A Milkmaid’s Morning

The work is never done on my family’s farmstead sheep dairy in Seville, Ohio. As the owners of Yellow House Cheese, we are responsible for a flock of 100 sheep that need to be milked daily to make our handmade, small-batch artisan cheese. If you’re thinking it might be fun to make your own cheese, you’ll think again when you take a peek into a typical morning during lambing season.

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2:00 am

Time to check on the ewes in labor. I check ewes every two hours, more or less, depending on how the flock looks through the night. More if I think some ewes look close, less if I think it will be a quiet night. Tonight, I notice ewe #98 is in the corner looking ready to deliver.

2:15 am

Come back in the house and watch Netflix for 20 minutes while waiting for labor to progress.

2:35 am

Watch carefully as ewe #98 delivers the second lamb of a set of twins. The miracle of birth never gets old for me. Watching lambs take their first breath, struggle to stand, and discover their mother’s sweet milk is awesome. Each lamb is weighed, eartagged, and logged on the barn chart.

3:00 am

Head back into the house and try to catch a quick nap before milking time. Lambing time is like being a mother with a newborn.

Learn to sleep deeply but lightly, or not at all.

6:30 am

Milk the sheep. It’s early in the milking season so there are only about 20 sheep to come into the parlor this morning. It takes about 25 minutes to get through all the sheep. At full milking later this spring I’ll be milking closer to 60 ewes. That will take me about an hour.

7:00 am Wake our daughters for school. I throw open the house door and yell up the stairs for the girls to get ready. Corinne is 9 and in fourth grade and Ellen is 8 and in third grade. They are mostly on their own in the mornings to pick out clothes, make breakfast, and pack a lunch if they want one.

7:15 am

Go back out to the creamery. It’s time to clean the milking equipment. This takes just as much time as milking the sheep. Rinse. Wash. Sanitize. Clean, clean, clean. While the equipment is on the wash cycle, I scoot over to the parlor and sweep it out for the morning. The sheep make hardly any mess while being milked.

7:30 am

The morning’s milk has been filtered and now I heave the 86-pound milk can into the refrigerator to store the milk until it’s time to make cheese.

7:45 am

Prepare bottles of milk replacer for orphan lambs. Sometimes the ewe can’t feed triplets or quads. Orphan lambs are started on bottles until they learn to nurse and then I transition them on to a self-feeder.

8:15 am

Go into the house to check on the girls and am immediately flooded with questions: “Why are there no clean, matching socks?” “Where is my other sneaker?” I reply, “Please figure it out yourselves. Make yourself breakfast. We have 10 minutes until we leave.”

8:30 am

Load the girls into the car and leave for school.

8:35 am

Pull into the school drop-off. Suddenly, Corinne looks panicked and tells me that she and her sister were supposed to bring a snack for Girl Scouts after school. She asks if I can bake cookies.

Ha! I laugh and say I’ll make sure something gets dropped off.

8:45 am

Call the feed mill on the drive home to place the feed order for the week. This is the point in the morning where I realize I need a list. I wonder how sharp I am feeling. Can it be a mental list, or shall I write it down? Opt for the written. Scribble down “snack” and “pick up feed” to start the list.

9:00 am

Check the sheep again. I still have to tag and mark last set of lambs born last night. I check for full bellies to make sure they’ve nursed to stay warm. These are nice, healthy lambs.

9:12 am

Take a photo of cute, sleeping, snuggling lambs. Remind myself to post it on Instagram later. Do another walk-through of all lambing pens—filling watering buckets, throwing in fresh hay, and checking for sick, chilled, or attention-craving animals.

9:18 am

Call the veterinarian about a treatment plan for a sick lamb. Not in the office, so I ask for a vet to call me if he or she gets a chance today. I work with some really good vets, but Kevin and I do most of our veterinary work like vaccinations, castrations, and tail docking.

9:30 am

Check the water tubs in the barn. The girls are responsible for watering the sheep before school; I’m responsible for checking on the responsibility of my children. Check Facebook on my phone while waiting for the water to fill in the barn.

9:35 am

I notice the milking ewes are almost out of hay so I run them out of the barn and lock the gate so I can use the skid steer to bring in a new round bale of hay to fill the feeder. One round bale lasts about two and a half days for this group of 20 ewes.

9:55 am

Wonder if that lamb in the corner is sleeping heavily or not feeling well. For right now, I’m going to assume the best and let it sleep. I remind myself to come back and check in an hour.

10:00 am

Decide that I am running out of room in the barn. I have three groups that I am managing—ewes that are still waiting to give birth, ewes with lambs, and my milking flock. The sizes of the groups are always growing and shrinking until all the ewes have lambed. I try to reconfigure gates, panels, and pens while keeping sheep in their correct groups, giving each ample space to spread out, feed, and relax.

10:30 am

Finally head into the house after barn chores. As I wriggle out of my dirty pink coveralls I consider throwing them into the washer. These coveralls need to be washed, but I’m not sure I have enough time for them to wash and dry completely before I need them again. Decide against it and instead throw school clothes in the washer.

10:35 am

While I’m in the basement, I pull something out of the freezer to make for dinner this week. We raise all of our own meat so I have variety, just no time to cook. Rule of thumb is to pull only enough stuff for three meals. It seems like I only ever have time to cook two of those meals and I’m sure we’ll call out for pizza a time or two this week.

11:00 am

Time to check emails. It seems like I only ever have time to read email, never to reply. This doesn’t always help the business end of the farm. I remind myself that I have to send some replies to inbox requests. I add that to the written list for this afternoon. Where is that list?

11:15 am

Phone rings. It’s a local 4-H club asking to take a tour of the farm. I look around at the overgrown lawn, weedy, flower-less beds, mud ankle high around the barn, and gently say no, maybe another time.

11:35 am

Grab a quick shower before lunch. Sometimes on the farm it seems like you could take five showers in a day and still not be clean enough. Sometimes it takes that many not to end up smelling like sheep all day.

12 noon

The official end of morning. Make myself a quick lunch and realize that it is time to start all over again. Check for more lambs, bottle feed again, run the dishwasher, switch the laundry, balance the checkbook, drop off that snack, milk in six hours, and I do need to find the list of things that need to get done.

Note to self: Tomorrow I have to schedule in time for cheese making.