Ten days ago I had to cull again due to the drought. It was my third cull and probably not my last. This one hurt a great deal. It included sheep that in better times would have been retained as breeding stock and flock leaders. They were better representatives of my breed of sheep than the first ewes I meticulously researched, selected, purchased and waited (seemingly endlessly) to be delivered.
I mentioned to other farmers that this type of culling cuts the heart right out of you – and it does. But as I try to explain how it feels I realize that many folks, who are not faced with the day to day decisions about which animals to keep and which to slaughter, might not recognize the difference between a rancher’s decision to harvest and a forced, painful cull. How do I explain that difference?
A harvest is never “easy” to a rancher who respects each and every life on their farm as we do. But a forced cull amplifies the pain. It is not just a decision to take a life for purposes of sustenance. A forced cull abandons both progress and potential. Like many ranchers we have been breeding our sheep for specific purposes in our particular environment for many years. We select individuals who thrive and best fulfill our goals. Each year the lambs get stronger, more vigorous and better suited to our land. They evolve to thrive here and as such become more than just a sheep of a particular breed – they become sheep uniquely suited to sustainable husbandry on our ranch. A forced cull means there are fewer of these uniquely suited sheep and a smaller gene pool from which to develop the next generation.
But beyond the practical implications is the fact that when you have a forced cull you often have to include animals you have worked with and admired for many years. They may not be the prettiest or most productive. Maybe their wool color is not perfect or they are a bit on the small side. Or maybe they are just a bit older than the rest of the flock. But they have made positive contributions to the next generation of your flock. They have mowed your orchards and eliminated weeds from your crops. They have followed you from field to field trusting you were taking them to fresh grazing. They know you and take direction from you willingly. They have provided you with milk and wool and lambs in return for your protection and care. And even when they are not tame or friendly there is a bond between you that may be hard for people to understand unless they experience it.
Even now after ten days my heart aches for the individuals I had to cull. The logical side of me knows why it was necessary but the emotional side of me will continue to grieve. I know there are ranchers all across the State with similar stories.
I have been really worried about our neighbors the hawks during this drought. The lack of rain means there is little food for rodents and birds and that in turn means little food for the hawks. Recently they have been paying far too much attention to the chickens in my yard and it has me worried. Hawks should be eating wild prey – not chicken.
For now we have been able to divert the hawk’s attention by shooting large numbers of ground squirrels for them to eat. Ground squirrels are very destructive to crops, the land, and buildings. Without normal rainfall (and the associated creek flooding) in recent years the ground squirrel population has exploded. They need to be controlled and for us shooting is the most environmentally sensitive. The side benefit to this approach is a banquet for our hawks. It keeps them full and away from the chickens – a win-win.
Taking care of a day old lamb is a little like taking care of a human baby. There are middle of the night feedings and a lot of “clean up” to attend to. Despite the lack of sleep and mess I really enjoy raising the bottle lambs. I much prefer if they can stay with their Mothers of course! But when I need to play the role of Mother it is quite rewarding.
One of the joys it holding a young lamb while it sleeps and watching it dream. Like a dog they are very active physically when they dream. During some parts of their dreams it is obvious they are nursing as their lips move and their ears twitch. At other times their legs stretch and their hooves extend and retract. Are they running? Playing? Just laying in the sun? I wonder what they are doing in their dream. These dreams start very young – often before the lamb has been able to experience running, playing, and laying in the sun. Are they dreaming from instinct? How do these dreams originate in a being that has not yet experienced the activities in the dream?
Saw something cute today. The grapes on our front porch are forming but are not nearly ready. That has not stopped the turkeys and chickens from eating them though! Most of the low lying bunches are already gone but there are plenty just above turkey reach. One of our young roosters figured out he could jump and grab a grape – and he was quite good at it. But the cute part is that as soon as he had a grape he would call to one of the hens with chicks and hand her – beak to beak – the grape. The hen then fed the grape to a chick. This went on for a good 15 minutes. When a rooster gives a worm or a choice morsel to a hen its usually in exchange for her “favors”. But in this case there was no such quid pro quo. Maybe he was earning brownie points for later.
On a family farm some animals become icons just by virtue of their personality. On our farm one such animal is Bertha. Bertha is an old Black Jersey Giant hen who was not very notable in her early life. She lived with the other chickens, laid her eggs, and went about her daily chicken duties. But when Bertha was five or six years old I found her one day near death. She was egg bound – she was trying to lay a very large egg and it was stuck. Not only can this cause great distress but it can actually kill a hen by blocking their digestive tract, cutting off circulation, and leaving them vulnerable to maggots.
I took Bertha in the house to perform an operation to remove the egg. Not much to it really – just breaking the egg and removing it. But you have to remember what part of the chicken is being worked on – and it is stinky! And gross. But I got the task done with minimal gagging and kept Bertha in the bathroom until she felt better.
When Bertha returned to the outside world she was a changed hen. She decided she wanted to live near the house and hang around people. She started just “hanging out” with us when we sat on the porch or had a BBQ. She will take any food offered of course but even when there is no food you can look behind your chair and there is Bertha.
Bertha also decided to sleep in the breezeway so I provided her with a straw lined nest. She has gotten rather lazy and does not get up before 9 am. Anytime before that you will still find Bertha in her nest even if other “early to rise” hens are there trying to push her out so they can lay! Maybe she needs her coffee.
When Bertha finally gets up she makes the trek from our house to the hay barn where she forages for fallen grain. She also visits the pig barn to see if any of the fermented grain has been scattered. She loves the hog grain. At the end of the day – just before dark – at a time when all other chickens have been secure in their roosts for at least a half hour Bertha saunters back to the house and does a last minute check for food on the porch. Then she heads to bed.
Bertha is not particularly tame. She does not jump in my arms like Margarita and she could care less about being petted. But she has definitely decided to be part of the family.
You probably already know about the escalating diabetes rate in the US and how this disease affects so many people’s lives. For once there is good news to share – its about a diabetic co-worker of Jim’s and how he has gotten off all his diabetes medicine.
When Jim’s co-worker was diagnosed with Type II Diabetes he swore to his doctor he would get healthy and get off the meds. The Doctor was skeptical but supported his approach of sensible excercise and good diet. He gave up the junk food, processed food, and soda. He ate more veggies, grass based meats, and whole grains. His Doctor supervised his progress and tested for results and slowly started to wean him from the diabetes medicines. A couple of weeks ago he stopped taking the last of the meds with his Doctor’s approval and all his lab work is within normal non-diabetic ranges.
He accomplished this simply with diet and excercise. He still gets to eat good food like meat and eggs – just the right kind of meat and eggs. He eats lots of veggies and most everything is home cooked. He excercises regularly. That’s it! Is it a cure for diabetes? No, of course not. But is it an option that makes a whole lot more sense then heavy medications? I sure think so. Sure makes you think about the “real cost” of all that processed food out there in terms of people’s health and medical expenses.
The Capay Valley is blessed with some wonderful people who are not only great farmers but also interesting people. When I lived in the city I knew three of my neighbors – the ones on either side of me and the one across the street. Yet within a half mile radius there were hundreds of homes. My fault, I know, for not introducing myself to everyone but it did not even occur to me to do that. Now that I live in this beautiful valley I know hundreds of people and it IS normal to introduce yourself and get to know your neighbors even if they live 10 miles away.
The Capay Valley is very agriculturally oriented and the people who move here, for the most part, want to pursue some form of agriculture. Their stories are fascinating and range from the Native American tribe whoe settled here long ago, to families who have been here since the Spanish land grants, to people who have moved here from cities and other lives with a dream of living with the land. My good neighbors Tom and Pam are a great example and they allowed me to capture a small part of their story on video.