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MSWF Part II – At The Festival

(read Part 1, if you haven’t yet!)

We were up at 6:30 for a second day in a row (well, I get up at 5:45 almost every day, but still).  We were out of the hotel before the continental breakfast was out, so we made do with IHOP.  The traffic reached the festival before we did, but excellent parking management got us on the grounds and in the door rapidly.  After orienting to the space and buying our teeshirts and totebags, we headed barn-ward to find our BFL farm contacts.


What we found were our sheep-sellers hastily clipping and tidying their charges.   The Bluefaced Leicester National Show was scheduled from 9am-12pm, but Karakuls were still in the showring and no one had been called in yet.  I introduced myself to Cindy and Margaret from Pitchfork Ranch, and then settled in to watch the show before Mom and I were able to find Brenda from Beechtree Farm.   My sister, her husband and my little niece Cora were there with us, and we alternated between watching the show and looking at other exhibits.  At the tender age of 11 months, Cora is skilled at making a “baa” sound and at joining in a round of applause.   We sat in the stands as she moved from person to person, giving hugs and coo-ing and pulling the glasses off our faces.

The final lineup of champion white BFL ewes.

In the stands, we encountered the grandmother of the gal whose ewes we are bringing home in two weeks!  She raises her own sheep for wool and is also from New Hampshire, so there was plenty to chat about.  We watched as the Chapin Family picked up several show ring victories in coveted categories, like Champion Ewe.  Way to go!

We weren’t sure if we would get Mom back once she saw the weaving display, but she pried herself away.

Finally, with the show over, the sellers and I finally had a chance to talk.  We met with Cindy and Margaret from Pitchfork and discussed their sheepraising program at length.  I realized that I have anxiety about being perceived as uncommitted or likely to abandon my sheep-raising program.  I may have overcompensated for that fear by talking about dairy goat genetics longer than anyone cares to hear about that topic.   We noticed that they were selling an extra ewe.  Reading her pedigree, I could see that she had just enough distance from most of my flock to be a good brood ewe and a possible source of a ram to keep my flock going without input for a while.  I think I knew we were buying her when I felt along her back and could not palpate a spine.  She had so much strong, hard meat and muscle there that her spine and her ribs were completely obscured.  That is just not the case for my Cormo flock, even in their best condition.   Selling Tim and Swift gave me just enough money to make the purchase possible.

We met with Brenda from Beechtree, as well.  We didn’t find her until a little later, and didn’t have as much time to meet and greet.  It was now nearing 2pm, two hours later than our ideal departure, and it was past time to plan the sheep loading.  Mom and I had recognized a serious problem a few days before the festival.  Due to crowds and rules at MSWF, you can’t just drive up to the sheep barns and load sheep.  We would need to move them across open country.  So we agreed that Brenda would bring the adult ram from her pen, and Margaret and I would meet her leading the ewe lamb, while Cindy fetched the littler ram lamb from their trailer nearby.  Our silly sheep-moving group provided plenty of entertainment to the crowd as we passed.  Like a ninja, Mom snuck the truck through a gate.  It was great to see it waiting as we rounded the corner with the sheep in tow and Brenda joined us with Outlander, the adult ram!

Getting the ewe in the truck was a simple lift job.  I got in the truck to hold her in, and I was handed Outlander’s lead rope while Brenda and Margaret each lifted a side.  We made a really tricky task look easy.  The last lamb was small and no trouble.  I really owe a lot to Margaret, Cindy and Brenda for shlepping those sheep across the fairgrounds.

Outlander and me, ready to leave

Again, the strong degree of organization at MSWF helped, as we were able to get the sheep cooling off on the road quickly.  Mom drove the first half of the trip up I95. To cope with the crazy traffic that is far beyond what we’re used to, Mom and I began an index of reckless driving behaviors.  We counted 25 incidents between the start of our drive in Friendship, Maryland and the New Jersey/New York border.  We were well over 10 after Maryland and through Delaware, but the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway made solid contributions of scary incidents, near misses, and the crossing of multiple lanes through constantly shifting traffic.  This incident happened just a short time before we reached Brunswick, and that earned a point for scary driving!  I could not have withstood the kind of hair-raising driving that my mom handles.  Crowded roads make me very anxious.  I would have lost my mind handling the DC metro area.  Thanks, Mom!  The Adirondack Northway only amassed 7 points, but the speeders were really cruising on that road.  The truck shook every time the sheep stood up and shuffled around, so we didn’t even try to keep up with the left lane traffic.

Sheep, rolling up I-95.  I took this through several panes of glass, so pardon the quality.

People give weird looks at rest stops when the back of your truck is bouncing and baa-ing.  We never left the sheep completely unattended, so it was one coffee-break at a time.

We reached the Vermont border at 10pm, and I focused on staying alert all the way home to Williston at 11:30.  There was no feeling like lying down after we unloaded the sheep in the barn and went to bed.






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MSWF Part I – The Bos-Wash

It happened.  I’m still recovering.

We started on Thursday with takeout and our master planning session.  How would we load the sheep?  How would we give them water?   What time would we need to get to the festival?  You can try to lay out a plan in 15 minute increments, but good luck carrying it off!

We left at 6:30 on Friday after a stout breakfast and enjoyed a pleasant drive through Westernmost Vermont and upper I-87 in New York.  I confronted my timidness about traffic pretty well and drove all the way until the New Jersey border.  After a brief orientation to driving a truck, my mother hopped right on the Garden State Parkway and soon the traffic was resetting my standards for intensity.  I didn’t realize that while I-95 around Boston is busy, the DC area was worse.  Much worse.  Turn signals are pretty superfluous, apparently, and following distance just means not hitting anyone.  Mom generously drove the length of Jersey, Delaware and into Maryland, where traffic and timing forced us to get straight on the metro to get to my sister’s place to change for our 5:30 dinner reservations.  Traffic had made us late, and now we were rushing.  Fortunately, the big derailment was all cleaned up and we went straight to my sister’s apartment, where she, my brother-in-law and my little niece awaited.

With all that my mom has done for me as a partner in this business, a nice dinner at a really fine restaurant seems like the very least I could do.  We went to the Blue Duck Tavern.  Here’s where I do my “country gal” routine: I grew up in a suburb.  I now live in a suburb.  I have been to cities.  But I do not live a lifestyle of fine dining, Uber-riding, subway-navigating, or traffic-fighting.  I was well out of my comfort zone and felt conspicuous and backwards.  The food was really amazing, though, and Mom talked about relaxing for the first time in months.  This trip was her well-earned vacation from caring for Grandma, who has dementia.

We returned to our hotel in Maryland and collapsed into bed, knowing that tomorrow would be a big day of travel, traffic, and logistics management.


Crossing into Delaware
If people-watching is a thing, watching for interesting cars should be, too.  You don’t see a pennyfarthing on every bike rack!
Baltimore Harbor
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Some Fond Farewells

The tough part about bringing in some new sheep is having to part with a few old friends.

When I reserved two new Bluefaced Leicester rams, I knew that Cinder’s days on my farm were numbered.  As delightful as he is a companion, he doesn’t have the value of a purebred, registered ram with production records.   I can’t risk a giant, powerful $200 ram injuring a taller but lighter $500 ram (or two!).  I know that a small flock like mine gives a ram a two year window of work before he has too many relatives in the flock.  Despite my connections to many New England shepherds, no one expressed any interest in buying Cinder (a fact which further justified my contention that Cormos do not have adequate breed support and a critical mass of interested breeders).

So what to do with Cinder?  Even neutered, he would still be strong enough to continue to divert food from ewes.  His wool, while beautiful, would not support his eating habits alone.  So Phoebe, Todd, Matt and I loaded him into the truck on Thursday and took him to Vermont Livestock.  Like his last move, Cinder is a very reluctant passenger.  It took all four of us to push him up a plywood ramp while he counterbraced his legs.  Of course, he obediently jumped right out of the truck when we reached the abbatoir.  The handful of curious ewes waiting for him in an adjacent pen in the clean, brightly lit “waiting room” probably helped.  On May 20th, I’ll be making merguez sausages with the hundred or so pounds of meat that I anticipate from Cinder.  Let me know if you’d be interested in some!

Adding to the farewells, I parted with Timberdoodle and Swift yesterday.  Due to thesize of my barn, I knew that I would need to pare the Cormo flock down to about six to fit the four ewes coming from New Hampshire in a few weeks.  I thought through the ewe requests in my backlog, and remembered that one person was looking for two ewes for a starter flock.  I knew that Timberdoodle would do much better on richer pastures.  Who could go with her?  Peggy is too old and potentially delicate to offer to a beginner. I would like her to live out her life with me.  Bobolink and Meadowlark are too dear to me, and Valentine is not friendly enough for beginners.  Swift.  Her fleece is perfect, and she’s small and a delight to handle.  Her little son went with her for additional companionship.  Matt and I enjoyed coffee and a homemade-sourdough-bread snack with their wonderful new owners.

So the flock is looking a little sparse for a few days, but we’ll soon be back in business!


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Getting Excited

A while ago now, I mentioned that I was planning to buy some Bluefaced Leicester sheep.  Well, it’s real now.

I am buying four ewes from Smiling Sheep Farm in New Hampshire on May 22nd.  I purchased two adult ewes aged 3 and 4, and my mother invested in two lambs.   Technically, I’m buying these sheep from a 12 year old girl who has them as a project alongside her parents’ Romneys.  For financial matters, I’ve been talking to her mom.  I’ve really enjoyed corresponding with Hilary (Mom), and I hope that we can be resources to each other raising Bluefaced Leicesters in the Northeast.

More pressingly, Mom and I are now planning our May 6-7th trip to the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival.  This festival owns, so you can tell they’re a big deal.  We’ll be meeting two Bluefaced Leicester farmers from Michigan there.  Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival hosts the Bluefaced Leicester National Show every other year, so we’ll get some great information about how to evaluate our sheep and which flocks have the features we want most.  As a bonus, we’ll get to spend some time with my sister and niece!

We are buying a ram lamb from Pitchfork Ranch .  He will be white.  We are also buying an adult ram lamb from Beechtree Farm, also in Michigan.  It took me a really, really long time to pick the right ram with the right pedigree configuration, but I finally settled on two year old “Outlander”.  Look through these shamelessly-pilfered pictures with me, and let me know what you think!


Nice, nice wool, and perfectly in line with the breed standard.


He doesn’t want to be on the stand.  Lucky for him, I don’t own one of those (yet).12994370_965398876848139_1058772733294063678_n

This is the business end of a ram.  Not for the obvious reason, but because that width and nice, meaty leg is what makes money in the meat business.   As much fun as wool is, the meat business pays the bills.

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A Real Scare

I thought that Chickadee might choke to death.

I had taken the ewes out for a romp on the Wedding Meadow.  They aren’t allowed there after May, so I thought I’d let them have a few nibbles of it while their own pastures grow a little taller and greener.

The lambs decided to have a goodly romp, and they raced from ewe to ewe until they were all openly gasping for breath.  At 60 degrees, it’s warmer than they’ve ever experienced before.  The ewes ate and ate, and eventually the lambs settled down, too.

It was time to go in, so I put out some grain for everyone to lure them in.  I did not consider that one of the hay mangers was empty of hay, while the other had plenty.  When the lambs and adults came in, the ewes went straight to the hay-less manger to have an easier time getting grain.  That allowed the lambs free access to the grain in the other manger.

Shortly after the end of the dining session, Chickadee began coughing and staggering.  Her breathing was harsh and rapid, and I noticed goop coming out her mouth.  Her mother was baahing at her while the other sheep backed away.  I grabbed her and started knocking her  sides, trying to loosen the goo.  Her coughing worsened and she fought me, hard.  A big wad of goop flew out of her mouth.

She stopped fighting, but began panting hard in great distress.  I called the vet.  The same vet I called for Agnes.  Thankfully, one of their field vets was just driving by, so she was examining Chickadee only 20 minutes after the call.   The vet confirmed that Chickadee’s lungs are raspy and probably at risk of infection.  She’ll get some antibiotics for a week to help her heal.



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Lamb Updates

How are our fuzzy friends progressing?  Overall, I’d say that they’re all benefiting from a having their mothers’ milk all to themselves, as they’re mostly growing like weeds.  BadHorse and Todd are approaching weaning weight already and will be separated by early May.  Crazy.


BadHorse is incredibly handsome guy. I am in love with his straight back and meaty structure.  I want to use him in the fall, but I’m realizing that I would be using him on three unrelated ewes, four fairly closely-related ewes (three half siblings, a half-aunt) and his own mother (who would need to meet up with a different ram).  I don’t think that the little BFL I’ve chosen can handle 8 ewes his first time, so I’m trying to think of another plan.


Todd Chavez

Todd.  He’s a charmer, and he’s as soft as can be.  This guy can’t get enough attention.  He’s adorable for the moment, but the sad part about bold, intact rams is that he’s likely to be a dangerous adult.  We’re keeping that well in mind.  Todd and his sister, Swift (born last year) give me complete confidence in Bobolink as a brood ewe.

Mr. PeanutButter

In contrast to Todd, Mr. PeanutButter is, well, another argument in favor of letting Timberdoodle move on from the flock.  He has amazing, impossibly fine wool that simply will not endure this climate (too much moisture will lead to fleece rot).  He is lean and scrawny, and his growth has been overtaken by two lambs who are significantly younger.   He also has a hunchy, arched appearance that he shares with Fake Thomas Jefferson, below.  They are bouncing and pooping normally and aren’t cold, so I think they just have weird legs.   His characteristics are a reminder that I need to calm my search for fine wool in favor of meat and production characteristics, sometimes.

Fake Thomas Jefferson

And this guy.  This guy is the go-to lamb for handing off to visitors.  He will come and sit on your lap.  He will tolerate being held for quite a while.  But he is hilariously and impractically tiny and growing only incrementally.  As Matt puts it, “he is his grandfather’s son” (Cinder is his sire and grandsire because I didn’t have another option at the time), so I’m just glad that his mom is getting practice mothering.


Phoebe is that wild, sassy, daredevil friend you had who didn’t mind if she got in trouble. She’s very shy around people, but will probably get gradually friendlier.  When I take the flock for a walk on the newly growing pasture, she seems to be challenging all of the other lambs to races and boinging competitions.  Though her fleece is a little rougher and coarser, she’s nearly perfect in all other respects.  I’m leaning strongly towards keeping her, and making peace with a wider variety of fleeces in my flock.

And with apologies for the blurry picture, Chickadee wins the cuteness contest, hooves down.  She’s friendly and wonderfully soft.  As awkward as it is to say as a devoted non-sentimentalist, I feel a little bit of Agnes in Chickadee.  Her friendly curiosity and appearance both remind me of my dear friend.  I’m really excited about this attractive little gal.

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Lambs on the Lam

Matt and I were preparing dinner on Thursday, when we happened to look out the window.

“Huh.  Are those lambs out?”

“Oh, yeah…two of them!”

So I went out to get them.  Here’s where we have a full display of lamb personalities.  Todd Chavez, Bobolink’s friendly and ebullient son, ran straight up to me.

His expression said, “Hi Person!  We’re just hanging out here, outside, where we aren’t supposed to be.   It’s really BadHorse’s fault, because he was out here first, but he jumped back in and now we’re just out here.  Can I jump on you?”

About 20 feet away, Phoebe was staring at me with the utmost caution.  She seemed to be saying “Todd  SHUT UP!  Don’t tell the human anything about us being out here!

So I started petting Todd, and Phoebe felt the need to come closer because she needed to be near other sheep.  As soon as she was close enough, I grabbed her and pitched her back over the bars of the enclosure.  Todd just watched, and when it was his turn he nibbled my face as I tossed him back, too.

For the third time this year, I lifted the metal enclosure bars onto the increasingly tall manure pile.  You guys just say in there!  Grass is a few weeks away, still.


Phoebe- she’s pretty sure I can’t be trusted
Todd just wants our love. All of it.



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Several Lambs Later

My usual pattern is to write a little lamb story, and then maybe a post about shearing.

I’ve done that before, so I’ll give you a brief synopsis of each:

The sheep were shorn on February 21st, which is about a month and a half early relative to normal shearing times.   We’ve had mostly good weather for naked sheep since then, with a couple nights were I felt very guilty for leaving them wool-less.   Joe St. Marie did a great job, as always.  The wool clip was decent, but with a few problems.  The sheep need to be cleaner.  Not massively cleaner- very little fleece was ruined by the presence of VM, but a lot wasn’t hand-spinner-worthy due to VM.  Cinder, especially, attracts dirt like a magnet.   I plan to coat Meadowlark and Bobolink, at least, and perhaps Chimney Swift as well.   Swift made a splendid fleece with beautiful crimp.  I am pretty set on keeping another Cinder daughter this year…that is, if I have one.

The lambs.  There have been four single rams and one single ewe this year.  Non-pregnant sheep would be a disaster, but all singles qualifies as a setback all the same.  I had requests for a total of NINE ewe lambs this year, and I won’t be able to supply any, at all.  Meadowlark looks pregnant but fairly trim.  She may lamb late.  Swift is bred to her own sire (she doesn’t mind) so her lamb will meet a freezer in the fall no matter what.

I will admit that I feel some panic about the financial implications of a second poor lambing in two years.   Most shepherding books agree that a healthy single lamb is a break-even proposition at best.  With all of the labor and capital I’ve put into the sheep, I’d really like to do a little better than breaking even and going unpaid.

My first thought was genetics- had I messed up my flock by using too much Cormo input?  Cormos are known for producing fine fleece, and secondarily, for twinning a little more than half the time.  Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to get much information about two of my rams, so I don’t know their twinning backgrounds.  I blamed myself and my focus on fine wool.  Should I get a Finnsheep (A breed of sheep known for having numerous lambs and for increasing lambing percentages in its offspring) to mix into the flock?   Finnsheep have a very different kind of wool and are generally smaller than mine, so adding Finn genetics would bring big changes to the flock.

Picture now the ubiquitous “Keep Calm and Carry On” meme from WWII Britain.  Substitute “Call UVM Extension Agent Joe Emenheiser” for “Carry On” and you’ve got my calmer response to the issue.  I really admire Joe’s dedication to profitable shepherding, and his extensive knowledge can only impress.  Joe pointed out that Vermont is very selenium deficient.  Not only could selenium deficiency be to blame for the tough amniotic sacs that have caused a few stillbirths in my flock in past years, but it might also have diminished the fertility of my later generations.  Perhaps my original sheep were well able to cope with low selenium, but offspring of the Cormos and Corriedales I’ve since added might have increased need for selenium that I’m not meeting.  So I haven’t destroyed my gene pool.  I simply need to better meet their needs.

With relief that the problem is fixable.  I began supplementing selenium last fall, and intend to continue adding selenium as much as is safe to do so.




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Life Goes On

Agnes died two weeks, now.   Flock life must go on, and it does.  I was reassured by the overwhelming reassurance that I received from my sheep-raising contacts.  Hearing many similar experiences from other flock managers gave me comfort that I made the right call.  I’ll take comfort where I can find it.

The flock feels a little different.  Since Agnes was one of the boldest sheep, I’m now giving a little more attention to some of the more timid members of the flock.  Meadowlark is seeking more attention, and it’s hard to walk without tripping on Chimney Swift as she approaches to demand chin scratches.

I am really, really excited that I have some requests for ewe lambs and even a ram for purchase this year.   My hay supplier would like two white ewes.   A farm in Maine would like a ram, also white if possible.  I also have a request for five additional ewes, which I may or may not be able to fulfill this year.   It’s hard to make the choice between who can join the flock and who is going to the freezer each fall, especially when I am presented with an array of high-quality females.  The fact that I can keep Cinder for a while and am bringing in Bluefaced Leicesters reduces my pressure to keep all the lambs for myself!

Peggy, and granddaughter Timberdoodle
Dear old Peg, most reliable of dams

The ewes are looking quite round.  Peggy, in particular, is looking rotund and ready to pop. As I look over the flock now, I realize how much I owe to Peggy.  Agnes was my only offspring of Janet, and she died without any daughters in the flock. I culled Dot without retaining her wild, high-strung daughter, Kestrel.  I culled Bonnie without keeping any of her too-small ewe lambs.  So my flock consists of two daughters of Shirley, descendents of Peggy, and old Peggy herself.  Her daughter Bobolink, and her granddaughters Timberdoodle and  Chimney Swift all carry her small stature, big fleece and big personality.  Even though I know that Peggy’s time in the flock is running short, as she is almost certainly over six years old and probably closer to eight years old, I know that I’ll never be without a Peggy in the flock.


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A Tribute to a Fine Sheep

I wrote the title of this post intending to find the time to extol the virtues of Peggy, a dear little ewe if ever there was one, and grande-dame to much of my flock.

But circumstances conspire to cause me to write about a different sheep, Agnes.  Be forewarned – I’m writing this as events happen, and this post is SAD.

When I came home from work today,  I immediately noticed that Agnes seemed to be seated in an awkward and uncomfortable position.  She was in labor.   My brain went right into math mode- either she’s aborting, or she and Cinder had a little romance before he and the ram lambs left for Ram Camp.  My heart entertained the hope that I would soon have a bouncing lamb or two in the barn- an early gift!  But my mind…my mind knew that the rate of her contractions was too slow, and something was amiss.

Despite an optimistic Facebook post to the contrary when she seemed to be laboring a little harder, I soon realized that the situation was quite dire.  The lamb was large, and Agnes never seemed to fully dilate or to push hard after 7pm.  I couldn’t tell what I was holding, but it didn’t feel right at all.  It didn’t feel like a head, I couldn’t feel any feet, but it wasn’t rounded with a spine, like a rear end.   She made progress until 10, but no matter how much I pulled, the lamb seemed to make no progress through the canal.  It felt like it was stuck on something.  Her pelvis?  I couldn’t get my hands far enough back.

It took four phone calls to reach a vet who treated sheep.  She said that an emergency C-Section would cost $800 or more.   As devastating as it was to thank the vet and say goodbye, I couldn’t say yes to the C-section.  As dearly as I love the flock, they are not pets nor are they people.  The trauma of major surgery and the good chance of infection in barn conditions, as well as the near-certainty that Agnes would never breed again foreclosed that possibility for me and the goals I have for the flock.

This is where things get ugly- stop reading here if you aren’t prepared for something gross.  I’ll let you know when to rejoin this story, if you wish.

I was able to get the lamb further down the birth canal, but it was clearer and clearer that things were all wrong.  I still couldn’t tell what I was holding onto, the lamb was drying out (a sure sign that it was dead, and that Agnes was in big trouble), and most importantly, Agnes had all but ceased labor.  I could tell that she was checking out, but I was determined to keep trying.  I latched my fingers around the lamb.  I could feel something oddly sharp in the lamb- what was that?  I tried to protect Agnes’s insides from the potential puncture.  I pulled some more, and out came a part of the lamb.

I have dealt with dead fetal goats before, so a dead fetal lamb isn’t beyond the pale for me.  I thought I had a tiny little leg.  But I looked more closely- a jawbone.  A HUGE jawbone.  Sickening.  I threw it on the ground and stepped back.  If the jaw is that big, the lamb is GIGANTIC.  If I just pulled the jawbone out by itself, then the lamb is completely decomposed.  I realized that even if I was able to get the lamb out, eventually, despite Agnes’s faint protestations of pain, the odds were very high that I would puncture her internally and kill her painfully and slowly.  Even if I got the lamb out carefully, the nearly certain subsequent infection would be virulent.  How do you make this decision, when there is a chance of survival?

You can read this again- we’ve learned that Agnes has a big, dead lamb inside that I don’t think can be removed.

I considered the pain she would certainly suffer as I tried to remove the lamb.  The pain of a potential serious internal injury, and the pain of the infection.  It didn’t seem right to take that risk.  I know that I diverge from the “treat at all costs, exhaust all hope first” approach to animals, but I just didn’t feel right letting her suffer.  So just after midnight, Matt came out with my .22 and we said goodbye to my dear friend.

I cried, friends.  I said “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry” again and again.  I cried so hard for all of the times that Agnes has listened to me while I petted her out in pasture.   Everything she has taught me about bottle lambs, sheep, and about myself.  I knew I couldn’t keep her forever, and I even will say that I was not sure about keeping her on after this year because of some fleece problems.  I never, never thought that I’d say goodbye like this, though, and I am devastated.

Tomorrow, I’m going to wake up at quarter of six, and I”m going to press on with things.  I will love the sheep I still have.  The least I can do is to send the placenta and lamb-parts I have to Cornell, where they can test it for disease.  Perhaps this will help me protect my remaining sheep if something serious is detected.

For now, please contact a friend and tell them you care, and do so in Agnes’s honor.