Short on help and a snow blizzard... my attempt at saving as many lambs as possible
I went home that night for a hot shower, fresh clean clothes, and a good meal.
It’d been a long week of lambing already and under bad circumstances, only to get worse. Five hired men left in the night a few days back. Leaving one guy, David, alone with the biggest herd, other lambing crews short handed, and only my uncle and I to replace them. Although I had my fair share of shed lambing, I had yet to lamb on the range or tend my own flock. As soon as I heard the news, I loaded up my best horses and dogs from my home ranch and drove 15 miles for the 1,600 ewes I would now be caring for alone. This included keeping all the ewes together, trailing them to water for the day, and allowing them to graze a given area while leaving behind the ones with fresh lambs so they’re not mixed with the ewes without lambs. I had to watch for any ewes having problems with delivering their lambs, which I would have to rope, throw and hold down, pull the lamb/lambs, and tie the ewe up to a sagebrush by a front leg. All by myself, with only the help of my dogs and horse. David showed me the area to graze that day before quickly disappearing into the sagebrush to tend to all the lambs born in the days before.
A snow storm blew in that night, and when I showed back up to where the herd should have been, there was no herd. Everything was white. Everything was wet. The howling wind was unbelievably cold. We spent all morning riding through the white haze trying to find our sheep, barely able to even see beyond our horses' ears. We needed to tend to the newborn lambs who had to be colder than ourselves. Each soaking wet lamb I rode upon filled my body with a great grief. I would build a small fire beneath a sagebrush with some diesel and newspaper I packed in my saddle bags; hold the vulnerable babe on my lap, protecting it from the wind with my body; and pray that it would survive. Some of them did; the ones that I found before the cold had completely taken over their shivering little bodies. Some of them I sent to the ranch for better shelter and a new mom because I had found them alone. And others died in my arms, as I was giving them as much warmth as I could but it was still too late. I wept for each one before moving on to the next, hoping, praying for a better outcome.
David, a new man we were able to get for help from another ranch, and I met under a tree near the drop herd after having helped as many lambs as we could find in this miserable, white tundra. We built a huge fire to warm ourselves this time, for we were as wet as the lambs we cared for. Drenched in their after birth fluids and the wet snow we sat in, sacrificing our warmth to warm and save them. As the stinky wet of our winter clothes evaporated with the heat of the fire, we passed a bottle of schnapps around to aid in the warming process; or at least help ease the pain of losing so many of our beloved lambs. We shared with one another, in Spanish, where each lamb and its mother were and each one's circumstance. We talked of past years and the weather during those lambing seasons, none of us experiencing one quite this treacherous. We cursed the men who had left, and wondered how the herders at the four other lambing locations were handling the cold. As the fire burned out and the bottle went dry, we climbed back on our worn out mounts to make another loop back through the snow covered sagebrush to check on our freezing livelihoods one last time before dark.
This story occurred in May of 2019. As a whole for that very trialing spring, we lost about 2,000 lambs due to the blizzard, including our “normal” losses from predators, illnesses, and other complications. We also grafted a huge number of lambs trying to give those ewes with dead lambs an opportunity to raise a lamb, while also saving on the number we would be bottle feeding. To graft we skin the dead lamb and use its hide as a jacket on the live lamb. We completely cover the live lamb in the scents of the ewe we are adopting it to and of her dead lamb using its blood, her milk, and the afterbirth. Many of the ewes will adopt their new lamb, although some do not. Our hired men, the sheepherders, are all brought in on work visas primarily from Peru but a few from Chile as well. Occasionally some of them will leave our ranch, or "jump" as we call it, illegally and without word. This leaves us, as well as many other sheep ranchers, without enough help, heartbroken, and scrambling to replace them.
I hope you have all enjoyed this story. You are more than welcome to email me anytime with questions or for more to the story. And remember to always Eat Lamb and Wear Wool!