When I was a young I loved lambing season: I got to be with my Dad at his day job as a scientist for the University of California. Though I doubt he meant to, being around Dad during lambing taught me responsibility, compassion, and about life and death through a shepherd’s eyes.
The video below from the American Sheep Industry Association (ASI) brought back memories that are especially meaningful now as my folks age, agriculture struggles to survive, and America grapples with identity and future.
My father Don Torell was a sheep rancher, but he was also an animal scientist at UC Davis’ experimental research facility, the Hopland Field Station. When we were young, my brother and I went to the Station with Dad during lambing season on Saturdays partially to give Mom a break, but also to help Dad.
Though lambing season is typically cold and stormy, we loved being at the Station with Dad. We’d walk quietly (usually) from one end of the barn to the other looking for signs that ewes were about to give birth: some needed help, others did fine on their own. We hiked into the surrounding pastures to gather ewes that had lambed outside during the night, usually in a storm. Dad handled them as little as possible, using a shepherd’s crook to gently “collar” and then carry them in a small, low cart with a long handle so skittish ewes would follow.
Once ewes gave birth, their lambs – singles, twins, and occasionally triplets – were weighed, branded (with a paint-like fluid) for record-keeping, their umbilical cords were treated with iodine, and watched closely to make sure they were nursing. Unfortunately, not every lamb and ewe lived. I hated that, but when it happened, we took dead lambs from frantic mothers and offered orphan lambs in exchange. Dad would tie the skin from a dead lamb on an orphan. It worked sometimes.
We bottle-fed rejected orphans and the weak and sick lambs in the barn office. Some we took home for intensive care and feeding until they could survive outside. Many didn’t make it. Those that did were pets for awhile.
The video below takes me back to a time when a much-admired father patiently taught two rowdy kids about sheep and about life and death. It reminds me of joy and sorrow, ewes and lambs, and drinking Sanka while coaxing orphans to take a bottle next to a very small electric space heater in the chilly barn office. Good memories.
Thanks to ASI, the Indart family, and many others who carry on in agriculture though it’s never been harder. Despite all America’s troubles today, when I remember lambing I am reminded that there are farmers and ranchers still out there contributing to society and teaching new generations of kids important life lessons.
It’s especially then that I have hope for the future.