Today officially ended the 2017 lambing year for Peeper Hollow Farm. Although auction day is a necessary part of what I do, it’s a usually somewhat depressing day. There are livestock auctions all over the Midwest, and our choice of the Kalona Sales Barn in the early years of our farm was based on many factors. At that time, we were selling few if any products directly to customers, which is our primary market today. At that time, we had begun breeding in hopes of adding lambs that improved on their parents. The lambs that didn’t make our cut had to go somewhere, and taking them all to a single place — like a livestock auction — had its benefits.
When I was looking for an auction house, I had a number of criteria. It had to be within a reasonable distance so the sheep wouldn’t have to sit in a trailer for a long drive. I then visited several places to see how the animals were handled — although I cannot control their lives after they leave our farm, I could control how they were handled at the auction house. I was looking for cleanliness and friendly people, and I wanted the sheep treated with kindness and respect. Not all people who manage livestock consider this important, but it is to me, and so it also became important in my selection of an auction house.
I also wanted a place that attracted a good-sized group of buyers, because if I was going to sell my sheep this way, I wanted to get some competitive bidding for the effort. Once I was satisfied that Kalona was my chosen auction house, I called and spoke to the owner, asking about the details of dropping off my sheep. I also asked about the various sales seasons, because I wanted to manage my year and bring in as much income as possible based on seasonal cycles.
In the early years, nearly all of our lambs and ewes who didn’t stay in our flock went to auction; now, many are sold as culls, lawn mowers, pets, or non-breeders, likely ensuring a better life than what the auction might bring. Although many of our auction sheep do sell for breeding, the truth is that I don’t know where they will go — some will end up in the meat industry, and that hurts. What we call “Tuesday-loading-day” is never a happy day, and I go about my work with pain in my heart.
This year I didn’t go alone as I usually do; I took a new shepherd with me so that he could scope out the auction and see how things work. Because I leave around dawn, I always load my sheep the day before (always well before dark so that they can adjust to their new space and feel comfortable before darkness falls). I usually struggle a bit on the way to the auction, and the sheep-related conversations during the hour-long drive took my mind off the fact that I would shortly be saying goodbye to my ten friends in the trailer.
When pulling up to the building, the challenge shifts from thoughts of goodbye to actually lining up the trailer to unload. The door where the sheep must enter is only just a bit wider than the trailer, and the idea is to back up into the opening — with two to four older Amish men standing around, watching and laughing. My friend offered to take care of this task for me, and once the trailer was in place, things moved very quickly. I long ago learned that the most efficient way to get the sheep out of the trailer is to train them to come to a bucket of grain, shaken as the trailer door opens. There is nothing worse after the misery of the drive and saying good-bye than having a group of sheep in the trailer that won’t leave, that I have to physically move out of that space — and then often have to watch jump back in again! As the lambs exited the trailer, I gave each a chance at the grain bucket, and they moved calmly and easily into the lower portion of the auction house. The deed was done.
We stayed to watch the auction, which began about an hour later. After a few minutes, the first one of mine to come onto the floor was Romney ram lamb Qi, who sold quickly for a relatively good auction price. The next group were the smallest four that I had brought; I looked them over carefully for signs of stress, but they looked fine. The third group was the larger four ram lambs, and they were followed by our largest Romeldale ram lamb, all of whom seemed to take the walk through the sales floor in stride. When my sheep had all been sold, I went to get my check and we left.
I know from dozens of these types of runs that the painful period is the time from loading until they are sold. During this time, it is a battle between my mind and my heart: my mind knows that our flock will be that much better, healthier, and stronger going forward if the “bottom of the barrel” are removed — but I am attached and my heart argues. These are animals I have spent months trying to keep happy and healthy, nurturing them through good times and bad. Knowing that their trip to the auction might be the beginning of their end is a great sadness. Yet I also know that my focus is and always must be for the flock of Peeper Hollow Farm, and there is a limit as to how many sheep we can keep. I must do what is right for those that remain, to keep the flock strong. They trust me with their lives, and if the home flock goes down, we all lose. There is peace in that once I leave the auction house, yet the wound to my heart is still recent and the healing only begun. I know it will get better with each passing day — until my next trip to the sales barn. I know from experience: that’s just how it goes.