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Mother Nature Bats Last

July 3, 2010

We all have days in our lives where we remember where we were and what we were doing, often times associated with events of a catastrophic  or monumental nature. I remember sitting on my dad’s lap, watching Neil Armstrong become the first man to set foot on the moon. My friend April from Earth Elements Farm and Market Bakery has a birthday where I never fail to wish her a “Happy May 11th Tornado Day,” after the killer tornado I experienced as a child in Lubbock, Texas, in 1970. Whether it’s 9/11 or the birthday of a loved one long passed, these are the days where, at some point, we stop for a moment (or more) and remember.

June 14th is now one of those days for us here at Cordero Farms. The day before, we weaned the lambs and gave them their booster vaccinations. Knowing that storms were in the forecast, I was up early at 4 am, checking on the newly weaned lambs. When the storms rolled in an hour later, I put on my new rain suit and went down to their pasture to make sure they had found their shelter without the moms there to lead them. Sure enough, they were tucked in nice and dry, chewing their cuds and watching the rain fall. We do fence line weaning, which means we put up a ‘hard’ fence between the mamas and babies so that they can touch noses through the fence or even lay next to each other, which reduces the stress of weaning. I was concerned that there might be some babies hanging out next to the fence, calling for mama, but they had sought shelter rather than stand in the rain and cry.

Throughout the morning, I kept an eye on the storm. I figured we’d received more than a couple of inches of rain, and even though we’d never had flooding problems in that part of the pasture, I was concerned because  that much rain is stressful on newly weaned lambs. After I finished a work phone call at 10 am, I drove down to check on the lambs again. It was still raining buckets, they were still in their shelter, and I was pleased to see that despite the heavy rain, water was only collecting a little in the low spots. Knowing the rain was going to move out within a few hours, I felt like we were going to weather the storm ok.

An hour later, there was a break in the rain, so I hopped on the 4 wheeler, driving down to the pasture area once more. When I topped the rise where I could first see the sheep paddock, this is the sight that greeted me:

Within a half hour, the water in the middle of this would be chest high to me.

My initial reaction isn’t printable on a family blog.

You can see the sheep shelters in the background of the photo. That is where the ewes were pastured. The lambs were in the area in the foreground and to the left of that. I drove the 4 wheeler through the water and parked in an area of higher ground in between the two pens. I was wearing shorts, a t-shirt, and calf-high muck boots. To give you an idea about the depth of the water at that point, when I hopped off the 4 wheeler, my boots filled with water immediately… and that was the high ground. My first task was to remove the panel dividing the ewes from the lambs. The lambs were pretty freaked out by the rising water, and I wanted them to be able to stick closely to their mothers, weaning be damned.

Next, I walked around, trying to gauge the water depth at different points in the area. The sheep were surrounded by deeper water on all sides.  

Believe it or not, those troughs ended up about 400 yards away on the south end of the farm.

The water was rising, and I was looking for the highest ground possible to ‘park’ the sheep until I could figure out how to get them out of there. Finally, I called them towards the area where I’d parked, then I realized I’d better drive the 4 wheeler out of there, or it was going to float away. I managed to get about 200 yards towards the house when the 4 wheeler refused to budge further, so I abandoned it and walked back to my truck parked near the barn. I hadn’t brought my cell phone with me (STUPID), so I drove up to the house and hollered for Sue to come help me now. Then I drove back down to the barn and retrieved 100 feet of rope from the shed. I walked back to the area in the first pic above, tied off the rope to the base of a tree, and waded over to the first stand of trees to the north. At that time, water was up to mid-thigh at the deepest point. I tied the other end of the rope to a pecan tree and started to walk out towards the huddled sheep. Just then, Sue pulled up and waded out to help me try to figure out what to do. After discussing options, we decided I would stay with the sheep, and she would go call the neighbors for help. As she left, I hollered, “find a boat!”

At first, I stayed with the sheep to try and keep them calm while we waited out the storm together. But the water kept rising, and then it started raining again, hard. At that point, the only thing I could think to do was to start carrying lambs to the higher ground near the barn. This was about 300 feet from where the sheep were standing. The water was continuing to rise, and I just prayed for strength and for a break in the weather. I slogged out and picked up two of the smaller lambs. As I got back to where I tied the rope, I looped my arm around it so that I wouldn’t get carried downstream (the water was really moving here) and walked through the deep water to the ‘shore.’ Then I headed back out.  

In the meantime, Sue had come back looking for me, and when she didn’t see me, she started shouting and honking. I couldn’t hear or see her through the din of the storm, so I had no idea she had come back. When she couldn’t find me, she called 911 and they said they would send the volunteer firefighters from Tryon to help. She left and went to wait by the road to help them find their way into the farm to the spot where we were stranded. Oblivious to all of this, I just kept moving lambs as quickly as I could, which was not quick enough at all. A few of the ewes and lambs were getting scared and they set out away from the group to try and seek a different spot. I was carrying lambs toward the shore, and when I looked back, I saw them get swept away. Because they were so far away from where I was, I couldn’t reach them. At that point, I was really afraid we were going to lose a good portion of the flock. I felt like with every lamb I picked up, I was making Sophie’s Choice–who to save? And who to leave for a future trip back? All the while praying for a break in the rain.  

Just when I was at my most discouraged, Sue reappeared with a man at the shore where I’d been depositing lambs. Behind them was another man I recognized as the Tryon Fire Chief, Mike Kerns. Sue pointed at me carrying the lambs, and the first man, the Tryon Police Chief, Jered Prickett, waded into the water and began helping me. When we got to the shore, Sue explained that she’d called 911 because she couldn’t find me and feared the worst. I looked at Jered and Mike and asked them if they could help us save these sheep, and even though they were under no obligation to do so, they agreed. As I turned to go back out to the sheep, our neighbor, Max, pulled up with an old rowboat! Jered and Mike unloaded it from his pickup, and along with Sue, the four of us, plus two fine fellows from the Carney Fire Department, waded out and started picking up lambs and putting them in the rowboat. From that point on, we didn’t lose another sheep.  

After we’d made multiple trips with the rowboat, all that was left in the pasture were the largest lambs and most of the ewes. It had stopped raining (there was even a peek of sunlight), and Jered looked at the twig he’d stuck in the bank when he arrived and told us the water level had dropped a foot. I said that now was the time to get the ewes, so the guys from Carney got behind them, and shoo’d them towards me while I called. It was amazing to watch these ewes walk towards me and then start to swim! as they got into the deeper water. Nose to tail, they swam in a line towards the shore. When they hit the bank, they clambered up and started grazing immediately. Some of them were too weak and struggled to swim or started to get swept downstream. We helped all of them make it to dry ground, then the volunteer firefighters turned to go, their work done. We thanked them profusely, for without them, our flock might have been decimated.  

The vet students from the OSU large animal clinic arrived and started tending to the dozen or so ewes and lambs exhibiting signs of shock and hypothermia. We got them tucked into the dry barn with fresh hay, and they went on to do just fine. The rest of the flock got to graze and hang out where they pleased while the Maremma dogs looked after them. By late afternoon, the flash flood was over, but almost a foot of water remained in a lot of the pastures. Cyrena came out after class and helped me check for stragglers. We didn’t find any others, but we did shoo a group of lambs closer to the barn, not knowing if we were going to get a lot more rain later that night. She headed back to Stillwater, and I headed for a hot shower.  

I’d never been in a flash flood or even seen the aftermath of one, except on TV. The area that flooded isn’t even in the 100 year flood plain. As best we can tell, a creek on the property north of us crested and all that water had nowhere to go but across our pasture. One of those freak things. I went down to feed the dogs and check on the flock about dusk that evening. The clouds had moved on, and it was a nice cool night. I got off the golf cart and walked among the sheep. They were resting or quietly grazing. Quite a few came up to greet me. I cannot describe the overwhelming gratitude I felt as these ewes checked in, and I realized that many of my old favorite girls had been spared. We weren’t able to round up everyone for roll call until the weekend, and that’s when we came up with the final tally: 4 ewes and 3 lambs lost, 125 saved! While we mourn those we couldn’t save, we know that we would have lost many more if not for the help of our neighbors, the volunteer firefighters, and the vet and students from OSU. We are so thankful for their help and for the encouragement and support of our friends and customers throughout the state.  

In the three weeks since the flood, I confess I walk among the flock with a new awareness of the fragility of life and a new appreciation for the little things–seeing the flock spread out grazing in the paddock, watching the dogs bounce up and bark at the sound of a predator, feeling the sun beating down while I lay out electronet fence. Looking back, we’ve questioned what we could have done differently, could have done to save the sheep we weren’t able to save. The plain truth is that sometimes, no matter how good the preparation, Mother Nature does what she’s going to do. And all we can do in response is move on to another, brighter day.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. July 3, 2010 6:27 pm

    I’m sorry to hear that your farm has seen such hard times. Sometimes difficulties in life can help us turn to the shepherd of our souls.

    John 10:11-14

    11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep.
    12 “But a hireling, he who is not the shepherd, one who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf catches the sheep and scatters them.
    13 “The hireling flees because he is a hireling and does not care about the sheep.
    14 “I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by My own.

    • July 4, 2010 7:45 am

      Jason, one of my favorite verses! Thanks for your words of encouragement. The good times farming outweigh the hard times by such a great extent — it’s not even a close contest.

  2. July 4, 2010 12:49 pm

    Been waiting for this story to come out for weeks now!. What a terrifing experince. Beautifully written, so glad you are safe and losses were minimal. Y’all are my heros! I look forward to the foot story next:)

  3. Stephen permalink
    July 4, 2010 3:00 pm

    We’re just glad you guys came out ok. The sheep are replaceable, but y’all aren’t. Great description of the event, Nanc. You’ve got some serious skill!

  4. July 4, 2010 4:08 pm

    Nancy! Oh my sweet lord in heaven, I am so, so sorry! What a disaster! We had some severe flooding here last summer; many of our farmer friends lost acres of crops, our good friends down the road lost almost everything; their crops, irrigation system, and worst of all, their topsoil. But in just a year, they are coming back strong. Mother nature always has the last word, but we have a lot of strength to match it. What you did for your flock was nothing sort of heroic. Love and blessings to you, and let us know if there is anything we can do for you, even from afar.

  5. July 4, 2010 5:51 pm

    Thanks, y’all. Lisa, I’d tried to write the story almost every day for 2 weeks. I guess I wasn’t ready until this weekend. Stephen, I can only aspire to your level of humorous writing, thanks a bunch! Rebecca, I know what you mean about losing topsoil to a flood. We’re trying to practice mob grazing, so we lost a lot of organic matter that would have eventually composted into the soil.

    The main thing isn’t the OM we lost or the sheep we lost–it’s the appreciation for what was saved and for what we still have that was the biggest lesson for me. One of those great things is the support of friends like y’all!

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