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Stories from the valley

Sheep Don’t Watch the News

Contributed by Dan Macon

Late last September, we put rams in with our ewes to begin breeding this year’s lambs. As expected, the first lambs arrived on February 21, 2020. As I write this in late March, we’re nearly 90 percent through with lambing. And the world has changed dramatically in the four-plus weeks since those first lambs were born.

Since March 13, the spread of COVID-19 has turned our state upside down. For my family, we’re adjusting to the idea of our youngest daughter finishing her junior year of high school from home. Our oldest daughter is completing her second-to-last semester of college online. And I’m doing my cooperative extension work largely from the desk in our kitchen.

The sheep, however, just keep on being sheep. They are having lambs. They need to be moved to fresh pasture every four or five days. Their guard dogs need to be fed (by us) on a daily basis. Like all of agriculture, our work continues despite the stay-at-home order issued by Governor Newsom. As the Governor’s order indicates, the work of growing food and fiber is considered “essential business.” 

Despite all that has changed in my world because of COVID-19, my day-to-day work – the actual things that I do every day – remains largely the same. I’m typically out of the house between 6:30 and 7:00 a.m. to check the sheep and feed the dogs. My partner Roger usually takes the midday check (we check the lambing ewes at least three times a day). I check them again just before sundown. If there are new lambs, I ear tag them and record their data. If there are sick sheep, we treat them. If the weather turns rainy and cool, we check the flock during the nighttime, as well. We’re beginning to make plans for the next steps in our sheep year as well; shipping back to irrigated pasture in April and shearing the flock in May.

That’s not to say that we’re not following the advice of medical professionals. We’re practicing social distancing (which is fairly easy for a solitary shepherd). We’re washing our hands more often. We’re avoiding gatherings of more than a couple of people. When I went to the Auburn farmers market on Saturday (which is thankfully still open), I was impressed that most folks seemed to be following these guidelines while they did their shopping. We’ll need to keep doing these things for the next six to eight weeks, according to the experts.

Even with all of our modern scientific and technological knowledge, the act of planting a seed – or turning the rams in with the ewes – remains at least partly an act of faith in the future. Faith that that the seed will germinate, the plant will grow, and the crop will be harvested. Faith that new lambs will begin to arrive 150 days after the rams join with the ewes. Even amidst the turmoil caused by this pandemic, I find that greeting newborn lambs with each new day keeps me grounded and hopeful for the future. And I’m glad the sheep don’t watch the news!