There are two very difficult parts of my role as shepherdess: dealing with death and making culling choices. This blog deals with the latter, since I had to take our first load of sheep to the auction this week — and it was not easy.
I spend many hours every summer trying to figure out the ideal pairing for every ewe and ram in our flock. I put them together on paper to balance traits — both the physically obvious and the scientifically tested — in order to produce the very best possible lambs the next spring. Breeding season comes quickly after these pairing decisions are made, and then we are well into gestation. The excitement continues to build until the lambs begin to arrive around Valentine’s Day, and then I have no time to think until lambing ends around April 1.
Once all the lambs have arrived, we take a careful look at the results of the lambing year. My plans have either been fulfilled or fallen short — and the only way to know is to evaluate each lamb against a series of benchmarks. We look at everything from teeth to hip-spread to legs, from genetic disease resistance to color genetics, and from fleece crimp to staple length. Each lamb is evaluated against eighteen different traits, and it is a very rare lamb that meets every goal. More commonly, we assess the lambs to find particular members who reflect an improvement over the flock average — and those are the lambs we consider adding to our flock.
But because our flock size is relatively stable (we have no space for extra sheep), we must make space for these additional lambs each year. For every lamb coming into the flock, an adult must leave — and that’s where the heartbreak begins. Many of our girls have been here for years; they were the future of our flock in years past. I’ve sat with them during multiple birthings and mourned with them at the loss of some of their babes. I’ve pulled them through illnesses and cheered as their offspring joined our flock as breeders. Now we’ve come to the time when they are no longer the above-average members of our flock. They have, through their own excellent productivity, produced offspring so much better than themselves that the ewes are now at the bottom of the flock curve. But although I love them, my options are limited.
This is a fact of shepherding: in order to strengthen the flock, we must be strong ourselves. If the flock is to thrive, we must continually incorporate improved genetics. I know these new lambs will, like their mothers and grandmothers before them, become my close friends and cornerstones within our flock. Yet in order to allow this, I must move just as many of my old friends out to make room for the new. And that brings pain.
This week, I took seven sheep to the auction. For various reasons, these were sheep who did not meet our standards. I waited for three years for Missy to become productive, but at the age of 3 1/2, she had never lambed. Netty tried to kill her son, Patton, this past spring. I told her at the time that I would overlook this issue if she would take him back. I tried every trick in the book over those first days, and yet she broke his ribs and smashed his little newborn body nearly to death — she was on this load. Two of last year’s lambs didn’t grow out as I had hoped, so both Onaka and Onyx also found spots in the trailer. Rams Outlaw and Oleander had both disappointed in some way, too, so they were both on this load, as was Peabody, one of this year’s lambs whose fleece was so terribly disappointing that there was no reason to keep him here until fall. Although I had good reasons to move each one out, my heart ached as we closed the trailer door and headed out to the auction.
I know that the flock is stronger because these seven have gone, and I also know — based on the prices they brought at auction — that at least a few of them found breeding homes. I’ll continue to focus on the flock here, the sheep for whom I’m ultimately responsible. By making difficult culling decisions, it becomes more likely that this flock will survive and thrive, becoming stronger and better with each passing year. Yet I cannot forget those who have made this possible — and my heart is heavy when my thoughts turn to those friends.
After sixteen years of culling, I know this sadness will pass, the injury to my heart will scar over, and my focus will turn towards the excitement of planning for next year’s lambs. Yet I also know that once those lambs arrive, I will be faced with similarly difficult decisions next year and the year after. It is the pain necessary for flock improvement. I am a shepherdess, and this is part of what I must do.