Yesterday I drove seven lambs and my two aged ewes to the slaughterhouse. The date was more than a month earlier than I’d wanted but the only date I could get. Slaughterhouses in the fall are booked solid in January.
Such days are always tough but this was tougher than most. Due to various things going on in my life I’d been unable to sleep the night before, and after four hours of restless dozing I got up bleary-eyed and fuzzy-brained to face the task.
I had twelve lambs and had decided to keep five weanling ewes to add to the flock. I had spent hours going over my records. Though most of my choices were based on rational criteria, two were purely emotional. Lamb eartag 01 had lost all fear of me when I gave her supplementary feedings back in February, and she still ran to me to have her head scratched. Friendliness goes a long way with me. 01 would stay.
Then there was 05. This was one of Mary’s twin daughters. Mary was not a great mother. Essentially, she would rather go shopping. She cleaned up the lambs and then had little interest. When they cried she often didn’t answer (half the other ewes did). I always had to supplement her lambs the first few days out of the jug, until they were old and fast enough to nurse on the fly before she got impatient and kicked them off. In the past she obligingly threw twin ram lambs, which went to slaughter. This year she had twin ewes. Bad mothering can be heritable. I knew I shouldn’t really keep one of these girls.
However, 05 caught my eye with her sheer grit and determination to thrive. Though her twin sister meekly accepted short rations, 05 pursued their mother endlessly. When Mary refused to be cornered, 05 branched out. While the other ewes were busy feeding, 05 would dart in, kneel behind them, and steal a few sucks. Eventually Azalea, who had a bulging bag of milk and could have been a dairy sheep, tolerated this snacking with barely a shrug. By August, 05 was half again as large as her sister 04. Surely such creative problem-solving should remain in the gene pool. 05 would stay.
That left 04, rather scrawny, and all the castrated boys. On my farm, as in most agriculture, females have a definite edge in terms of long-term survival. (When I tag my lambs, ram lambs are tagged in the left ear, ewe lambs in the right, because girls have all the rights.)
It also left my two nine-year-old ewes, Mary and Clover. Both of them had looked so skeletal after lambing that I’d paid the vet to test them for Johnes, a contagious wasting disease (the results were negative). There was no question in my mind about the fate of Mary. Though she’d always been my tamest ewe, practically knocking me over in her enthusiasm for a treat, her capricious mothering was a serious strike against her — and this year her bag had dried off before her lambs were a month old. Clover, on the other hand, raised her twins perfectly. She was still feeding her lambs when I separated the flock. From a business perspective, Clover had done her job: raised two lambs successfully. But even on as much lush grass as she could eat at Betty’s, she was still painfully bony. I didn’t think I could bear watching her try to do it again. Last winter she’d shed half her fleece with rain rot, and looked like a moulting lion.
I remember the day Clover lambed. Kiwi lambed first, a ram lamb, and half an hour later, Clover went into labor. To my disappointment, she too delivered a single ram. I dried off the lambs, set them to nursing, and then went home to clean up and have lunch. When I returned an hour later, Clover was washing a late arrival — a ewe twin, who would be eartag 08. “What a good girl you are,” I’d told Clover.
All summer I was torn about keeping Clover another winter. I rooted for her to gain weight. She didn’t. In the end I decided to keep her daughter, 08, and ship Clover, to invest in young life rather than old. But my heart was heavy. I kept half-hoping for a reprieve from that hard decision.
Instead I was groggy with exhaustion and doing barn chores at 6 AM in a mental fog. I had stopped on my way to the farm to pick up the borrowed trailer. This summer I have grown reasonably competent at hitching and unhitching, but still it was a relief to successfully get it to the barn. Then I merely had to back it up and maneuver it into position at the barn door.
My friend Alison always says that I am lucky to have a city-raised husband, because it has forced me to learn so many practical skills. I know this is true. Still, I desperately wished for my friend Allen to suddenly appear or my friend Mike to take the wheel, or even teenaged Luke to stand behind me and yell directions. But Allen was out of touch, Mike away on vacation, and Luke in Maine. I was on my own.
I did it. Though it took a lot of time, I got the trailer to the door, propped open the trailer gate, and built a temporary chute. Hooray! Except I was too tired and tense to be thrilled.
I brought in the cows and horses, fed them, milked Katika, and walked a pail of milk out to the pigs. Now it was time to do a last sorting and the loading of the sheep. I had asked Lucy if she could help me, but at the thought of the final destination she shrank. Since Jon has become a vegan activist, he obviously was not an option. DH was in New Hampshire. Again, it was up to me.
Clover and Mary knew me so well they immediately pressed to the door of the sheep stall and I let them out into the enclosed aisle. Then, working from my list of eartag numbers, I caught the seven lambs, one by one, with my crook. Each one panicked briefly as I held it by a leg at the door, worked the latch, and squirted them out into the aisle. “I’m sorry, baby,” I kept repeating. “You’re OK, you’re OK.” The anxious baaing was tremendous.
Ioan, my ram, was outraged. It is the instinct of roosters, rams, and bulls to protect their flocks and herds, and I never hold it against them. In fact I usually go to quite a bit of trouble to do any sorting or doctoring with the male safely out of the picture, so they won’t feel duty-bound to attack me. But in this case, I had no other place to put Ioan. Lingering weakness in his hindquarters makes him slightly wobbly, but even wobbly, 200 lbs packs quite a punch. When he reared up to ram me, I cracked him across the nose with the crook. As he stepped back to think it over, I slipped out of the stall and latched it.
Using a spare gate I crowded the departing ewes and lambs close to the big barn door. Once they were bunched I threw the door open. The sheep bounded out almost as one and leaped straight up into the trailer. I swung the trailer door closed. It was all done — simultaneously a huge relief and a sadness. I could hear Clover and Mary calling. But there was no time to mope. It was 7:30 AM and I had to get on the road. The slaughterhouse was two hours away and the sheep had to be there before 10:00.
My destination was a small town in the northern foothills of the Adirondacks. I had printed out driving directions, just as I had the last time I made the trip, when Allen and I trailered my bull Georgie in December. Allen had tossed the papers aside and directed me on back roads from memory. Now when I reached a major turn-off I remembered taking last year, my foot hovered over the brake. Then I realized that without him to lead me through the maze of unmarked roads, I’d become hopelessly lost. I followed the highways listed on the Google map.
The slaughterhouse is unobtrusive and easy to miss. Exactly as I did last year, I overshot it by half a mile and had to turn around in the narrow road. Last year it had been snowing and I had been terrified at the thought of backing the trailer into oncoming traffic in the blowing snow. I had looked over at Allen in the passenger seat, waiting for him to offer to take over. He seemed unconcerned. I even think he was humming. “You’re fine,” he said. “You can do it.” I’d barely kept myself from whimpering — but I’d backed the trailer. This year I said to myself, You’re fine. You can do it, and backed it almost without hesitation. (It’s true a small car that I hadn’t seen veered around me, its horn blaring, but nobody’s perfect.)
At the slaughterhouse I backed the trailer to the unloading area. The young man in the chute was not organized and asked me to help walk my animals up to the holding pen. My heart hurt. I’m sorry, Mary. I’m sorry, Clover. Though it was an excellent facility, it was still a grim, depressing place. My sheep were frightened in their strange surroundings. I’m sorry, I’m sorry…
All I could think was how strange it was, the different pulls of conscience. My son wants to avoid all death, so he is a vegan. I am resigned to the reality of death but want to avoid all fear, so I wonder if I have to learn to slaughter my animals myself so they’re never frightened by leaving the farm. I was too tired to think about it long.
I snapped on the radio for the return drive. I only listen to the radio when I need to sing to stay awake. I sang myself all the way home.
I drove down to the farm, raked out the trailer, hosed it down, and drove it back to the school lot. I backed it carefully into its slot. I unhitched it.
My brain felt dull. I was exhausted on every level.
I hate slaughterhouse days.
lamb city! March 1, 2010