled how I had told a co-worker earlier that day that in spite of struggles, we must find the positives and dwell on such things. So I did my best to change my attitude and it’s not that hard to find the overwhelming positives in your life when you try. Places like Instagram paint a very glossy picture of life, but life behind the photos is much more raw.

We made signs that evening and nailed them to the poles down by the road. As I laid in bed I imagined the types of phone calls we might receive from our rural neighbors…”man that lamb was tasty” and “those coyotes had a feast”. I prayed that maybe somehow, against all odds and wild animals that live in our woods (wolves, bears, coyotes, cougars), that Cornelius would find a safe place to hide.

During the night I was awakened by the coyote pack that lives near us, an almost nightly occurrence, howling and sounding eery like they do. I was settled that our little brown lamb was their 5 star dinner and went back to sleep. Around 5:30am this morning, David was out doing morning chores and I hear “Where did you come from?! Come here little buddy!”. I leapt out of bed and ran outside with tears in my eyes, giving thanks and yelling “He’s found!”. David had the biggest smile and look of bewilderment on his face. I just stood in awe, completely amazed that he had not only made it through the night, but somehow found his way back to our farm after having been here only one night and familiar with only the stable he had been staying in. David came back to the yurt for breakfast and we just reveled in the events of the previous 24hrs. If you knew our woods and have experienced runaway, you would understand. 🙂

So I’m happy to introduce our newest little lamb, Cornelius.


Lessons learned and reinforced:

-Consider risks to lambs. Again, seems obvious, but not obvious enough. Did you know a 2 month old lamb could jump a 4ft wall? Neither did we.

-Build relationships with your neighbors. Neighbors, whether right next door or a mile down the road like ours, can be your biggest encouragers or discouragers. This is something we’re actively working on, it takes effort to overcome their ignorance of the normalcies of farming and consider them as part of your team.

-Fencing. I know there’s a quote out there somewhere about fencing and farming. Good fences, multiple fences will be your biggest ally. Animals will still get out and through and over fences, but it does slow them down. We have 4 strand barbed wire fences around our property and have finished our first pasture with field fence, but someday we will have field fence around our entire perimeter, something that will greatly diminish the chasing and hunting adventures we find ourselves so frequently on. We are just beginning to electrify our fences, that helps too.

-Attitude. Attitude is everything and farming is hard. When you have a day where things just keep going awry, in spite of it all, dwell on the positive and know that tomorrow is a new day.

-Have grace with yourself and others. You will make mistakes, sometimes deadly or costly ones. It’s not a matter of if, but when. So learn from those mistakes, make changes and forgive yourself.

-Be thankful. It’s easy enough to let the tough things of farming get to you, but keep your chin up and recognize the beauty and incredible gifts you’re surrounded by. And give thanks for the lessons, the hard ones and the happy ending ones.


Lessons in farming: A drowned lamb

April 22, 2016

All lessons in farming are not painful, but it does seem the most painful ones are the ones I feel most compelled to share…hoping that somehow it might inform and prevent such a painful lesson for one of you.

As if it wasn’t already apparent, we’re new to this whole farming thing. We just completed our first lambing season, with 7 total lambs born to our 4 ewes. I’ve been keeping a farm journal and I thought I’d share a few excerpts from the lambing adventures. If you have a farm, I highly recommend taking the time to journal events, even weather. It’s already proved to be a great way to recall.

3.24.16 – I’m in SF for work, but mom was home and Lucy gave birth to twins, two rams. They did really well, no problems.

3.26.16 – David, Coltrane and I were on our way back from the airport and mom woke up to Alice with twins, 1 ram and 1 ewe. The ram was smaller and weak. Mom was able to milk Alice enough to bottle feed him. He barely ate. David and I got Vit E & Selenium gel and gave that to him. All day he was dazed, we continued to feed him a bottle. He tried to nurse a couple times. Alice’s one side of her udder was engorged so we milked her. Brought him in at night to the yurt. Fed him a couple times, but he slept the whole night. When he woke up crying in the morning, we put him with Alice and now he nurses fine. 

4.12.16 – This morning we woke early around 5:30 and soaked in our time. David took sunrise photos and I sat by the fire. Later David went to let out the sheep and called to Coltrane and I, so excited “Lambs!”. By the time we got to the stable David told me one lamb had somehow drowned in the water bucket. We felt foolish and so sad. Why hadn’t we come out sooner? It appeared we’d missed the lamb by only a few moments. 🙁 We are heartbroken. We later read that 5-gallon buckets are dangerous for lambs. How had we not known? The little ewe that made it is all black and we named her Grace, because all farmers need a little grace now and then. We replaced the water bowls with new shallower ones. Grace was having some trouble eating from Ethel’s large udder and teats. We bottle fed her all day and night. I gave her Nursemate soon after birth. Ethel doesn’t do well being milked. 

4.13.16 – Grace is doing better and nursing. Louise is next up to lamb. 

4.16.16 – Louise gave birth to one lamb this morning, a little black ewe. What a surprise after having all twins, we thought she might even have triplets. Hah! This little lamb isn’t nursing, but is lively. I made a makeshift stanchion and milked Louise and fed it to the lamb. So frustrating. She kinda tries to nurse, but Louise’s udder is HUGE.

4.18.16 – Ethel and Grace are outside now and her udder looks better. Louise’s little lamb is nursing just fine now.  

After discovering our drowned lamb, we couldn’t have felt more ignorant or stupid. Why hadn’t we thought about the bucket as a possible risk? How did the lamb even get in there? We’ve seen lots of farmers use buckets and large water troughs without problem, but we’d never even considered it a drowning risk. Although we were careful to keep these buckets only halfway full, this newly birthed lamb wasn’t strong enough to jump out of it. That combined with the cool temperature of the water, it was a no-win situation.

Each day we’ve become a little less wince-full when we see Ethel with her one lamb. And as so many farmers before me have said, “The first lesson in farming is life and death.” So this was our first real lesson in both the sweetness of life, and the bitterness of death…bittersweet farming.

Lessons learned and reinforced:

-Consider risks to lambs. Seems obvious, but not obvious enough. Newborn lambs are often small and sometimes weak. Look at your lambing jugs, is there enough room? Are there containers, gaps, wire, or anything else ‘potentially’ risky that they could get into or hurt by?

-Keep watch of your keep. You can’t be present for everything that happens, but keep a keen eye on your animals. Are you up early? Go check on your pregnant ewes. Are you on the internet or Instagram? Go check on your animals.

–Build your tribe. As I’ve said before, I strongly believe in the adage that “you are the company you keep” and I think that transcends to knowledge you can obtain from that company as well. Woolful has allowed me to meet some incredible people who are now close friends and so knowledgeable in farming and ranching and there when I need them, without hesitation. This is one of the greatest blessings in life.

-Be proactive. Does something seem not quite right with one of your animals? Listen to your gut. Reach out to your knowledgeable friends (Thank you Tammy!) or vet and ask questions, tell them what’s going on, and at the very least receive comfort from them.

-Have plenty of supplies on hand. Thankfully we had Nurse Mate and other vital supplies on hand, but something we didn’t have was the Vit E and Selenium gel. Now maybe this isn’t necessary in all cases, but it helped us and was only a few dollars. Worth having in your arsenal amongst other things…like bottles and nipples.

-Have grace with yourself and others. You will make mistakes, sometimes deadly or costly ones. It’s not a matter of if, but when. So learn from those mistakes, make changes and forgive yourself.

-Be thankful. It’s easy enough to let the tough things of farming get to you, but keep your chin up and recognize the beauty and incredible gifts you’re surrounded by. And give thanks for the lessons, even the hard ones.


Lessons in farming: Cattle bloat

March 22, 2016

A few weeks ago we had a very eventful couple of days when the dogs continually took off to explore as we began moving them from their Winter paddock to the temporary fencing paddocks. On the first day, Lulu took off right after them. You see, Lulu believes she is a dog. She and our three Maremma sheepdogs are inseparable and if they are separated, she bellows until they come back…even if it’s all night long.

ernst and ashOn one of the days of the dogs ‘exploring’, Ernst stayed back with me.

So three white fluffy dogs and a black pregnant cow take off running through the forest. Surprisingly Lulu is able to keep up with them, she’s a fast runner. We tracked them for a bit and then lost sight. So by quad, foot and car, we went looking for them. We received a couple phone calls from neighbors, “We just saw Lulu and the dogs running up the far road”. A hilarious sight I’m sure, but stressful nonetheless.

A couple hours later we spotted Ernst and Fritz in a large pasture a couple miles down the road. A wonderful neighbor of ours took David out on his ATV to go get them. As we neared, we saw Bertie with Lulu in a separate pasture, Lulu was too big to get through the fence and so Bertie stayed with her. I was so proud of Bertie, a redeeming situation being that she is generally the big trouble maker. David ran all the way home with Ernst and Fritz and then came back to help me with Lulu and Bertie. They had all probably ran 5-8 miles and Lulu looked beat. As I put her halter on and began leading her on the long walk home, she would stop anytime Bertie wandered off, waiting for her to return before resuming her walk. David drove our car and chauffeured us home…slowly but surely. As we drove/walked, we began singing the song “Best of Friends” from Fox and the Hound.

When you’re the best of friends
Having so much fun together
You’re not even aware
You’re such a funny pair
You’re the best of friends

Life’s a happy game
You could clown around forever
Neither one of you sees
Your natural boundaries
Life’s one happy game

If only the world wouldn’t get in the way
If only people would just let you play
They say you’re both being fools

You’re breaking all the rules
They can’t understand
Your magic wonderland, hu-hu-hu

When you’re the best of friends
Sharing all that you discover
When that moment has passed
Will that friendship last?
Who can say if there’s a way?
Oh I hope, I hope it never ends
‘Cause you’re the best of friends


We were relieved that the dogs and Lulu were now safe at home, but a couple days later we noticed Lulu had horrible diarrhea and it only continued to get worse. That evening I found Lulu listless and despondent out in the pasture just staring at the fence. In the dark I went out and found her covered in her own feces, it was awful. It took me 30min to get her to walk just 30 yards back to the stable, with her stumbling every few feet. I put her together with the dogs so that they would snuggle and watch over her.

Over the course of the next few hours she became more bloated and her breathing became labored. It was painful to watch and not know what I could do. I spoke with our vet and he thought maybe she had grain overload and said it could very likely kill her and at this point there wasn’t much to do, but wait it out. I also spent some time talking with my friend Mary who is a cattle rancher, a woman I admire very much and shoots it straight. “A Trocar might save her, but a vet should do that and it’s a last resort”.

We don’t feed Lulu grain, but she has snuck some of the dogs food from time to time and with her recent escapade we wondered if somehow she found grain or something else. I spent much of that night out with her in the stable, rubbing her ears with lavender essential oil to help her relax and maybe release some gas, singing hymns to her and asking God to grant us ignorant new farmers some Grace. Lulu is an exceptional cow and the thought of losing her had me in tears more than once. I finally made my way to bed, knowing that whatever was going to happen would happen.

During the night David went and checked on her a couple times and we awoke in the morning to her still alive, but laying down in the stable with her feet sort of to the side because her belly was so large. I wasn’t convinced this was grain overload, but the bloat was obvious. I called the vet and he said he’d come out as soon as he could. About an hour before he showed up, all the sudden she got up and started walking around and while she was still very bloated it seemed to have diminished slightly and some of her energy was back. I honestly couldn’t believe my eyes.

When our vet arrived he spent some time monitoring her and checking her vitals and such. He then proceeded to put on a glove the went clear to his shoulder, lunge into a power stance only a seasoned vet (or rancher) can accomplish and went arm first into Lulu’s backside. Whoa. Thankfully David was there to catch it all on camera. haha.

The vet concluded that between the stress of so much exercise and eating something bad for cows (native poisonous plants and trees or a neighbors moldy hay) it was just the combination to send her into bloat. He was surprised at her recovery and said she’d soon be back to her normal sassy self. And, she was indeed pregnant.

DSC_0558 DSC_0560 DSC_0564

Lessons learned and reinforced:

Always work on your fencing. Good fencing is imperative, adequate is not. And if you think a cow can’t get through it, think again.
Working dogs are lifesavers, literally. Even if they’re puppies and still learning, their value is incomparable. So thankful we have them. I’m positive they are largely the reason Lulu made it through the night. They all were laying against her, keeping her relaxed and comforted. Think about how you do ‘skin to skin’ with your babies? Same thing…I noticed her breathing became far more regulated when the dogs were next to her.
Know your neighbors and build relationship with them. You’ll never know when you might need their help and vis versa.
Keep dog food and any other sort of grain away from your family cow. Many cattle ranchers finish or feed grain, but that’s their deal and they lose cattle from bloat, it’s just the way things are. A family cow is much different. It’s sometimes all you have and the loss is significant in many ways.
Help your cow relax and keep her company. Whether it’s singing hymns or rock songs, praying or pleading or rubbing their ears with lavender, keeping them company has a huge impact, I strongly believe.
Find a good vet. One that will be honest with you and knows his stuff and doesn’t hesitate to get his hands dirty. Literally.
Build your tribe. I strongly believe in the adage that “you are the company you keep” and I think that transcends to knowledge you can obtain from that company as well. Woolful has allowed me to meet some incredible people who are now close friends and so knowledgeable in farming and ranching and there when I need them, without hesitation. This is one of the greatest blessings in life.
Every situation is different. What looks like something, might not actually be that something. Trust your gut (he he) and do what you can. Everything is a learning experience and had Lulu not made it, that too would be a lesson learned, albeit a far more difficult one. Read books, talk to folks doing what you’re doing and reach out to those more knowledgeable. But at the end of the day, we are ultimately not in control. Shit happens. And so we do what we can and we learn from it.