During lambing season, I make my morning trek to the barn to see if we had any additions over the nighttime hours. I look forward to enjoying the sights and sounds of newborn baby lambs.
Then there are those mornings when you crack open the barn door and realize--today will not be that day.
After identifying a ewe having difficulty delivering, I find myself at the backend trying to assess the situation. First, there is the visible sign that there is no water bag, just remnants of the uterine wall. Second, there is a foul smell. And third, there is just one hoof. Realization sets in that I will be helping deliver a dead lamb.
I settle in to begin the pulling process. Then I hear my youngest daughter, who is holding the head, start talking—to the ewe. "It's alright girl," she says. "We are almost done. You are doing great. Just hang in there. I know it hurts. Just a little more. I am so sorry. It will be over soon."
It is quite a humbling experience, given that on more than one occasion this ewe has run her over in the pen, drug her to the show ring and stamped her foot at her when she nears the gate. Needless to say, this was not my daughter's favorite animal in the barn.
I find legs and a head, but the lamb is too large for this first time mom. It's shoulders are stuck. My husband comes and helps pull. Once we finally have the lamb free of the ewe, my daughter gently releases the ewe's head.
I collapse to my knees. Arms shaking. Head hanging. Tears flowing. And then, I feel a nose brush up against my face. I look to see that same ewe just staring at me. All I can say is "I'm so sorry girl." And she nudges me again. I look up only to see my daughter backed up against the fence, fighting back her own tears.
It has been an emotional morning. And while washing my hands over the kitchen sink, I realize that if there is one thing agriculture has taught my daughters it is how to show compassion in life and in death.
I credit their involvement at young age in agriculture organizations like 4-H for teaching them the value of life and the finality of death.
In their early years, their role in lambing was limited. They knew it was important to keep lambs alive because they would have more to show or sell. So they worked hard at bottle feeding.
As they matured and entered into the FFA program, their SAE projects brought about a deeper level of involvement. They were responsible for nutrition, animal health, marketing and every aspect of lambing.
Their small hand size required them to deliver lambs that needed assistance. But helping with the miracle of birth brought a new emotional aspect to their education. They realized that they hold the fate of an unborn lamb in their hands. And some don't make it.
Over the years, I must say there have been more tears shed in the barn than in the home. I am grateful for the life lesson my children have learned by being involved in 4-H, FFA and agriculture. I believe it has made them stronger, wiser and more compassionate.
It is that side of agriculture-the compassion-I wish animal activist groups could experience. But I am not sure they could handle the emotional decisions made in the barn.
I know that many animal lovers share similar emotion over their pets. However, that may be one or two pets in a lifetime. We have a flock of ewes that lamb every year. And with each birth there is the possibility of death.
It would be interesting to see how animal activists would respond to every day farm life, especially during a difficult birth.
They could witness how producers make split second decisions to save the life of an animal. They would hear how we are forced to make those decisions.
Frankly, I would gladly pay a veterinarian to come out and handle the physical and emotional stress that comes with lambing problems. However, there are no large animal veterinarians that work on sheep in our area. It would require loading up a ewe in labor and hoping that she and the lambs do not die before we make it to a vet in a town 30 minutes away. Which choice would an animal activist make?
They could stand outside the pen and watch as a ewe constantly calls for her lamb that no longer exists. I would like them to tell me just what to do to help that ewe overcome loss.
Better still, I would like them to look into the tear-filled eyes of my daughter and tell her she doesn't care about the well-being of her animals.
But they won't come to the farm. They would rather show their compassion by having millions of people reach for the tissue box when an ad with neglected animals pops onto the television screen.
I guess I would rather experience compassion out in the barn, sitting in the pen, wiping my daughter's tears with my sleeve.