Yesterday my sheep made me cry – again. For people who don’t have livestock, that probably sounds insane. For people who do have livestock, you've been there a time or two yourself.
I had to haul sheep over to some friends, who will haul them to Louisville for us. The fact that this was the last time I would haul Tunis for a show, the last time I would take my red heads onto the green shavings, even that this was the last time Jim Heggemeier would get to give me grief about showing Tunis, brought me to tears.
Sobbing, blowing my nose, cannot hardly read the road signs tears. For a good thirty miles too! But this was not the first time my Tunis have done it, and will probably not be the last before we sell them in our complete dispersal next April.
I had wanted Tunis so bad but both Matt and my dad were adamant that there would be no red sheep at either farm. No RED SHEEP. That made me cry. For several years I cried about that.
Then in 2006, Matt surprised me by handing over a sale catalog with two lot numbers circled in it. I can still hear him tell me, “I bought you two. These are the ONLY Tunis we will have. You will send them somewhere to get bred because we are NOT buying a buck. We are not showing them. We are not keeping lambs. These are ONLY for you to have at home, for FUN.”
Oh man did I cry! I was so excited I cried and I didn’t listen to a word he said – I had other plans for my Tunis!
The next summer, my phone rang. On the other end of the line a voice came across explaining they needed to sell. They needed to sell everything and because I had quietly shown interest, I was getting first chance.
First chance at 30 of the top Tunis brood ewes in the country! (Tears!)
I hung up the phone and my first call was to Dad. He was quiet for a minute and then said, “I will help you if Matt says you can keep them there. We don’t have room for them here.” (Way better than I had expected!)
Next was Matt. He too was quiet, for a bit longer than dad was. Then, “Ok. Ok I can’t get out there with you but go look at them and if you think they are as good as they are supposed to be let’s buy them.” WHAT? (Tears!!)
A few days later we were in Ohio, I looked over everything and not wanting to lose a once in a lifetime opportunity, I wrote a check. And that was it – I was in the Tunis breed. And in rather seriously.
As that first lambing season crept closer, I suddenly became nervous this would turn into a nightmare. I knew nothing about the history of these ewes.
It didn’t. Every single ewe lambed. We didn’t lose a single ewe, not a single lamb. We didn’t have a single bottle lamb. We had two sets of triplets, and mammas weaned all three themselves. Going from lambing out high maintenance Suffolk ewes, to this!?! It was a night and day difference and I was hooked!
Within a few years we would sell the Suffolks and increase our Tunis numbers to nearly 100 ewes. Our red heads were easy lambers, phenomenal milkers and required little in terms of input and labor. The demand for Tunis was strong and getting stronger. We sold out lamb crops year after year.
We were also checking off things in the show ring as well. State Fair Champions, National Champions, winning sales, setting sale records and becoming one of the top flocks in the country. But we never lost focus in the lambing barn. I insisted I was not setting up a flock the same way I had set up my hard keeping blacks, and I would not make the same mistakes.
We would encounter only a handful of females through the years who disappointed us in the lambing barn. A few ewes who couldn’t produce quality milk and whose lambs were too far behind. A few ewes that couldn’t lamb on their own, or a few ewes that had trouble maintaining good condition.
By being fierce in our culling, we kept it to a very few ewes. We developed a group of Tunis sheep that were not only nationally competitive, but were reliable, tough ewes. Ewes with numbers that will rival any production flock in the country.
Ewes that left me with memories I will never forget but ewes that had often made me cry:
The day Red Label was born, and I KNEW from the minute he hit the ground he was good. The day he won his National Champion Banner. The day Matt called me at work, asked if I was sitting down, and delivered the crushing news that Red had died. He had been hit by another ram. The way my co-worker looked at me like I had gone insane when I told her why I was sobbing.
I will never forget the first little red lamb born on the farm, contrasting so much in a pen of black lambs, or how pretty my red ewes look against the green grass in the springtime.
I will never forget when Matt pulled me into his arms right on the green shavings and kissed me after taking four of the five banners in Louisville. (Matt will never let me forget how my mistake cost us the fifth one that year!)
I will never forget the friends we made in the breed. I will never forget our loyal customers.
But soon, I will have to say goodbye. I don’t have the time to spend with them when I have two baby boys at home, a busy career and a husband farming several thousand acres.
But for right now I will get ready for Louisville. I will get ready for my very last show with my red heads. And I will show them and love every minute.
And I will try, my very hardest, not to cry over a sheep (but it’s almost guaranteed I will!)
Kate Lambert grew up in northern Illinois, not on a farm but active in FFA and showing livestock.
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