My alarm goes off at 4:30. I ease my tired, sore body down off the raised bed in the cold camp. I get some heat going with the propane stove to start breakfast and coffee. I pull my stinky, dirt and afterbirth covered clothes on from the days before and head out to catch one of my three trusty mares in the dark. I load up my saddle bags with water, jerky, a sandwich, and a beer for my ride back to camp that night. I make sure I still have enough chaulk, sisal rope, and nutridrench (a molasses syrup to give cold lambs a boost) to get me through the day. I head out across the sagebrush sea to meet up with the three Peruvian men atop the ridge where we left the drop herd the night before. The sun is beginning to show. We quietly ride through the awakening sheep, searching for all the new lambs born that night. With each set of twin/triplets I ride upon, I jump off my horse and mark the fresh little babies with matching chaulk marks- a circle around an eye, a line on each ear, lines down their backs, legs, or face, letters or numbers on their sides, each guy with a different color.
The siblings get the same mark, different from other sets around them. This is so we can tell that those lambs belong to the same ewe. Oftentimes, a ewe will take off grazing or head to water and accidentally leave one of her lambs behind. When we find this lost lamb without its mother, or a ewe with only one marked lamb, then we can match the missing lamb with its marked sibling to get it back to its mother’s side.
As I am holding a wet lamb between my legs giving him the same green circle as his brother, a ewe runs by me with a horse following closely behind. Lalo throws his loop around the ducking head of an ornery old ewe. I make my way down the hill towards him with a strand of sisal rope. I tie it to her front leg and then to a sturdy sagebrush while Lalo goes back for her lambs. She’s a “big tit”. Her tits are too large for the lambs to get a hold of on their own, so we have to help them suckle. The only way to capture and help a ewe out on the range is to rope them and tie them to a sagebrush. There are no corrals. I walk back up to where I left my little gray mare, and continue checking for twins or problems as I ride to the uphill side of the herd. I barely spot my good dog, Villa, hiding in the brush a ways up from the herd so as to not bother them. When she sees me begin to move them, she slowly emerges from her hiding spot and quietly helps as well. We carefully maneuver the main herd of ewes that haven’t lambed yet off the bedding ground while leaving behind the ones that lambed last night. Once they are separated, one of the men, Angel, and I stay with the approximate 1,400 droppers to direct their grazing in the direction of water and assist with any problems.
Lalo and Sam, the “back riders”, continue to help the new lambs and make sure everything is straight before riding back to check on all the previously born lambs. They check to make sure all the lambs are still with their mother’s and replace them if they are lost. They help any lambs suckle if they are still needing help. They untie the ewes that had to be tied the day before. They collect the lambs that they cannot find the mothers to and put them in a white corn sack or burlap sack hanging from their saddle horn.
These lambs are now bums and will either be grafted onto another ewe or sent to the ranch to be bottle fed. They solve any other problems they may encounter, such as cast a lamb’s broken leg, by using little sagebrush sticks and black electrical tape, or save a lamb stuck in a badger hole. As the lambs get older, the back riders slowly allow the ewes of each area to move into a bunch together. Over time, they make the bunches to have about 300 ewes in each. These guys have many miles to cover each day and many ewes and lambs to attend to. They make it back to camp about dark.
I sit atop Annie studying the ewes as they graze. One bite of a leaf here, a little nibble of sagebrush with the next step, another bite of a green blade of grass. They barely come to a stop with each bite, staying in a constant state of moving forward. All of them grazing in the same manner, never seeming to get a mouthful but somehow filling their stomachs anyways. I listen to them as they chew, an occasional “blat” they share amongst each other, and the bells chiming from around their necks as they move.
The birds sing in the background, a beautiful sound indicating warmer weather and longer days. I am constantly scanning the moving herd, moving around them myself to get different angles on each of them, sometimes riding amidst the mass to get a better look at the gals hiding in the middle. Angel is doing the same on the opposite end of them. I spot a ewe laying on her side pushing, with little feet and a nose appearing, and another ewe with a water sack hanging out.
I allow them up to an hour to birth the babies on their own, if it takes longer than an hour it generally means they need help- this is where I come in. I rope the struggling ewe and lay her on her right side. I find two wet little lamb feet and make sure the head of the lamb is coming in the right direction. As soon as I get him into his new world, I hang him upside down by holding his hind feet and lightly swinging him. This is a natural motion when the ewe is having it by herself to help drain the birthing fluid out of their lungs. Another trick I use to help release fluid is by tickling the inside of the lamb’s nose with a piece of grass, causing them to sneeze or cough it up.
After pulling the first one, I feel again checking for a second one. If they’re small enough I check for a third lamb as well. I lay the sopping wet, yellow tinted lambs near their mother’s nose. Their wobbly, long legs are sprawled out as they awkwardly shake their heads and flop around. The ewe begins her job of drying the lambs by licking them, her tongue moving quickly and aggressively covering every inch of the little bodies. I learned the hard way to always tie a ewe up after helping her. Otherwise, there is a very good chance she will take off running away from the scene the second I let her go, leaving her lambs wet, alone, and with nothing to eat; and me to have to rope her again to bring her back.
The herd makes it to the reservoir of water between 11 and noon. The ewes with fresh lambs stay back in the sage where they gave birth. We relax at the water hole for about an hour or so before the old girls decide it’s time to continue grazing. We are frequently checking the herd for anything that may need help. In the heat of the day the herd rests again, allowing Villa and I to take a quick nap in the shade of a sagebrush as well. More lambs are born and assisted, and the grazing continues toward higher ground where we will bed the herd for the night.
The ewes spread over the rounded top as the sun falls out of sight. I get one last look at them before the dark hinders my view, and I point my horse in the direction of the last bit of orange in the sky. I make it back to my lonely camp well past dark, too tired to cook. Jerky it is, again. I wash the day’s work off my hands and face in an old metal wash bowl and sink into my wool covered bed.
Eat Lamb, Wear Wool!