Thursday, August 11, 2011

...I have sheep poo in my pocket...

The title is a text message I sent to a friend a couple days ago. He’d asked how my day was going. It pretty much summed things up. It wasn’t so much that my day was bad; it was almost good, even. But a sheep pooped in my pocket. Of course, it wasn’t actually sheep poo so much as lamb poo, and it wasn’t the pocket of my pants, just my coveralls. But I discovered it when it was still wet.

(This was written not quite a week ago. The totals have changed, but the general gist is pretty much the same)

I’m currently working on a wool-sheep (versus meat-sheep) farm in Victoria. Newstead, to be exact. It’s south-west of Bendigo, and north-west of Melbourne. I’m working specifically with pregnant ewes, and more specifically with ewes carrying twins or more. I’m having a pretty good time. Sheep, so far, are pretty easy to take care of. Feed, water, clean up. I’m working with sheep in a shelter, not a paddock (field, pasture, whatever. Here, it’s a paddock) so they need mucking out on a pretty regular basis, but even that isn’t too bad. Perhaps a little smelly at times. I’ve been here a week now, and there’s a definite routine, though it changed a couple days ago with the addition of a work partner, so all of a sudden there seems to be not quite enough work to do to fill out a day for two people. But the lambing isn’t intense yet, and that’s what takes the most time in the cleanup; birth is an awfully wet thing for a sheep (for a human too, I suppose, but I’ve never seen it) so they need fresh clean bedding (we’re using straw) as soon as is humanly convenient. A usual day starts with breakfast, and then up to the shelter for about 8. I’ve been driving myself, in a little old Mitsubishi that doesn’t like mornings, but tolerates the fact that I’m teaching myself to drive a manual transmission. Mostly. Once at the shelter, there’s a quick look around to see what’s happened overnight. New lambs are accounted for, and dead things (ewes, lambs, and the occasional mouse) are removed. Everyone gets breakfast (barley, and a water refill) and then the cleanup begins. Cleanup may take until lunch time (with two of us) or it might take all day. Some days, when the forecast is clear and not too cold (overcast with no rain expected is pretty good) I might tag and release lambs and their mums into the paddock surrounding the shelter. Each lamb gets weighed and then tagged before going out. In a week, I’ve sent out 91 sheep, 59 of them lambs.

I’m finding a distinct matter-of-factness in myself when I have to deal with dead lambs. I guess it’s just something that has to happen. As my boss puts is “when you have livestock, then you get dead stock.” I haven’t had to deal with too many dead lambs (and only 2 ewes, out of the 160 or so we’ve had through so far) but it’s less troublesome than I might have expected. I think perhaps the worst part (psychologically, at least) is still the tagging part. Lambs squirm a fair bit (and some of them bleat) when you punch holes in their ears… I suppose I probably would too, and I’m not 3 days old. But even that is getting easier, and I’m past the point of “aww, it’s so cute, can I keep it?” if ever I was there to begin with. In general, the sheep are decent to work with. They’re warm, and wooly, and they don’t seem to complain too much unless you try to make them walk around when they don’t want to. Lambs are cute, though it takes a couple hours after they’re born for them to get that way. A new lamb is mostly just wet and slimy. It may or may not be covered in blood, mucus, amniotic fluid, and poo (its own, or it’s mum’s). The ewe mostly takes care of that in the first few hours, but it might take longer. Perhaps the most interesting part so far is when lambs get stuck. It’s certainly not the best part of the operation, but it’s up there, providing you succeed. So far, we’ve helped three sheep, two with live lambs, and one with a dead one. The two with live lambs both had their lambs get stuck at the shoulders. A lamb is meant to come out with its front legs first, followed by its nose. If that doesn’t happen, or the lamb is particularly large, it might get stuck. The first lamb I helped was coming headfirst, with its legs tucked behind it. The trick was to reach in and grab one leg, and pull it forward, if it would go, then do the same for the other leg. A tug on the legs helped pass the shoulders, and then the rest of the lamb just slid through. Today, there were two sheep having trouble. One had the larger of a pair of twins stuck halfway, with one front leg and his head coming out, so that was a pretty simple matter of a good pull, but the lamb was huge for a twin. The average “release” weight of the lambs has been about 3.5-4kg. This one was probably about that to start with, if not more. But his sibling is sort of average twin lamb size, so it’s a bit odd. The other sheep today was just carrying a single lamb, but it was backwards, and died somewhere along the way (we’re not sure when, we just know we pulled out a dead lamb). That required a bit more fiddling. For one thing, it wasn’t feet-first, but bum-first. We had to reach in and find legs to get a good grip on things. But it eventually worked, and the (very tired) ewe is spending the night under cover, having a bit of a break before we send her out again with the rest.

In general, the work has been pretty interesting, both from a knitter-spinner angle (I learned more that I will ever likely need to know about wool classing the other day; there’s apparently a comfort rating (it used to be a prickle/itch factor) in merino wool; a fiber has to be at least 30 microns to feel prickly, so a bale of wool is given a comfort rating of how much of it is likely to be less than 30 microns as a percentage) and from a biology angle. And there’s a marginal amount of comfortable monotony to the work; the same tasks need doing, in roughly the same order, every day. Some days may involve other things, like moving more sheep through, or shifting them to a different space, or even the simple task of pumping water up to the tank from the dam, but in general, things are pretty routine. It’s a good thing. And the sunsets have been excellent.