Farmgirl Confidential: Loving & Losing Ewe
Animals are a wonderful addition to any farming operation. Once a mainstay of American agriculture, farm animals were essential in recycling the farm’s nutrients; utilizing waste produce; fertilizing the soil; organically controlling weeds; producing milk, wool and meat; and more. Even animals like geese were utilized not only for their meat and down, but also for grazing and mowing young weeds and grasses in row crops, until the advent of herbicides during the second half of the twentieth century. Draft animals like horses, oxen, and mules earned their keep plowing the fields. And sheep, early on, built a woolen mill empire in the East. The first American mill was built in 1662 in Watertown, Massachusetts.
Today, with the demand for organic and locally grown, many small farms are once again returning to livestock production. Their addition is measured in terms of reciprocity and balance. Small farm livestock producers will probably never get rich, but the emotional benefits of raising livestock are as rewarding as any monetary profit. I raise sheep. In the beginning I decided that the addition of sheep to the farm was needed as a source of organic manure, unavailable in the area otherwise. Somewhat blindly I chose the breeds and along the way learned that each breed had its individual purposes and attributes: some best as grazers, others for wool production, some extremely gregarious, others flighty and shy.
Soon my sheep began to multiply and I started selling their wool, participating in livestock shows, and developing a very close relationship with all kinds of farm critters. I love them all and each has its own unique personality. Some of them step out of the crowd and demand to be noticed. Cow-Cow, my black and white yuglet fleckett (Shetland Island dialect for her spots) Shetland ewe was one of them. Her markings alone were enough to grab your attention: black circles around each eye, freckles from head to toe and a black splotch like a Charlie Chaplin mustache on her lips conveying a permanent expression of curiosity. But it was definitely her antics that clinched her individuality.
From the day she arrived she would baa long and low as I walked from the barn to the house at the end of the day and I would return for one last pet. She pulled a cart, came when called, loved attention when she felt like it, swam in the ocean, loved a bubble bath, and most of all loved babies, human or animal. She had a habit of chasing baby strollers down the street and inserting herself between mothers and their children.
She was a baby stealer as well as a baby sitter. She doted on my granddaughter since the day Lil Veronica was born and spent hours standing by her playpen in the yard. But perhaps her boldest move was stealing all the newborn lambs in the lamb pen every year and adding them to her own brood! If you are familiar with sheep, you know how hard it is to put them back on their own mother.
Oddly enough the internet has played a major role in my shepherding experience. I found Cow-Cow for sale online and had her shipped here from Michigan years ago. I spend a lot of time with my animals, as most farmers do, but since sheep farmers are far and few on Cape Cod, I joined a few Facebook groups related to sheep, wool, and the fiber arts. My reasons for keeping sheep have evolved through the years and, perhaps through my interaction with these groups, has developed into a multi-faceted experience: the fiber arts, showing, breeding, and the general enjoyment of keeping livestock.
Every animal has its own special quality: best fleece, best lamber, best personality, and of course, there’s always that sour apple in the crowd, but even they become a character in their own right. Most every night I post videos and photos of my experiences with my animals as many other breeders do, although perhaps my experiences—romping in the woods, running on the beach, swimming in the ocean—aren’t typical. As a result, my page has become sort of a running animal soap opera, which many people, from all walks of life, have found quite enjoyable.
When the farm is running smoothly and the animals are healthy and happy the whole scene is idyllic, but of course this isn’t always the case. With livestock you need to be consistently observant and take the time every day to monitor your animals for any unusual behaviors so you can nip a problem in the bud before it gets serious. Unfortunately, most livestock conceal any ailment well.
Last winter a few days before the only real blizzard, I noticed Cow-Cow was standing with the flock as they ate their evening hay, but not eating herself. I chalked it up to her picky eating habits. The next day I found her looking a bit symptomatic of bloat (an imbalance of the rumen which creates gas and ultimately can cause death in severe cases). I gave her a basic bloat treatment and hoped for the best, as she didn’t appear to be in much discomfort.
The next morning, the morning of the blizzard, she was down. Convulsions so severe that I could barely hold her still and after many of them, I thought she had died in my arms, but then she opened her eyes and tried to stand. I called my daughter to help me hold her up. I called the vet. Meanwhile we administered an IV for hydration. When the vet arrived she gave Cow a series of shots and more hydration. We were able to stabilize her that afternoon and the next day transport her to intensive care.
That first night I posted on my normally uplifting Facebook page that Cow, matriarch of my flock, was not feeling well. The next night the post was only that we weren’t quite sure what had caused the problem, but were treating the symptoms.
The following day we transported Cow-Cow to my vet’s barn and he started an intense treatment of hydration and meds. I cared for her as well, force-feeding her a few times a day. From that point forward and for the next three weeks it was all hands on deck.
Two of my closest Facebook friends and shepherdesses, Lois and Berrie, messaged me to ask about Cow’s condition. I told them how sick she was, that her brain had swelled crushing her optic nerves and she had gone blind. We were giving her thiamine injections many times a day. Her eyesight had returned and she seemed to be somewhat stable but still had not eaten or drank on her own. We messaged back and forth every day after that.
Lois, who has a medical background, lives in a remote agricultural valley in the high desert of eastern Oregon where she tends her sheep, horses, and fields. Berrie lives high on the backbone of England, in the Pennine Chain, on the south side of Longdendale Valley in the tiny town of Hadfield where sheep farming has been their mainstay for centuries and she herself is descended from generations of shepherds, still living on the same land. We have never met but have formed close ties through our love for sheep.
On the third day of Cow’s illness Lois asked me if I had looked at my Facebook page. Berrie had posted an update of Cow’s condition as many people had been asking and I had been too consumed with Cow’s care. She had posted a picture of Cow and specifically asked for healing thoughts, prayers, and support as the vet and I fought for her life. The response was astounding. Hundreds of people from across the country and around the world responded by lighting candles on their hearths and contributing well wishes along with any bit of experience they have had with similar symptoms.
Lois had a very comparable experience with some of her sheep and when Cow came home and it was up to me to continue her treatments, Lois called every day to give me some extra guidance and support. I have had a fear of needles all my life, but Lois would stay on the phone and guide me through administering injections. It’s because of her prodding that I no longer am hesitant to do what needs to be done.
Berrie continuously gave me emotional support, messaging me morning, noon, and night thoughout the entire process. After only a week into Cow’s illness, Berrie’s favorite ram, Zebedee, fell suddenly ill and died. She was heartbroken but continued messaging, concerned about Cow’s progress. I worried about Berrie, and somehow being able to console her lifted me from my own concerns. Without the vet’s knowledge combined with the guidance of these two women and the many others who helped to support my efforts it would have been a long and lonely road, the way it must have been in the “old days” before the internet.
Suddenly, at the beginning of the fourth week of Cow’s unexplained illness, and after she had made such great strides, she died. You never get over losing an animal like her and I will see her face peering from the field for years to come, but the farm life goes on and you have to shake it off quick because it’s time to feed the rest of animals and there’s never a day off for a livestock owner, not even to grieve. Once again Berrie posted a beautiful photo of Cow-Cow on my Facebook page, saying “I am sorry to have to tell you all that Cow-Cow has passed away, her kind head resting peacefully in Veronica’s lap. Please wish her a sweet journey over the rainbow bridge to its sunlit pastures and peace to the lady who has loved her all these years”.
Once again the response was tremendous. Hundreds upon hundreds of condolences came from across the globe, including a famous felt fashion designer from Germany, sheep farmers from down-under, livestock owners from all across the nation and the world.
Livestock are not for the faint of heart and when the going gets tough the tough must get going and stay going till the work is done. Losses at lambing time, strange afflictions that suddenly appear and can practically wipe out a flock without notice. But somehow the good times eventually overshadow the bad, when running lambs are leaping in the spring air with their newborn enthusiasm for life, when the pasture is green and sweet and the animals are content.
Despite the sometimes overwhelming amount of work required, there are those of us that find incredible satisfaction in raising livestock. We are their keepers and go to great lengths to fulfill that obligation. And like any of life’s experiences it is the hard times, not the good times, when we gain knowledge and wisdom. Despite what animal activist groups like PETA might like you to believe, livestock owners develop close bonds with their animals, no matter what their reason for raising them might be.
Without easy availability to large animal veterinarian care and large animal diagnostic tools, many of these sight-unseen diagnoses are just a shot in the dark. By the time the vet is called it is usually too late. It’s no one’s fault in many instances. Most livestock owners live in very rural areas or areas that have seen the recent increase in popularity of livestock husbandry and are left to care for their animals alone, because large animal vets are becoming few and far between due to a number of intertwined reasons, the expense being the biggest. As a result, many veterinary students are choosing small animal practice over large.
Access to diagnostic tools like MRI, CT, and ultrasound are close to nonexistent for many farm animals other than at veterinary teaching universities. The closest one to us on Cape Cod is two hours away at Tufts, and the cost is totally prohibitive to most. Had Cow been stable enough to travel that far when she first became ill, it was quoted to me that just the initial walk though the door and diagnosis fee would run $3000-$5000. It wasn’t an option, even if she could have made the trip.
Community support in this area of “Local Farming” has so far been overlooked. Perhaps open discussions and a joint effort among veterinarians, agricultural groups, and the general community could pave a path towards a community-supported facility where access to these important diagnosis tools could be shared.
Market grower of heirloom vegetables, herbs and flowers, Veronica Worthington also raises chickens, peafowl and heritage breed sheep for wool and show. A long-time contributor to Edible Cape Cod, Veronica writes about the trials and tribulations of raising animals and market gardening in her Farmgirl Confidential column and on Facebook.