10 June 2013

memories of hay

The smell of fresh hay brings many memories flooding back to me. It's odd how smell does that.

One memory is of horses. Or course. Prior to buying my own horse, I worked on a ranch. My memory is of ridding the back of a 6-wheeler and tossing flakes of hay over an electrified fence for horses wooly with winter hair. My breath puffed out with each toss. The horses ahead of us nickered impatiently for breakfast.

Another memory of hay is driving the old (very old) tractor slowly (very slowly) around the field. My dad paid to have the hay cut and baled, but we had to pick it up ourselves. So I drove (steered really) while my dad and brother wrangled bales onto the trailer.

The last memory was one that recently eluded me when I smelled hay. The smell ignited the feel of a place, but it took me some time to figure out what I was remembering. It was a vast, low roofed shed. Dim and dusty. The most pervasive smell was not of hay, that was the underlying one. It smelled of sheep. They have a very distinct smell. Much like the smell of new leather. And the shed was full of them. Most of them 'ma-a-ing' contentedly as their lambs nuzzled close. It was lambing season -April probably- and I was perhaps 10.

Lambing season on a sheep ranch is a hectic time of year. Hundreds of ewes can easily give birth to twins and be on their way, but some have difficulties, or have triplets. My job was to care for the 'bummer' lambs; the orphans. They were kept together in a pen near the front of the shed. Here some natural light came through the open east side, but no chilly winds. The fence around the bummer pen was only a couple feet high so there was no gate. I spent hours leaning over that low fence, or climbing it and crouching among the tiny sheep. Every couple of hours, I would go to the crock pot near the pen and pull out the bottles of warming milk. I would attached a nipple to the tops of them and then disperse the contents to the lambs. They were generally very eager, greedy even; butting against the bottle and each other. It was my job to make sure each of them got the proper amount. And some of them were younger, weaker, shyer. So I would have to remove them from the pen and spend time with them; coaxing them to explore the black rubber nipple. Once they realized it was good, I rarely had to remind them again.

The rancher told me of a trick they often used to get ewes to adopt bummer lambs. The process of giving birth apparently takes a lot out of a mother, so the ewes were often very deficient in salts. Generally, they were supplied with a salt lick. However, when a ewe's lambs died or if she only had one, the ranchers would coat a bummer or two with salt and put them in a pen together. The ewe would eagerly lick the lamb and after a time it would smell like her, and she would take it in as her own.

I took home the ones that couldn't be grafted, and completed the process as a surrogate mother. Usually I only had 2 at a time, but occasionally up to 5. I gave biblical names to most the lambs. Names like Daniel and David, Esther, Ruth. Also there was Loni, Holmes, Little One, Quark. And many more I do not remember.

Some I had to feed every 4 hours. I even had to set an alarm to feed them in the middle of the night.

Davey came down with an odd paralysis in his hid legs and I would walk him around while supporting his rear end. He recovered from it and everyone was very surprised. Little One was a constant companion. She was one of the tiny ones I had to feed ever 4 hours. Occasionally, I'd have to give them Pepito-bismal or cod liver oil. Even injections. They were my projects. Many of them did not survive to adulthood, but many more than would have had I not taken them in. When they were nearly a year old, I would sell them back to the rancher and he would pay me by the pound.
Little One and me, age 11 perhaps. 

I still like sheep. And I still have fond memories of the lambing shed. They are silly animals. Not smart, but quite endearing.

Perhaps I'll move to New Zealand and join their largest industry. I wonder if job experience counts when it's been 15+ years.

1 comment:

Abby said...

Nice anecdotes - rather James Herriot-esque (and I love James Herriot).
A good friend of mine while growing up lived on a ranch. Whenever I'd sleep over, I had to help with the chores. I liked the sheep best. I didn't know about bummer lambs or salting them up. Learned new stuff today already.