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Montana Lambing

I debated about whether I would write about my recent trip to Montana. I didn’t attend a school or a workshop, but I made the trip in order to learn about farm life, in this particular case working on an organic lamb farm belonging to my friends Katy and Rich Harjes. I worked hard and I learned so much, that I decided that I wanted to share my incredibly fulfilling experience, along with my appreciation for my friends’ lives and that of their sheep.

Katy and Rich left their life in Chicago in 2008 to raise organic lamb on their ranch at the base of the foothills of the Bridger Mountains outside of Bozeman. A group of girlfriends and I had visited Katy in February, and I was instantly in love with her life. The busiest time of the year for the Harjeses is lambing season - when the lambs are born - which, this year, began around April 1st. My friend Kim and I returned to help out with lamb midwifery. We arrived on April 20th, but the rush of newborns had already happened. Katy had expected (and hoped) that the births would be spread out through the month. Instead they had a big rush in the beginning, with the majority of lambs born in the first week or so. Every year is different, according to Katy. With approximately 280 pregnant ewes, Katy found the first weeks of April exhausting.

Upon arrival, my first task was to feed the bottle-fed lambs, which numbered three: black twins - Stinky and Shank - whose mom died after their birth and a white lamb named Double Stuff whose mom rejected him. Double Stuff was so named because he was often found standing between the twins, making the three of them look like an Oreo cookie. And, from the first moment of meeting him, I wanted to save Double Stuff from what Katy calls ‘the bad place,’ better known as the abattoir. I immediately began my ‘Save Double Stuff’ campaign. (Spoiler alert: campaign successful!)

In between the three-times-a-day feedings, we helped with other chores. An hourly chore was to walk the field where the pregnant ewes spent the day. If any of the ewes had given birth, we would carry the baby or babies and have the mother follow us into the barn. If a ewe was in labor, we either tried to coax her into the barn or we patiently waited for her to deliver her babies and help out if necessary (think latex gloves). Kim and I were excited to witness our first lamb birth in the field, and little did we know that there was something drastically wrong with the first in-labor ewe that we came upon. The mother was Niki. Her water broke, but had gushed out of her rather than dropping a small sack of fluid and then breaking, which is the norm. The ewe was obviously having contractions, but, after thirty minutes or so, nothing had happened. By this time, Katy came to visit us in the field and recognized that there was a problem. After consulting with her vet by phone and texting photos, it was assumed that the baby was not alive. After leading Niki into the barn, Katy reached into her and determined the position of the lamb. After she figured out the positioning, she pulled the lifeless lamb out of the ewe, in order to save the life of the mom. The ewe began having contractions again, and Katy knew that there was a twin. Katy reached in again to help the mom. Minutes later arrived a very yellow lamb. We named her Turmeric.

The subsequent births we witnessed were far easier. A couple of births required assistance, but most went smoothly on their own. Kim and I participated in the small tasks that took place after births and happily visited all of the lambs every day. When we weren’t dealing directly with babies, we did the less sexy chore of mucking out the stalls in the barn and whatever else was asked of us.

Our other big chore was helping with the garden. We cut back raspberry bushes - which left me looking like I had gotten into a brawl with a herd of cats - and picked spinach. A lot of spinach - to the tune of four stuffed kitchen garbage bags full. That led us to one of our loveliest tasks of the week: cooking! Every morning, mid morning, Kim and I would make breakfast. Eggs, gathered from the hens that morning, along with, well, spinach. Fried eggs, a frittata, and breakfast tacos were our great successes. And, then, we had to plan dinner! Our most ambitious dinners were the two we made with homemade spinach pasta. We laughed and argued about how long we had to knead the dough (needy Kim argued for less kneading, I for more), but in the end, it was perfect. The first pasta night we made a lasagna bolognese, with ground mutton from the farm. Rich declared it the best lasagna ever! The second night was fettuccine, with two sauces made by Katy. Both with butter, a lot of butter, paired with wines chosen by Rich and Katy’s panna cotta. It was heavenly.

I say that I learned a lot on my week on the farm. The most important thing I learned is that I really like to work with my hands and I really like physical labor. I found a happiness that I don’t experience every day in my normal working life, which aside from moving a mouse and the occasional use of an exacto blade and glue stick, isn’t very physical. I also learned a lot about pride, something that I’ve forgotten about in my work. Katy is very proud of her sheep and lambs and the lives that they live, and she’s not shy to talk about it. 

As for Double Stuff, he will live out his life as a pet on the ranch. Rich says that I have to work off his keep every year. I’ve got this year paid off, so I’ll be back often to keep the little lamb happy.


For those interested in farming, last year I attended a 6-day farm school on a goat cheese farm in eastern Washington, Quillisascut. Katy recommends WWOOF, which connects farms and volunteers. WWOOF offers opportunities by region throughout the world. And, hopefully, in the future Katy will offer cooking and/or farm camps at Willow Spring Ranch Montana.


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Reader Comments (3)

Never hurts to begin a post with an animal who's off the cute scale. Damn does that place look idyllic! Nicely done Molly!

May 4, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterrandolph

Oh Molly, I loved this! Thank you so much for sharing your experience, insights and photos. You made my day!

May 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDianna

Thanks R and D! You're always my biggest fans!

May 8, 2012 | Registered CommenterMolly Cumming

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