The Waiting Game

Reader Contribution by Laura Berlage

Springtime is all about timing. You know that maple syruping season is finished when the spring peepers start calling. You know that it’s time to trim the apple trees before the buds start bulging. And you know it’s time to deadhead the flower beds and lay new bark mulch at the Farmstead Creamery gardens when the bulbs just start popping up above the soil.

It’s also time to collect eggs for hatching when the nights are not so cold and the days are warm and sunny. Yesterday, we got the hen house all cleaned up, scrubbed the nesting box pans, and hauled in fresh bedding and straw—all in readiness for collecting, fresh, clean eggs for the two incubators in readiness at our house. The turners hum, tilting the eggs from side-to-side to mimic the movements of the mother hen.

The chicken girls are itching to get into their summer coops and move about the pasture, hunting for eggs and tasty grasses and clovers. But while they think that the spring temperatures are great, it needs to be a little warmer for collecting the eggs without cold-shocking the precious embryo inside, so they need to hang out in the winter coop just a little longer.

Timing is also crucial for the high tunnel at the north end of the garden. As soon as the sun warms the soil beneath the arched plastic cover enough to thaw it out, we’re in their ripping out the remains of last year’s tomato crop, hauling out the red plastic mulch, and taking down the baling twine trellises.

Raking the ground clean of dried leaf debris and pulling out any vagabond weeds, we watch the sun as it gains height and strength in the sky. If we’re on schedule with the project, and we don’t plunge back into too much of a deep freeze, there may be enough time to squeeze in a crop of spinach before next summer’s heat-loving crops have to move in.

These picky-euny tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants can’t even stand a touch of frost, which means they usually have to wait until late May or even sometimes June to come out to the garden. But why make the high tunnel (precious growing real estate) wait until then? We pull out the seeder, load it up with spinach, then spend weeks hauling water in cans (can’t set up the irrigation system yet because the pipes will freeze at night) to give it a jump start. Right now, the little spinachy faces have burst out of the ground and are working on their first true leaves! I can already taste the calzones to come…

But the biggest waiting game of the season on our farm surrounds lambing time. Last year, it all came in a quick 17 days, with ewes popping left and right in the midst of snowstorms in a winter that felt it would never let its grip go on springtime. When it was all said and done, 50 lambs were running about, and we were more than ready to get some decent sleep!

This year, with 42 ewes plump and grunting, there could be as many as 80 lambs to come. A few things buggered with the schedule this year, including a switch in butcher dates and lack of alternative housing, which left the third ram waiting 10 days later to be turned in with his group of ewes, as compared with the other two strapping lads. And typically, we’d be lambing right now, but Kara’s at a conference in River Falls working on her cheesemaker’s license, so the whole affair had to be pushed back to accommodate her absence.

This means that, likely starting later this week when Kara gets back, lambs could be happening any day. Mom and I stop over at the barn fairly often, checking in on the girls, who lumber up to the gate and look at us with forward-pointing ears like, “Oh boy, does this mean more food?”

We also have a way to watch the ewes from a variety of places on the farm via two barn cameras. The live stream feeds up to the internet, so we can view the happening on our computers, smart phones (if we actually had cell service on the farm) or tablets. You can watch it too by going to Berlage and checking out the happenings. If your timing is right, you might even get to see a real life lamb birth! Often, I’ll get to throw a note up on our farm’s Facebook page when Mom and Kara are hard at it in the barn, assisting a birth, so stay tuned from there to know when to log on and take a peek.

Otherwise, feeding time is always a buzz in the morning and evening, and even placid sheep chewing their cud are fun to watch—especially when they don’t know you’re looking. They mill about, scratch themselves on the gate, sit in the sunshine, and generally enjoy the day as ladies in waiting for their delivery.

Sheep births can be complicated, so it’s important for us to be there in case the mother needs assistance. There’s only one way a lamb can come out, and that is in a swan-dive position. With their long legs and frequency of twinning, it’s easy for a lamb to present with one leg back, or two legs forward but the neck back, or one front leg and one back leg, or a leg from each twin at the same time. It takes skill, small hands, and a keen understanding of what you’re doing to intercede in a malpresentation without hurting the ewe or damaging the lambs — and it often has to happen with little slippage for timing.

There’s a way of watching the laboring ewe to know if things are progressing smoothly, which expectations of the next stage occurring every half hour: burst the water bag, presentation of the first lamb, presentation of the second lamb, etc. And lambs are born with only a small amount of fat around their kidneys, which is just enough energy storage for learning how to nurse. But some lambs are born weak, and we have to make sure they get food down with a nipple or tube before that precious kidney fat is gone and they crash into hypothermia.

It’s all a very sensitive process, created as a byproduct of the domestication of the species. Wild sheep don’t get this type of obstetrical care from humans, but then wild sheep don’t waltz into a milking parlor so you can have sheep’s milk gelato all summer either! It’s a trade-off of services to each other in order that both species (the sheep and us) are benefited.

And so the waiting game means that here on the farm, we’re all on our toes waiting for the first lambs to be born, waiting to collect those clean chicken and duck eggs for incubating, and waiting for that first bite of spinach from the high tunnel. The changes of the season are exciting and bring new sorts of challenges from winter’s lull. We don’t expect to get much sleep for a while as the process gets rolling, but the work carries on. See you down on the farm sometime.

Photo by Kara Berlage: Sheepy mommas, “the ladies in waiting,” all shorn and waiting for lambing days to arrive as they loaf about in the barn.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLCand Farmstead Creamery & Café. You can reach her by phone at 715-462-3453.

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