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If there was anything that I came to understand more profoundly this year, it would have to be the power of instinct: mine, our animals’ and the forces of ideologies of which I agree and disagree.
I reread my year-end column from 2011 – which reminded me of where I had been 12 months ago – and it helps me better appreciate where I am today. It seems we didn’t do too badly, after all, and it’s all because both Andy and I recognize the power of instinct.
Before we got sheep, people kept saying, “Sheep are stupid.” And chickens are stupid; and nature needs to be mowed and paved and tamed and sprayed. I could go on.
I think that these naysayers have been largely wrong because they never took the time to notice instinct. Sheep eat grass, and in order to do so effectively, they need to move forward. That’s what they do. That is only smart if you live off of grass don’t want to live around your own poop.
Chickens eat grass, too, and move about in search of it and other protein sources (and away from their manure). They are maybe better omnivores then humans. When we decry the instinct of an animal, we do so in an anthropomorphic righteousness that deems any behavior outside of what we want as “stupid.” This year consider it otherwise.
Last December I wanted to raise chickens for eating; and last December we had 10 pregnant ewes that I hung my hopes on delivering lambs in April. They delivered in so many ways.
We had 13 lambs (I know, we were bound for some trouble!). We lost our first born to a crushing accident that taught me lambs will get into trouble as they jump and play if there is anything in their midst that might allow for trouble. I was sick to my stomach over my oversight as their shepherd. We lost another little girl to parasites, which is the No. 1 killer of sheep, second only to domestic dogs. I finally got the hang of it a raised some happy, healthy animals for a fall harvest.
The lessons learned were about good animal husbandry, protection, life, death and the completion of a life cycle meant for food. This year I learned more about death than the average year.
My first crop of lambs would, of course, be harvested for meat. This was why we got into the sheep business, after all.
The challenge of 2012 was to grow food beyond vegetables, fruit and eggs. We wanted meat to make the offering complete and to use fully our gift of land. We harvested six ram lambs and nearly 150 chickens for our customers and ourselves. My friend Angie said, “You have done what you set out to do,” as I cried in anticipation of taking our lambs to be USDA processed.
I did not cry over the chickens because it was very hard and very dirty work. I did love every one of those chickens, but the human emotion is stronger (which is our instinct) when a living being has eyes and lashes and a personality to which we can relate more closely.
The chickens had personality, and so did the lambs. They were all cared for with great affection. The lambs were sweet to me, but the broilers were not necessarily so,. They just wanted me to feed and water them. I suppose the lambs did, too, but they also courted me in a conscious effort to be favored. Favored here, is a lambs’ instinct to get food and affection. So perhaps we are more alike than we thought?
Early on in my shepherd training I was instructed that lambs forget their mothers a few months after being weaned. I do not agree: No. 0010 (also known as Violet) ran straight to her mother, dropped to her knees and tried to nurse when they were reunited in a pasture several months after weaning. She figured quickly that her instinct was keen, but mama was long dried up.
To this day Violet and her mother, Brownie ,are still best of friends. And with them as a guide we will raise more food for local tables in 2013.
Happy New Year!
Check out gardening columnist Jeneen Wiche’s work at www.SwallowRailFarm.com. You can find her columns also at www.SentinelNews.com/agriculture. She answers questions once a month in SentinelNewsPlus. To submit a question, send an E-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org type “Sentinel-News” in the subject field.