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A shepherd answers questions raised by lambing season

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

If you're a farmer of sheep, it's the busiest time of the year - lambing season. In the U.S., farmers usually arrange for new lambs to be born from late February to early April. That means long days of caring for pregnant ewes as they give birth, then monitoring the health of their little lambs, and hovering above it all, there are constant reminders of the cycle of life and death. ALL THINGS CONSIDERED producer Avery Keatley caught up with one shepherd in Montgomery County, Md., as well as the newest members of her flock and also her three sheepdogs.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOGS BARKING)

AVERY KEATLEY, BYLINE: Hi, puppies.

AMANDA CATHER: This is Nash (ph), Arlo (ph), Jenny (ph) (laughter). Welcome. I'm Amanda Cather, and I'm the - one of the owners and operators of Plow and Stars Farm in Poolesville, Md. This is our 10th year on this farm, so it feels like a long time. It's a decade, but in the life cycle of a farm, it's a blink of an eye. This is lambing time, and that's the time of year when our ewes, who have been gestating their lambs since September, are supposed to deliver the lambs. We check every four hours during lambing season. We check at 2 and 6 and 10 and 2 and 6 and 10 in this regular rhythm, just to make sure everyone is fine and just making sure that everyone is stable.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHEEP BLEATING)

CATHER: So we see a ewe lying down by herself away from the rest of the flock, which is unusual. She might be in labor. OK, I think this is Daenerys (ph). She honestly wanted to be by herself for this. Hi, sweetie. Hi, mama. So she's looking around. She's making that little noise. She's going to probably paw the ground in that nesting behavior. And see, she's got her flanks are all hollowed out. She's got her water bag hanging out. She seems pretty calm, and I think we'll just give her some time.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CATHER: I grew up in southern Maryland and watched my dad work so hard outside at his small business, work every day, work every weekend and swore that I would never do that. I would never work outside. We lived in an agricultural community, but I never really saw value in it as a kid. And then it came together for me really strongly in my junior and senior year of college, to the extent that I came home and told my parents I wasn't going to go to medical school after all. I instead wanted to become a farmer. The first year I tried to plant anything, I didn't know a plant from a weed and weeded up all of the carrots that we had planted and just had, you know, a learning curve. And then I went to do an apprenticeship on a farm and got to drive a tractor and met my first sheep, and then it was all over.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CATHER: So these lambs, they'll either be kept on the farm for breeding stock, or they will become butcher lambs. We'll raise them until they're 10 or 11 months old, and then we'll take them to a butcher shop in Pennsylvania that does our butchering for us. That day that we load the lambs is always hard. It's always a hard day, no matter how many times we do it. You know, we're not religious people, but a blessing is not too strong of a word for what we send them with - and gratitude, just our intense, intense gratitude for their lives. Often, we get the question from people, how can you eat animals that you raise and you know? And at this point, I don't eat animals that I don't raise because I feel like I owe them the honor and respect of knowing that their life was a certain way. So we're able to give them a life here that is stress-free as much as we can, and then we give them as stress-free of an end as we possibly can.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CATHER: I know that as a livestock farmer there are people who disagree with kind of the fundamental premise of eating animals and raising animals for meat. But if we are going to eat them, then I think we should raise them. And I think we should face what we're doing head-on. And we do. I think as farmers, we're fortunate to be just very connected to those threads of life and death that are very - you know, the line between them can be very thin. The cycle of energy is the thing I think that really stands out to me lately - is the way that the energy from the sun goes into the pastures, is consumed by the animals, turned into protein, goes into our bodies, and our bodies will eventually return that cycle. And that feels right. It doesn't feel scary.

Our lives, they're short. We don't know the circumstances of their ending. And the best we can do is try to be good stewards while we're here of whatever it is that we're given to steward, and we're all given to steward something. We're all given something to contribute. This is our small way of contributing.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS CRUNCHING)

CATHER: So we are heading out to the field to meet Daenerys' new baby boy. She might be getting ready to have another lamb. Or maybe she actually already did. She did have another lamb. She's got twins - hooray. First lambs of 2024, beautiful. Oh, hi. Right now she's cleaning the second lamb. The first lamb is lying - he's going to get up pretty soon. He's a beautiful brown, curly lamb with a white star on his head. And the second lamb is just getting up. She's - the mother is cleaning off the amniotic fluid. She's doing a great job of licking her lamb clean and talking to her lamb. They're tired from being born. That's another ram lamb. This one is all brown. He's so pretty. This one's already getting ready to stand up, this second lamb. You're going to get up and nurse in a minute? Whoa, he's up. How long has he been born - about five minutes maybe? Nice job, buddy. So he's nursing, and this one's like, wait, I can't be left behind. He's like, let me get over there and get in there, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAMB BLEATING)

CATHER: You got a lot to say? Oh, he's right here.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAMB BLEATING)

CATHER: Yeah, he's right here. That's great. That's a lot of lambs you had in there, mama. And there he goes. All right. There.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DETROW: You're listening to All Sheep Considered, from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Avery Keatley