Jon Katz has been writing about his farm, his livestock, and his dogs for Slate for nearly 10 years—especially about his beloved border collie, Rose. This month he publishes an e-book about her: The Story of Rose: A Man and His Dog. Here’s an excerpt.
I came to Bedlam Farm with my sheep in October 2003, days ahead of a relentless winter. I wanted to breed the sheep, have lambs, perhaps sell some of the wool to weavers, send some of the sheep to market. I didn’t simply want to be a gentleman farmer. I wanted the farm to be a real place where real animals lived real lives.
A friend helped me track down a sheep farmer in Massachusetts who had a breeding ram to sell for $200. Good papers, health certificate from the vet, and the father of some proud and beautiful offspring.
The ram came in November. He was unloaded from a small, rickety trailer, and Rose escorted him right into the pasture. He tried to butt her once or twice and then gave up and ran.
The sheep farmers reminded me that the lambs would be born in February, if all went well, and that I would need to be prepared with lambing pens, heat lamps, and hay. To be candid, it is close to insane to lamb in February in upstate New York. I would not do it again.
I had done my homework and had arranged for all of those things, but still, I was not even remotely prepared for the brutality of the winter or the challenges of lambing. That winter was one of the worst on record. One storm after another, finger-numbing subzero cold, and snow on the ground until April. The farmers told me that was what winter used to be like, but it was not like any winter I had ever seen in my previous lives in Massachusetts, New York City, Texas, or New Jersey.
I had my medical supplies, syringes, medications, tail dockers, vitamins, supplements, lamb’s milk, iodine, pens, lamps, straw, hay, heated water buckets. I had towels and extra flashlights.
The first wave of lambs came three weeks early, in the middle of the night and in the middle of a blinding snowstorm. I had believed I had plenty of time to get the ewes we thought were pregnant into the lambing pens I had built in the barn.
I remember sleeping in bed upstairs in the farmhouse and being awoken suddenly by a cold dog nose against my arm. Rose had hopped up into bed and was whining. She only did that when something was wrong. I had learned the hard way not to question this but to get up and follow her.
I looked out the window at the snow, piled up in drifts and still coming down hard, and muttered to myself. I got dressed quickly—I believe I was very much afraid of what I would find out there—and followed Rose downstairs. I put on my boots and heavy parka. Rose led me in the deepening slow and blustery cold winds to the pasture gate. We walked through the gate, into the barn, and out the other side, toward where the sheep were riding out the storm under the roof of my pole barn, a three-sided structure that the animals used for shade from the sun and shelter from snow and rain.
Once we got to the pole barn, Rose moved straight out into the snow, up the hill, and away from the barn, vanishing into the snowy mist. I turned on the huge light at the rear of the barn, switched on my foot-long flashlight, and then moved out into the storm, an awe-inspiring blend of heavy wind, drifting snow, and bitter cold.