This month, I started a photography project that I’m calling #sheep365. Beginning on October 1 (which is the first day of our sheep breeding season), I’m going to post at least one photo of something related to our sheep operation every day for one year. These photos will be posted on my social media accounts, all with the hashtag #sheep365. The idea behind this project is to document my year for my own edification, and to share the day-to-day activities of a small-scale commercial sheep operation with others. As of this writing, I’m all of about two weeks into the project – and I’m already beginning to realize that my photographs will probably be monotonous to many of my non-farmer/rancher friends (and even to some of my “aggie” friends, I’m sure!). But as I was doing chores last week, I realized that the “monotony” is part of the story. Rather than being bored by the day-in-day-out nature of my work, I find that I have grown to appreciate the persistence and dedication required of me as a rancher. I find that the daily responsibility – and the daily “sameness” of my work – makes the gradual changes that come with the revolving seasons even more meaningful for me.
To someone who doesn’t raise livestock, my typical day in March might look much like my typical day in October. I check the sheep; I feed the livestock guardian dogs; I get home close to sundown. To me, though, the days are similar but different. In March, checking the sheep means checking for new lambs. In March, the grass is growing rapidly, which means we move our sheep more often. In October (at least in the first half of the month), I’m still moving the irrigation water. In October, we’ve just turned the rams in with the ewes, so we’re still making sure the ewes are on a rising plane of nutrition (which means we’re supplementing their grazing with additional feed). From one day to the next, the jobs are very similar, but our annual production cycle means that the jobs change gradually as we go through the year. This “monotony” also means I appreciate the milestones in our year even more – milestones like turning the rams in with the ewes, tagging the ewes (removing their rump wool) before lambing, lambing itself, shearing, and weaning – even more.
Raising livestock also requires dedication. In our family, the animal chores come before we feed ourselves. The running joke is that the sheep only break through the electric fence when we have something else going on – loose sheep mean that we drop everything and put them back in their pasture. If we’re moving ewes with young lambs, the job isn’t done until we’re certain the lambs are mothered up again and nursing. If we check the fence at sundown and find that the battery is dead, we run home for a new battery and return to the pasture before settling in for the night. One of my favorite authors, Ivan Doig, wrote in Dancing at the Rascal Fair, that “To be successful with sheep, even when you’re not thinking about them, you’d better think about them a little.” I’ve certainly found this to be true.
And so as I contemplate my #sheep365 project, I’ve realized that what might seem boring to the uninitiated is actually part of what I value about my life. Because of the “sameness” of my work, I think I notice little things that add beauty to my day – maybe that’s part of being a shepherd or a cowboy. Because I’m outside nearly every day, I notice when the shadows get longer earlier in the evening as late summer becomes fall. I notice when the sandhill cranes start their migration. I notice the first hard frost and the first hot day of summer. I hope that’s what my project will allow me to share! And I hope other farmers and ranchers will record their daily lives as well!