Chickens And Piglets And Lambs! Oh My!

I spent a week of spring break on my sister’s 107 acre farm, North of Kamloops, near my home town of Barriere. Five years ago, her family moved onto this beautiful piece of land that is recovering from being logged 10 years prior. The property is bordered on one side by a small river with a slow deep swimming hole. From the river flats, the land rises over Raven Ridge and falls again in south facing slopes.

It is in these hills of clay that my sister, her husband and son have labored to carve their little homestead complete with fields, fences, barns and house. Their living room window is filled with shelves of seedlings taking advantage of the sunny exposure while waiting for the spring soil to warm. From the covered porch you can watch over the ‘sheepyard’ with a commanding view of the valley.

During my trip, we spent a couple of days thinning trees to create pasture for the growing flock of sheep: nine sets of twin lambs this year, two singles, plus two ‘bottle lambs’ she took on from other local farmers. A yew can only care well for two lambs, so when triplets are born, the third is often seen as a liability to the farmer. But my sister is happy to take them on for the joy she gets from nursing them.

I’m telling you first hand, you haven’t lived until you’ve bottle fed a week-old lamb! They are voracious feeders, bunting the bottle with their nose if the milk isn’t coming fast enough while their little tails wiggle with delight. They follow you around like puppies, and are adorable to watch dance around on too-long of legs.

I am surprised at my sister’s strength to accept the fate of those lambs that are born male. For now, she is growing her flock so the females are spared, but in time all may have to be considered for market.

My sister has one of the softest hearts I know, but she is also pragmatic. She recognizes farm animals are not pets. Their purpose in life is for meat; she takes solace in knowing they at least live their short lives well in relative ‘happiness’.

She is currently nursing a premature lamb back to health. She had to perform mouth to nose resuscitation on its tiny one pound body at birth (compared to the average birth weight of 7 lbs) and has been feeding it every two hours around the clock since. She says that if this one survives, it will be spared the market: a rare exception to the rule. I think that is how she manages to reconcile her role in the food cycle – every now and again she gets to save one.

My visit was right in the middle of lambing. Multiple checks throughout the night were routine to save newborn lambs from the chilly spring air. But despite these late nights, she was up every morning by six to milk the cow.

She adopted an underproducing cow from the local dairy to provide fresh milk for her bottle orphans, the two lambs and a calf. Even though this cow didn’t produce enough for the commercial dairy, remarkably it still gives a whopping 12-16 litres of milk a day. That meant plenty of extra milk for me to drink. I love milk, but had never had it fresh from the cow before – delicious! We cooled it in the refrigerator first, of course, but I helped skim the cream while it was still warm.

We even made butter. It turns out that whole cream, shaken vigorously in a jar for 20 minutes results in a pad of butter that looks so real, I can’t believe its not margarine!

Later this spring are plans to expand the garden, and four piglets have been employed to condition the soil by rooting up the clover and grasses with their crazy muscular noses that curl back like mini excavators. I was surprised at what playful animals pigs are, frequently dashing around in chase. They also climb on and carry one another in a fashion that leaves little doubt as to the origin of the term ‘piggy back’.

My sister told me about stumbling outside of the chicken coop and learning another farm addage: “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket” .

“Don’t count your chickens before they hatch” was also of particular relevance as the spring flock of Buff Orbington chickens were hatching while I was there. Dozens of peeping yellow balls of fluff, with one distinctly marked Americana that must of been the progeny of a wandering neighbour rooster.

My nephew tells me that when I build my own chicken coop, he recommends the Buff Orbington as an old-breed, multi-purpose hen that will live a longer functional life than the modern laying breeds which produce more eggs at the expense of the hen’s health.

With my sister’s flock, egg production was down. It seems there was a problem with the roosters – not that they weren’t doing their job, on the contrary they were doing it with too much vigor. The hens were getting beat up from the relentless pubescent pursuit and had stopped laying.

Some of the boys had to go. There was also the matter of what to cook for dinner… the solution was inevitable.

After a brief pursuit around the chicken yard with my nephew and a fishing net, I held the rooster while it surrendered its life in the fashion of an 18th century French Aristocrat. Whether hunting or at the farm, I always recoil at the taking of a life. But I am also aware that meat does not come from a plastic wrapper in the store cooler. This young fellow was delicious roasted and again as soup the next day.

I consume mostly vegetables these days, but I still really enjoy meat. It is important to me that the animals I eat are ethically harvested and raised with healthy diets. After all, if you are what you eat, then by extension you are also what your food eats!

I am grateful to participate on the farm. I am amazed at what my little sister has learned to do in the few short years they have been working their land. I am proud of her. She has grown up into a tireless, hard working woman.

I wish that Raven Ridge was a little closer to Vancouver Island; then I could help out for more than just one week in the year. Nevertheless, I hope to make our spring visit an annual event.

Chris Semrick, B.Sc, RRT, CRE is a Registered Respiratory Therapist, Certified Respiratory Educator and a Smoking Cessation Counselor.