If there’s a spring in your step these days and you’re not sure why, perhaps it’s because it’s lambing season. That time of the year when rejuvenation is in the air. When farm animals are giving birth to adorable baby goats, foals, calves, piglets, lambs and, not to be overly crass about it, the milk and meat of the future.
Aspiring to join the life-affirming festivities, I made my way one afternoon to Kinderhook Farm in the Hudson Valley’s Valatie, N.Y. The farm was celebrating its designation as the first farm in the U.S. to be Certified Grassfed by Animal Welfare Approved. I take it that’s the equivalent of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for farm animals, who live the sort of outdoor life you or I would desire if we had hoofs.
Though perhaps celebrating is too strong a word because, frankly, it was coming to the end of lambing season and everyone seemed pretty pooped.
“This is the bit where you think it’s over but it’s not quite,” said Anna Hodson, the leader of Kinderhook Farm’s lambing operation.
There were 169 ewes bred this year, giving birth to 280 lambs so far. Ms. Hodson was waiting on another 10 ewes. It’s literally a month or so of 24/7 days—she wears a hydration pack so there’s no need to slow down—though she shares midwifing responsibilities with Georgia andLee Ranney, co-owners of the farm with Steve and Rene Clearman. Mr. Ranney does the midnight shift.
I wasn’t sure how to address Ms. Hodson, fearing I might step in a sheep patty of political incorrectness. Is she a shepherdess? Or a shepherd? In the same way that actresses are now referred to as actors?
I decided to stick with Ms. Hodson, who gave birth to one of her own recently. She and her husband, Adam Stofsky, a human rights lawyer and videographer, have a son, Jude.
“I have a little more understanding for what the ewes are going through,” she said. “How hard it is and that phase where you’re in pain and have to carry on. It’s work.
“It can be done,” she added. “It’s not that complicated.”
Until it is.
“I have a ewe here who has mastitis,” Ms. Hodson reported, as we stood in an open-air lambing barn, roughly the size of an airplane hangar. It was filled with fresh hay and dotted with possessive new mothers and suckling babies. “She can’t raise her two lambs. That means I have to take care of the bottle lambs.”
A textile conservator from Britain—there were gigs at Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and at the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute before moving upstate—Ms. Hodson says her parents flew over to help her husband take care of Jude while she tends to her flock.
“He feels neglected during lambing every year,” she said apologetically about her husband. “But this year he has to look after Jude, so he’s a little more focused.”
While much of her job entails helping the sheep live in a state of bucolic bliss—the AWA Certified Grassfed label means the animals are raised outdoors on pasture, graze only on grass and other plants and are handled, transported and slaughtered according to high-welfare standards—the assignment has its sad moments.
“We have had a few lambs that are dead on arrival,” she acknowledged. “The bright side of that is if we do have lambs that are hungry and their mothers can’t raise them for whatever reason, we graft these lambs onto the mother of the dead lamb.”
That’s accomplished by duping the ewe into believing the lamb is hers. Methods include rubbing the dead lamb’s amniotic fluid or the remains of its placenta onto the healthy but hungry one.
For some reason—it may have been as Ms. Hodson in her wide-brimmed straw sun hat, explained the practice of rotating the flock among fields to reduce the risk of parasites and thus the use of chemical wormers—I thought of Little Bo-Peep who had lost her sheep. Though the farm’s canine sentries—Sarge, Ollie and Luna—do a good job of tracking the sheep and giving coyotes pause.
The nursery rhyme character is usually pictured with a staff in her hand.
“We catch them around the leg and tilt it so they can’t get their leg out,” Ms. Hodson explained of the types of staffs and their functions, since lambs are only slightly easier to herd than cats. “The traditional one is the neck. You’re getting it around their neck to hold them. I don’t really use them that often.”
Perhaps because she’s a new mother herself, Ms. Hodson prefers the gentle art of persuasion: “So when I move them, I call them and they follow. They recognize me. They recognize the call.”
She enlists the sheep that have bonded to her—a few she bottle-fed as babies—to lead the flock. One was a ewe named Mikey. Though at that moment. Mikey had a faraway “I-want-to-be-alone” look in her eye and appeared in no mood to lead the pack. “She might go right now,” Ms. Hodson said.
Mikey was about to give birth.