I awoke this morning to find our recent sunny spring world covered overnight with ice and snow. About 1/4″ of clear ice had obviously begun as freezing rain and now covered everything with icicles. This had been followed by the thinnest layer of snow — just enough to create a soft polishing layer over the dangerous ice on flat surfaces, making the world a treacherous place for both two-legged and four-legged creatures. Thankfully, it’s predicted to melt away later today, but the white world outside reminds me that this is a tricky time of year for shepherds with new lambs.
Spring in Iowa can come in at any time between March and the end of April — but it is not always obvious when spring has sprung. We’ve had a number of days near 70 degrees already, and this had us thinking that perhaps spring was here to stay. I had a fierce itch to let the ewes and their lambs out. The lambing barn is a small enclosed space, which means that all the manure and urine build up in the bedding and need to eventually be scooped out — a lot of work and effort. Letting the sheep out means that they can happily romp in open spaces and those same fertilizing agents will be spread directly on our fields. It seems a win-win to open the barn, and it is honestly hard to wait.
In addition, the lambs are growing very quickly, taking up more and more space. As newborns, they stay fairly close to their dams; but now, with some of them over a month old, they run and play — or sleep along the walls of the barn. It’s easy for the sleeping lambs to be stepped on by the more active adults or bigger lambs as they run from one end of the barn to the other. I worry for the safety of those younger, resting babes: Will they get stepped on? Will they be seriously injured? The conditions become more crowded by the day as the lambs continue to grow, and I dream of opening up a whole new world for their exploration.
Yet I know that opening the barn holds a whole host of new threats. If it gets too cold or wet, will the youngest lambs know to come in, or will they die of hypothermia outside? Our smallest lambs, Odessa and Oleg, are just now reaching newborn lamb size at about 7-8 pounds — a size easily grabbed by a passing eagle, looking to feed its own newly hatched family. Coyotes also have new families to feed, and neighborhood dogs are eager to explore in the warmer spring conditions. Yes, the decision to open up and let the lambs outside seems to have no good solution. Waiting makes conditions in the barn worse, but opening up puts the youngest lambs outside when they have few life skills to keep themselves from danger.
I’ve experienced this indecision every year for over fifteen years now, and it has never gotten easier. So I watch the long-range weather forecasts and try to predict the future: When will it warm above freezing for the long term? Which field will have the least parasites and the most grazing for the new families? Where will the lambs be safest?
No matter how much I fret, at some point I must take the plunge — and I think this year, that day may come later this week. After the next few days’ cold and rain, the weekend seems to begin a warming trend, and I think that might be the chance I’ve been waiting for. The lambs need space, and the ewes are eager to spread out a bit. The grass is beginning to green up, and I’m sure the warmer temperatures later this week and the coming thunderstorms will help accelerate that process. The last lambs will have arrived by then, too, so all signs seem to point towards Saturday.
My goal is to open up the outside world this coming weekend, and then I’ll hold my breath and pray that it all goes well. Let’s hope that by then, spring has sprung and the neighborhood predators decide to hunt elsewhere. I’m eager to once again see the llamas play tag or king-of-the-mountain with the lambs and a few of the ewes, while the rest of the flock looks on, luxuriating in the warm sunshine. It’s been a long winter, and I think we’re all ready for something new!