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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: 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.

Guest Posts

Guest Post: The Gift of Lambing

March 26, 2015

This is the first in a new series on the blog, featuring posts from past Woolful podcast guests, giving a bit of a deeper look into what they do, wisdom they have to share and stories they have to tell.

I’m thrilled that Kim Goodling of VT Grand View Farm is here to share a bit of her lambing journey at her farm in Vermont, where she raises Gotland and Romney sheep. Thank you Kim! 

Keeping Watch

The ewes grow round and full with lambs and the wait begins. I have cleaned the barn, set up the lambing pen, and restocked my lambing kit. I now watch for signs of labor, spending much time bent over, looking at the back side of my ewes. Swollen udders and sunken bellies signal that a ewe will soon deliver her lambs.  Night watch will begin soon, as we near the first due date marked on our calendar, March 28.

Walk…Relax…Stay Nourished…Breathe Naturally…Make Your Nest and Push…

For ten years, I taught natural childbirth classes. I worked with couples, teaching them how to labor. We spent time practicing deep abdominal breathing and focusing on our bodies and how they work during labor. Every week we watched videos of natural births and talked about what we saw and our anxieties and fears. We became a support network for one another. Through the miracle of life, I saw grown men cry and women become empowered by the ability to take control over their birth experiences. I saw amazing new lives unfold before my eyes time and time again.

Although I no longer teach childbirth classes, I am blessed to have this rhythm of keeping watch over new life on our farm. With each season, I am reminded of the shear miracle of birth. With each delivery, I stand in awe of the process.

A laboring ewe is the perfect picture of natural childbirth, working with her body to bring the lamb into the world. A healthy ewe will labor and deliver her lambs completely on her own. She will stay on her feet throughout labor, eating hay, and chewing her cud. Every now and then, as a contraction begins, the ewe stands still, closing her eyes and breathing deeply. Once the contraction passes, she goes back to walking and eating to keep herself nourished. As the ewe’s contractions become more frequent, she quits eating, as she must focus her attention on each contraction. Ewes may squat or sway with each contraction, helping to get the lamb in the correct position. Once the ewe begins to push, she paws at the ground, as though making her nest. Laying down, she works hard during the pushing contractions. Often the ewe will nicker to her lamb as if to encourage him along the way. The lamb enters the world with front feet and nose first, slipping easily from the warmth of the womb into the still of the barn. The ewe speaks to her lamb in soft nickers as she cleans and nuzzles him.

Of all the jobs I have ever had, teaching my natural childbirth classes was one of the most rewarding. Now, I am blessed to continue to see God’s amazing gift of birth and life right here on my own farm, in my own barn, every lambing season.


Labor (1)

Bonnie and Idris