Good farm help

I spent a good part of this past weekend at the Iowa Sheep and Wool Festival, mostly helping out at the fleece competition and the fleece silent auction that came afterwards. Before I had sheep, I didn’t have any idea that there are so many of these summer events all around the country, but now I try to get to at least a few each year. Yet in order to be able to do so, I need some farm help to cover for me when I’m gone. The sheep and chickens don’t stop eating and drinking just because I want to meet some friends, see some sheep and wool, and generally have some fun!

Going to a sheep show makes finding good help even more difficult. Normally when we leave town and need someone to cover for us, we have a list of people that we can call to fill in. Yet going to a nearby sheep festival means that many people who might be interested in doing chores for us will likely be going themselves. Earlier this summer, I had arranged with a young helper to cover for several of our trips: one earlier this past week in Washington, DC; this weekend for the festival; and a future trip to visit family out of state. We went over the exact dates of each trip and taped a to-do list inside the garage so that if the helper had a momentary lapse of memory, the chores were listed there. I also left a list of telephone numbers, just in case. I always want to make sure that if there is any kind of issue with the flock, it can be taken care of promptly.

I was very surprised when I made my way into the barn for my morning chores, after returning from the festival late last night. As walked across the backyard toward the barn, the sheep were calling particularly loudly for their food. When I entered the Sheep Barn, which houses the lambs and the younger ewes, I was hit with a particular odor that signals stress and illness. I knew that something was very wrong, but I had no idea what it was. I went about my chores quickly, knowing that the faster I moved, the faster I could figure out what was wrong and fix it.

As I went to empty and refill the hay feeders, I noticed that everything had been eaten — EVERYTHING! The lambs are normally fed enough hay that they leave some of the less palatable hay at the bottom of the feeders. Yet there was nothing left, and many of the lambs were picking at bits of feed that had mixed in with the dirty bedding on the floor. I quickly looked over at the adjoining adult group, and the ewes looked very thin and sunken as they called for me to come and feed them. The only reason why they could be so thin was if their rumens — their internal fermentation chambers that are the first step in their digestion process — were empty. My sheep had obviously not been fed since before I left early on Friday morning!

I had gotten a call from another farm helper the day before. He had been out of town for a while, but I asked him to stop by my farm sometime during the day yesterday to take care of a maintenance issue that I knew the person who was feeding couldn’t manage. When he called me, he asked whether I wanted him to feed my sheep, but I assured him that, no, I had arranged for someone else to cover that. Yet I remember thinking that it was odd that the feeding person had not yet arrived. But since my deadline for feeding the sheep had not yet passed, I assumed that things would be taken care of. Obviously I had assumed incorrectly.

The fact that the sheep hadn’t been fed explained a lot. Without anything to eat, the lambs would have become stressed, bringing on the diarrhea that I had smelled when I walked into the barn. Making things worse, eating off of the dirty ground would have increased the single-celled organisms that cause the stress illness. There was only about a cup of water left in the lambs’ water tub, and it was tainted with manure, making matters even worse. I immediately began to treat the problem and called on a couple of friends to stop by and help hold the lambs while I trimmed the soiled wool at their tail stubs and hit them with some fly spray.

As I fed my starving sheep, I couldn’t help feeling guilty. While they waited in hunger at home, I was out having a good time with friends. Realistically, I know that I shouldn’t feel guilt about this, since I made all of the arrangements to cover my chores well in advance. But emotionally, I have agonized over what happened. And, I will admit, I harbored a bit of anger at my farm sitter for letting me down.

Yet there is no point in living in the past; what’s done is done. I’ve arranged for my usual helper, Seth, to cover my upcoming trip(s) . He’s very reliable, so I feel comfortable knowing that he will be around for our remaining trips. I’ve filled all of the sheep’s feeders today and provided extra hay to all of the groups to make up a bit for the shortfall. I only hope I can get everyone back to health in short order. The treatment for the scouring/diarrhea takes five days, so it will be a while before I can once again feel that the risk has passed.

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  • Jane M says:

    After all the care and thought you expend on your sheep this must be more than a little horrifying. I hope with you that you will see health again soon!

    • Dee says:

      Yes, I have to admit that leaving the farm again for an upcoming sheep transport trip is making me very worried. We are not out of the woods yet, since I still have several lambs who may not survive this. We’ve already decided that from niw on, we will insist that our farm help text us when they arrive to feed or check on the sheep.

  • Elaine Chicago says:

    This is really bad!! I thought Seth was your main man on caring for the animals when you were away as well as helping out at other times. He must feel really bad too because the sheep are his sheep and friends too.

    • Dee says:

      Actually you are right, Seth is our go-to guy. Since he was out of town for my Monday/Tuesday trip last week, we asked one of our other regular helpers to cover us over those days. Since I knew I would be away again over the weekend only a few days later, I decided to use the same person for both trips. Each time we leave, we have whoever is covering come out to see what they need to do, and by using the same person, I had only one such visit last week instead of two – which ended up costing me time and money (not to mention heartache!) in medical treatment instead of saving me time, as I thought it would. You can be sure that I’ll be changing how we cover the farm in our absence from now on to try to avoid even the possibility of this happening again!

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