by Dan Childs
It is still cold on early Spring mornings when we go out for chores of feeding hay, smashing ice from water buckets, giving the chickens a scoop of grain and our kitchen scraps. On days when the red sun rises through the sugar maples bordering the barnyard, I am happy to still be snuggled into my insulated coveralls, muck boots, knit hat and work gloves. Spring may be here but the dawn chores still require the full ‘get up’. First light brings a serenade of cockadoodle doo’s from the hen house, a nicker from one of our mares and a barrage of bleeps from our small flock of Border Leicester crosses. They are each waiting for breakfast and Dan and I are waiting for lambs.
Once each of our animals – sheep, beef cows, horses, and chickens – are fed, watered and made comfortable with fresh bedding, we head inside to start the coffee and shower for work. This is a busy season for farmers and sugarmakers. Today should warm to above freezing and we will be traveling to Peacham after work and after chores to help out in our family sugaring operation. 1000 taps, 3 generations, plenty of visiting neighbors, and beautifully tasting maple syrup again this year. The season started a bit later than normal – March 15 was our first boil to sweeten the pan. You never can quite guess when the days will warm enough to match the freezing evening temperatures to produce the first sap runs.
This year’s perceived latest transfers to our sheep flock’s lambing schedule too. We expected that Burdock, our Border Leicester Romney cross ram, covered our ewes early last November and we would start seeing lambs around March 5. Instead, the first 2 weeks in March were quiet in the barnyard and uneventful at the sugarhouse. Dan and I were forced to wait and plan - counting our lambs before they were born and eating breakfast with last year’s maple syrup.
As the weather warmed, the sap began to flow, and our first lamb was born. Our experienced ewes do not need any assistance and they have a tendency to lamb in the protected back corner of the barn out of the early morning light. Sometimes we are lucky enough to watch the miraculous birth of a single lamb or set of twins but most often the newly born lambs are still wet and just learning to stand when we arrive in the barnyard for morning chores. Our ewes have good maternal instincts and know once the lamb drops in the hay to instantly imprint their unique bleeping sound and start licking the lamb to warm her.
By the end of this season, we had 18 lambs of which 12 are ewe lambs, and all are black even though we have some white colored ewes. This is not the ratio we were expecting. We typically keep all the ewe lambs to grow our flock of breeding ewes and send only the ram lambs to be processed into meat. We need to think about culling a few ewe lambs based on their confirmation and less maternal tendencies to insure we have enough ground lamb, kebob meat, steaks and leg of lamb roasts for customers and family to last the year.
But for now, we delight in watching this pack of marauding lambs squeeze through the fence and fan out into the expansive barnyard to join the beef cows. The lambs travel in a group at all times; racing to the top of a spoiled hay and manure pile and then back down again, to only repeat this game over and over. The most adventurous lambs poke around in the woods and areas where the horses have been eating, each day expanding the area over which they explore. One distinctive bleep from their respective mom and they squeeze back through the fence, butt her utter and begin nursing.
Sugaring season is over and our family made 200 gallons of maple syrup. Lambing may be over too although three yearling ewes have yet to lamb but they do not look exceptionally pregnant. We can now focus on preparing the pastures for grazing and the garden for planting… and catching up a bit on sleep. I am already looking forward to next year…