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At this point in spring when we lived on the farm, we watched the grass and counted bales of hay. It was time to think about moving the sheep from inside onto pasture.

There had to be a solid growth before we let the sheep get at it so they could eat what they needed but not damage the plants. When we had 200 ewes and separate pastures, we also couldn't let the second and third pastures get too far ahead. If we didn't keep the sheep moving, by the time they got to the third pasture, the orchard grass would be so stocky, the sheep wouldn't eat it.

But before we could put the sheep out, we had to fix the fences. Winter snow would pull wire down, loosen some posts, move cedar rails. The first pasture right beside the barn was smallish, so walking that fence line and fixing along the way was a half day job for one person, most years. When the grass was growing well and the relevant fences checked, the barn door would be opened. The animals dashed outside.

At least the sequence most years. I mentioned that as May approached we also counted bales. Some years we had second cut hay at the end of winter, but we needed that for the weaned lambs. One year when the summer had been dry, we did not have second cut to spare, the supply of first cut dwindled as April progressed. Fortunately, that April was consistently warm, not like this year. On May first there was a decent amount of grass. The last bales were fed on April 30th, and the sheep went outside the next day. Necessity took over.

Fences for the other two pastures waited. It was also seeding time. Fields had to be disked and cultivated. Rocks had to be picked, fertilizer spread. At one time, we would seed about forty acres every year. That's nothing compared to most full-time farmers or anyone who does cash crop, but for us it occupied much of the spring.

As we got one field in the ground, we kept an eye on the first pasture. As I mentioned, it was not a large spread of grass. The sheep would in time finish all the good stuff. We had to get them moved so they would not tear out the clover and trefoil by the roots. Left too long, they would start to explore the edges, find places where there was fresh grass just beyond the fence, start to reach their noses through to get the good stuff. If we were not careful, breakouts would begin.

The larger fields were a full day to check for one person. Someone had to leave rock picking for the sometimes harder work of fence repair. A major problem required two people. To take time off seeding. Fortunately, fence repair can be done in the rain or after the kind of rain that keeps you off the land. We got soaked but did not miss a day of seeding. Some years though, we got a day behind so that we could move the sheep to fresh grass.

The other thing we had to keep an eye on before the groundhog babes appeared were predators. Coyotes hunt sheep. When foxes have pups to feed and lambs are born, we lost new babies to these hungry creatures. One year when we were down to a few animals and one pasture, we had coyotes living in the swamp at the front of the property, right beside the pasture. We kept moms and lambs inside that summer.

As farmers, we always had to balance off farm responsibilities with farming, but we tried to be good shepherds, to do field work the right way. But we could not give what we did not have--bales of hay or hours of work. Shepherding taught me that caring for another is a balancing act. There were lots of days when I felt guilty about what I was putting off until tomorrow, but pressures of spring, the concrete realities, helped sort out what could be done and what had to wait. Caring for our families, young and old and in between, is harder because the real limits are not nearly so concrete. 

Cathy Hird is a retired sheep farmer living on the shores of Georgian Bay




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