Friday, January 21, 2011

In The Weeds

In the weeds. Anyone who has ever worked in a restaurant should be familiar with this term. This is the phrase used to describe that time of the night when you are working as fast as you can trying to put out plates of food and no matter how hard you work, those order tickets keep cranking out of the machine faster than you can deal with them. You are down on your hands and knees slogging through the weeds and there is no horizon in sight.
At the end of December the lambs had just starting coming in a trickle and we were dusting off all of the lambing gear and milking equipment and starting to remember how the whole lambing season thing works again. I was expecting the number of new lambs to pick up in early January and be a pretty steady flow until the end of February, how it was the last couple of years. I had two experienced full-time staffers and a new employee, with two other lambing season helpers due to start mid-january. There's a new, larger bulk tank on order due to arrive at the beginning of Februay--timing which would coincide with the onset of milking of the majority of the flock. The goats and pig were due to have their babies in February and March after the bulk of the sheep had lambed. Then one of my employees who had been through the lambing and milking season last year abruptly quit. That was okay as I had a couple of new, part-time folks just starting who would help with lambs. The rain had put us a little behind on putting up the lambing tent and getting things organized. We were a little rusty from a six-month break from milking and an even longer break since the last of the lambs were born in 2010, but things were mostly on track to run well.
In the weeds. Then it was a new year. The guys had been working hard the last couple weeks of December after the departure of one of the full-time crew and the arrival of new lambs to be cared for and ewes to be milked. I gave them Christmas Day and New Years Day off as a thank you. Yeah, it meant a really long day for me but not anything I couldn't handle. And I enjoy getting to work on the farm with the animals in the winter when I spend so much time away at farmers markets in the summer. I got up early and bottle-fed the twenty some lambs, milked out the dozen ewes, and went down to feed the bulk of the flock who are all pregnant. When I got down to the pen and the hay feeders I counted 17 new babies and three ewes currently in labor. Did I mention it was raining and I had a raging sinus infection?

To make a long story short, I was blessed with the help nine friends and family members (mostly unsolicited), and we spent a good part of the morning and afternoon constructing lambing jugs for new moms and babies, hauling them up the hill to the pens, sleuthing out which lambs belonged to which ewes, bottle-feeding those lambs we could not place with mothers and feeding all of the them and the rest of the flock. [Then we sat down to a gorgeous spread of cracked crab with homeade aioli, lovely canapes of eel and potato and eggs with roe and tiny tarts for dessert, and champagne all brought down from Bolinas by Annabelle!!] I then went back out and milked and bottle fed until midnight.

Over the course of one week there were 100 lambs born to 41 ewes out of a flock of 100. This might be expected when the ewes are artificially inseminated and have been synched intentionally. For a flock of this size with only three rams and natural cycling this is pretty unexpected to say the least. That meant that after the three days that the lambs spend drinking colostrum from their mothers we were suddenly bottle-feeding 120+ lambs by hand. They take anywhere from two days to one week to learn how to suck from the nipples and feed themselves from the self-service buckets. Again, I was saved by the generous help of a number of volunteers who came out in that first week to hand feed all of the lambs and train them to the buckets. In particular, Elisa and Connie, my most loyal customers, came three different days and spent up to six hours each day as lamb nurses.

In the meantime, we were suddenly milking over half the flock. I had put in an order for replacement parts for some of the equipment that I had discovered to be worn out when pulled out of storage, but it had not arrived. That meant we were milking 50+ sheep with two milking set-ups instead of six. I also only had one other person on the farm who was trained to milk, I scrambled to hire a couple of new folks and we got them trained to milk as quick as possible. All of this milking then meant that I needed to start making cheese with all of the milk! And since the new larger bulk tank was still on order that meant I needed to make cheese at least every other day. And I was still trying to find the time to fill out the loan applications I had been working on for weeks, as I was running out of operating money. [I did finally get antibiotics for the sinus infection which helped a lot.]
Just as things were starting to settle--the new workers were trained and able to milk on their own, the replacement equipment had arrived so that we could milk three times faster, the flood of new lambs had slowed down, I was getting a chance to make cheese and get to bed before midnight--I broke the milking machine. The remedy of this situation involved: Fedexing of a pump cross-country (at almost the same price as the pump itself), borrowing the money from my parents to pay for said emergency pump purchase, borrowing of a milking machine that belongs in an ag museum (and meant we were back to milking two at a time instead of six), borrowing another milking machine that had to be disassembled to be removed from its installation, finding that the machine still didn't work even after replacing the pump and three days of scrambling....

Then the pig had ten piglets a month early. Then the goats started having kids six weeks early. Then my refrigerator broke. Then the dog got skunked at very close range and ran in my bedroom to hide and spread his foul stench. Then it stopped raining and the pasture started to dry out.

But then it was sunny and beautiful for two weeks and there were suddenly no more lambs being born and the older ones were all drinking on the buckets and romping in the sun and the little goat kids were so tiny and precious and multi-colored and the pig mama started bringing her brood out from under the trees so we could see them squirming and pick and then all kinds of friends stopped by to feed lambies and take pictures of the piglets and then I made some homemade yogurt and it was so good. And then the sheep were all grazing on the weeds and I could see a little bit of the sky again.

I'd like to extend an enormous thank you for the love, support and aide of: Adrianna, Chris, Julia, Andy, Annabelle, Connie, Elisa, Kailin, Silvia, Cynthia and the Love Apple Farm interns, Raymond, Mike, Marlene, Frankie, Tim, Heather and most of all my parents!

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