The life — and death — in spring

Spring is so full of life. But it’s also life on the edge. This new ram lamb was born yesterday, our first out of a beautiful Katahdin ram gifted to us by dear friends at Abiding Pastures Farm. (We plan to keep replacement ewes from this St. Croix x Katahdin cross.) Yet, even as this was happening (and Nathan was sending us these photos), Heidi and I were working at the edge of life and death that is spring.

Heidi has been intensely helping a little ewe lamb for a couple of days. She’s spent hours warming her, feeding her from a bottle and from her mom and generally sticking with her very late into the evening and and very early in the morning. Why? Because the lamb wants so much to live, and her dam, a new mom, is especially fond of her. Not all new moms are fond of their babies or are willing to co-parent with two-leggeds, but this ewe and lamb are remarkable for their willingness and desire to be together and to live. Heidi sweetly talked the new mom through it all.

Usually when there’s a will there’s a way in this area, but I can’t say what the outcome of this is going to be. Dr. K helped me crawl belly crawl on the ground in a little nook last night to squeeze some milk from the ewe’s teat into the lamb’s tired-but-willing mouth. I felt cockroaches crawling on my back as we huddled to get the lamb some last drops of her mom’s rich milk before bed. This morning Nathan fed her at dawn, and Hue and Heidi tubed her some milk replacer. We are hoping that today is the day she makes the big turn. Yesterday we thought she was on her way out, but then she rallied in a big way.

Even when we don’t win, the struggle to preserve life is balm in an irrational age of disconnectedness

Life is sometimes hanging on by a thread, and it’s all we can do to preserve what’s left of it and encourage its growth. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. But the love we put into these animals endures beyond each one. It’s that love that keeps us going, and encouraged when the balance of death and life seems to not be working in our favor. Yet, if we just look around, there is far, far more new life than death. But death is part of life, it just is, and that inescapable reality is what makes farming so grounding. It’s the only balm in the irrationality of our age, which is so disconnected from both.

In the same 24 hours, we had a ram die sort of mysteriously of Listeria. It’s a fast-acting bacterial disease that comes from eating poorly ensiled feed or rotting feed hay off the ground, but he was exposed to neither during the period of incubation. We put him down as an act of mercy after trying to get ahead of it with antibiotics (it is possible, but unlikely after the animal is down). The strain on his face gave way to peace, although it was still sad. He was robust just 24 hours earlier. Spring is like that. The environmental conditions that allow for new life also provide opportunities for death to sneak in. The membrane is thinner this time of year.

First-time moms sometimes need help

Not 12 hours later we pulled a stillborn heifer out of a first-calf heifer. I didn’t know until last year that the background rate of stillborns in first-calf heifers is 7%-8%. That’s almost 1 in 10. Usually we do better than average in terms of animal health metrics, but we don’t win them all.

The blood with what should just be straw-colored translucent discharge told us that Mildred needed help getting her baby out. We give our springing cows and heifers homeopathic Caulophyllum 6c daily to help soften the cervix but this heifer calved 30 days earlier than her predicted date. As it turns out, she had been successfully bred 21 days before we thought and calved 7 days earlier still. Even as Hue and Heidi pulled out the sadly dead calf, who had been alive just 6-12 hours earlier, this little life was looking at them in the bonxstall next-door.

Life is irrevocably intertwined with death

Life takes life. And death is just as part of spring as life is. Spring is hard on farmers. Hug one today. Yet, the joy that comes in participating in stewarding life is worth the pain of loss. Because we can’t have one without the other. Being intimately involved in the birth of life and the joys of spring also means we are perilously close to the reality of life and death’s interconnectedness. It starts with the life and death in the soil: what died last year is this year’s renewal. As above, so below. We press on towards life.

The cow herd grazing by the river.

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