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Heaven has Blue Carpet
A Sheep Story by a Suburban Housewife
By Sharon Stark Niedzinski
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2008 Sharon Stark Niedzinski
All rights reserved.
A RAM IS COMING!
They were sending us a ram. It never occurred to me, when I pictured living on a farm with split-rail fencing and rolling pastures, polka-dotted with grazing sheep, that I'd ever need a ram. The previous owners had never mentioned a ram when they sold us the place.
A ram? What would I do with a ram? Well, that was the silly question of the year. I am the mother of six children. But you don't just open the crate and say, "Hello, ram. Come and meet our sheep." There's a lot more to it than that, especially when you were not raised on a farm and don't know squat about raising sheep.
"Honey, the ram will be here any minute. Tell me, why did I choose to get sheep? I'm already raising a flock of kids!"
Honey laughed. I could only shake my head. What have I gotten myself into?
* * *
It was a beautiful, sunny June morning. With a big smile I announced to the family that the sheep man would be delivering our sheep any minute. No one knew I had a blizzard of berserk butterflies in my stomach that wouldn't stop flittering around. I skipped breakfast. I had spent the night caught in a fitful and fearful nightmare about the ominous coming winter. Before I fell asleep I was thinking about the last thing the sheep man said to me, "Don't worry; the sheep will be just fine on your pasture all summer." And then he left so quickly I didn't have to time to ask him what happens after summer.
The huge trailer drove up the long drive to the barn.
"Kids, can you hear them? They're baa-ing hello."
"Mom, give us a break!"
The sheep man drove the trailer through the double gate into our newly fenced pasture, fumbled with the trailer latch, and slid the door open.
"Just got your mamas sheared for you!"
He said it in such a way that I responded with a "thank you," but I hadn't comprehended what he said until I saw them. Spilling out of that trailer was a whole bunch of bald sheep with oversized pink udders bouncing so violently I was afraid their weight would make them detach. These creatures didn't even look like sheep!
I wiped the tears from my eyes before my family would notice.
These bare-naked sheep were hyper and excitable; not at all like I imagined. I didn't know they had never been on a pasture before and the only thing they had ever eaten was dry hay. Our mouths dropped as we watched these deformed-looking sheep overzealously tearing at their first taste of grass; now in one spot, and then another, until they all had so much grass stuffed in their mouths that they couldn't chew or swallow. Then some of them tried and started gagging.
No one in the family said a word. We just stared. As the sheep spread across the pasture, I worried they would munch down the whole field in one day. I was sure I'd ordered too many sheep.
"Good luck with the sheep! Let us know if you need anything. Oh, they've never been on grass before, so watch 'em. Don't keep 'em on it long." Now he tells me.
I heard the motor start up and saw him backing down the driveway. Not understanding what he had said, and realizing the sheep didn't come with operating instructions, I ran after him yelling, "Wait! Wait! Now what do I do?"
His perplexed, questioning look made me realize I was exposing my total ignorance of sheep. Assuming I had some sheep savvy, he rolled down the truck window.
"You can take 'em off the grass for a while if you want to. We just took their lambs away from them, so they'll be a little miserable for a day or two, and don't pay any attention to their bawling; their udders will eventually calm down.
"You took their lambs away?" I didn't know they were mothers.
"Well, they're not market ready yet, but we'll put the grain to them."
What was he talking about?
"What should I do with their udders?"
The truck screeched and stopped. Responding to my stupid question and, more likely, my stupid look, the sheep man opened the door a bit and yelled out again, only in a louder, slightly aggravated voice, "Don't worry about them! All they'll need for the next few months is a good pasture and water! Just let them graze and relax. They'll be fine; they'll be just fine!"
I stood there watching him drive down the driveway and then down the road.
When he was out of sight, I reluctantly turned my head and took a last look at my new project. Walking back to the house, I repeated over and over the only instructions I was given: "All they'll need is pasture and water, pasture and water. Relax, relax. They'll be fine; they'll be just fine."
* * *
I was relieved when the ewes lost their voices after bleating and bawling for their lambs nonstop for a week ... and my family started sleeping again. And the sheep started to look semi-acceptable to me when their zany-looking udders began to shrink and the fuzzy beginnings of wool emerged and covered their unclothed bodies. But I didn't stop worrying until their bright-green baseball-size doo-doos turned back into dry little pebbles and our new pasture no longer looked like a waste dump.
One morning I noticed that everyone in the family was making a special effort to check on the sheep through the kitchen window.
"Look, a group of them are at the top of the hill under the old apple trees."
"Mom, don't they look pretty grazing up there?
"Uh-oh, they're eating the fallen apples. Will apples hurt them?"
The scene set before us was both tranquil and thrilling as our once-unnoticed pasture was now an animated pastoral landscape with possible dangers and delights. Plus ... it was the perfect decor—it definitely matched the wallpaper and was definitely New England Countryside. They were doing "just fine in the pasture all summer."
* * *
I had two blissful months into my new project when ...
"Hi! This is the wife of the man you bought your sheep from. We'll be dropping off our old ram, Moses, for you to use around the first of September."
"You know, John says you can borrow our ram this year. You know, until you can get your own."
"My own? A ram?"
"We could pick one up for you at Saturday's auction if you're not fussy."
"No, no, yours will be fine. When did you say it will be coming? In September?"
Shocked and confused, I didn't even thank her for their generous offer. It was then I realized I had been deposited into an alien world where the inhabitants, their language, and their game plan were completely foreign to me. Thankfully I had subscribed to two sheep magazines. One was called sheep! and the other, Shepherd. I frantically picked up one and then the other, thumbing through every page, looking for the word ram, while praying, "Oh God, please ... let there be something in here about rams ... anything!" There was, and I whispered a heartfelt "Thank you," but I couldn't decipher the instructions.
The article said to "flush" the ewes two weeks before you turn the ram in. I turned those magazines inside and out but couldn't find one clue on what it meant to "flush a ewe." I knew one thing for sure ... I didn't like the sound of the word flush.
My brainless motivation for purchasing sheep was now exposed, and I was ashamed. I was sure I would have to flush out their udders or something even more disgusting for my penance. I decided that day I had better get with the program and start studying about these mysterious creatures eating our grass.
I started a study of sheep that ended up lasting all the years I raised them. I eventually covered sheep genetics, reproduction, health, nutrition, and marketing. I attended sheep conventions, auctions, and county fairs. I even visited a slaughterhouse. But it would take years of applying what I had learned and a changed heart before I could call myself a "shepherd of sheep."
Then I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will lead you with knowledge and understanding. (Jeremiah 3:15)
But on this day, I would have to find someone who knew what "flushing" meant.CHAPTER 2
WHAT IS "FLUSHING"?
I was waiting at the barn door of the largest sheep operation in our state. I had been delighted to learn it was only three miles from our farm and was informed that a farm only three miles away can be considered a close neighbor.
I wore the new shepherding clothes I had ordered from the Cabela's catalog; a pretty red barn coat with a brown leather collar and cool, all-weather rubber moccasin boots.
Because there wasn't a nameplate over any of the doors in the barn, I wasn't quite sure where to go. Then a young kid appeared, and he told me he would find someone.
"You will find 'someone '?" I asked. "I have a ten o'clock appointment with Milo."
The kid just looked at me and left. I hoped Milo had checked his day planner that morning.
I waited at the barn door long enough to find myself redecorating the place. In my imagination, the owner of this operation had paved the farm-implement parking area where I stood. He had marked off parking spaces with bright yellow lines and added oodles of potted geraniums and a shiny brass plate over one of the doors, reading "Farm Office."
I was trying to figure out how all the machines that were abandoned in the parking area could untangle themselves and miss the potholes when three old sheep men came through the door.
I had no idea which one of the three was Milo. They didn't say hello or apologize for being late. They just stood there, looking at me. I guessed they were waiting for me to speak first. I felt uncomfortable. Maybe I'm overdressed ...
"Hi! I live just three miles down the road. We're neighbors! Close neighbors! Which one of you is Milo?"
The man with the below-the-belly pants, held up by a pair of overstretched, worn suspenders, grinned from ear to ear. I reached out to shake his hand when he stepped back, wiped his hands on his pants, and shook his head from side to side. Then the other two men did the exact same thing, and all three of them just stood there silently, waiting for me to continue. I got the message. These old sheep men weren't into networking. I decided to talk real fast, skip the chitchat, and get to the point.
"I'm expecting a ram in a few weeks, and an article I read said to 'flush' the ewes fourteen days before you turn the ram in. What I'd like to know is, what does 'flush' mean?"
They just stared at me. I guessed these sheep men didn't read articles on sheep. They had been raising sheep for such a long time, they just did things. They didn't name what they did either. The little disheveled man with a large wad of something in his mouth spoke.
"Ain't never heard of 'flushing.'"
"What do you do a couple of weeks before you turn the ram in?" I asked.
All three men just stared at me. I guess they didn't do much, or it was so obvious they just couldn't put it into words. Smiley Milo finally spoke.
"If you bring in a ram every September or October, you're gonna git lambs."
The others looked to their spokesman and nodded with approval and a torrent of little comments gushed out.
"That's right, Milo."
"Put in a good ram, and you're gonna git good lambs."
"Yup, every September or October, when the weather is cooler ... that'll do it! Just bring 'em in."
Then they all nodded with a "you're dismissed; you've got your answer" kind of look and sauntered back to do whatever it is old sheep men do.
* * *
I went to the library and did my homework (those were precomputer days). From what I could tell, flushing was about getting the ewes physically and emotionally ready to breed with the ram. The whole idea of raising sheep was to produce bunches of lambs. If I did things right, whatever those things were, our ewes would have multiple births. Every time the phrase "if I did things right" crossed my mind, my spine would tighten up, and I would get an instant headache.
If I did do things right, our ewes would have twins, triplets, or quads. I would later find out that a 200 percent crop of lambs—one in which every ewe birthed at least twins—was a desirable and feasible goal. If a ewe did not produce multiple lambs, it would have to be culled. Again, Webster's Dictionary informed me that the word cull refers to something rejected, inferior, and worthless. Sheep farmers are supposed to get rid of such sheep. They should be culled right away.
That was my first realization of the serious consequences of poor shepherding. If one of my ewes doesn't produce at least twins, she would have to be thrown out, and it would be entirely my fault!
I was now ready to get serious about my new shepherding job. I wrote out a four-step flushing plan and studied it.
Step One: Kick the ewes out of their pasture and bring them into the barn. (Find out how to get them out.)
Step Two: Bring each ewe into a stall, bring her down to the floor, (How?) and give her a personal examination. Look for injuries, bugs, burrs, or worms, and treat her if needed. (Find out how to treat these things.)
Step Three: Check each ewe's feet for foot rot and trim her overgrown hooves. (Study foot rot and buy one sharp knife.)
Step Four: Put the trimmed and treated ewes in a new pasture, and start giving them a small amount of grain every day for fourteen days until the ram comes. (Ask Honey to put in fencing around a new pasture, and find out what kind of grain sheep eat.)
I studied, made phone calls to Milo, shopped, and encouraged Honey. Honey was working harder than I was ... on my project! He put in a split-rail fence around a second pasture and installed an Australian electric fencing system onto it. The new pasture had virginal, pristine grass with a small stand of shade trees in one corner. Honey also built a feeding trough, piped in water, and brought in a shiny new water trough.
"Do your sheep know they're about to enter Sheep Heaven?"
"No, but I do! You're awesome!"
* * *
Flushing day arrived, and two inexperienced greenhorns entered the summer pasture for the first time.
"Jane, they're running from us! This time let's try to get behind them and push them into the barn!"
But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger's voice. (John 10:5)
"Mom, it's not working! They're scattering all over the place!"
I was thankful our thirteen-year-old daughter, Jane, had volunteered to be my assistant flusher. Now there were two ignorant shepherds at work.
"Two sheep are heading for the barn door! Close in behind them! Run! Shut the door!"
We followed the two ewes into the barn and somehow managed to get one of them into the newly built sheep stall. The three of us just stood there for a few seconds, breathing heavily, looking at each other. I was not prepared for the petrified look in the eyes of this ewe. She made me feel like the enemy rather than the shepherd.
"Okay, Jane. Now we have to get her down on the floor so we can look her over."
This ewe didn't want anything to do with us. I was confused. I had assumed sheep were docile and would let us do whatever it was we had to do to them. Of course, what did I know? The closest I had ever been to sheep was reading the children's rhymes about Mary. Didn't her lamb follow her to school?
Jane and I chased the ewe all over the stall until we were exhausted. We were playing tag, and she was winning.
"Our sheep don't know us, Jane. Once they do, it will be a lot easier. But today, one way or another, we have to bring this sheep down! We'd better pray." I would later find a detailed article with pictures showing me how to set a sheep on its rump. I made a copy, had it plasticized, and carried it with me until I had it down pat.
We tried again. This time we went at it with a do-or-die determination, knowing God was helping us. We were astonished that we actually brought down that large ewe. We even managed to enjoy a few laughs in our astonishment. Then we made a plan. The plan was for the "wrestler" to catch her breath while the "trimmer" examined the ewe and trimmed the feet. We would then trade positions for the next ewe. I would be the first to exam and trim, as the shiny new shepherd's knife was in my pocket.
The deafening wail coming out of this panic-stricken ewe was unnerving, and I hadn't even touched her feet. Nothing felt right about this. Then her ear-splitting bawl increased in pitch to pain level, so I raised my voice several decibels above hers, and lo and behold, she shut up. I probably scared her speechless. Jane and I now had control of the situation again, as ridiculous as it was.
I trimmed her hooves while praying I wouldn't cut her, and then Jane let her get up. She bolted out of the barn like an escapee ... screeching like a madwoman.
We sat there in the straw for a few minutes, listening to our pounding hearts and the ewe's faraway baas.
"Good thing we have fences, or she'd be running through town by now." We laughed.
"We can do this, Mom! This is fun!"
The second ewe reacted exactly as the first one ... scared stiff. Jane trimmed her feet with much more ease and competence than I. She had been taking care of her horse's hooves every day ... picking, painting, and sometimes trimming them. All our girls were relaxed and confident with animals.
Excerpted from Heaven has Blue Carpet by Sharon Stark Niedzinski. Copyright © 2008 Sharon Stark Niedzinski. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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