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Eating Local: Much to like, some to curse about lambs

Marilyn Gleason
Eating Local
The scene at Colby Farm.
Staff Photo |

Despite the lessons and bad luck of the past, lambs frolic destructively once again on Colby Farm.

It turns out the chest-high grass and alfalfa that grows in profusion are only the lambs’ third favorite food. They prefer grape leaves, and above all else, roses, much to Ed’s dismay.

We know this because, with a new gate at the end of the driveway, this year the little lambs started out life unpenned, roaming where they pleased within the limits of our two irrigated acres.

Before long Ed had built little fences around every rosebush and along the driveway where peonies, trumpet vine and sweet peas grow.

One morning Ed heard the patter of little hooves inside the house. He found the whole herd in the living room, bleating for more milk from the bottle. We learned to close all the doors.

For four summers sheep have grazed on Colby Farm. The first year, full-grown loaner ewes trimmed the grass until a bear took a lethal bite out of one of them and the other three escaped to live among the cactus, pinyon and predators on the Grand Hogback. Only two of the four eventually returned home to their ranch near Harvey Gap. They were like wild animals.

That’s when we switched to bum lambs — docile but fragile creatures deprived of a nursing mother for one reason or another. Our four bum lambs grew fat until we called in the cowboys for the slaughter. I left town and didn’t watch when a gun misfired and our favorite lamb, nicknamed Trouble, ran wounded and terrified from his executioners.

The butchering went smoother at Eagle Springs meats, and we easily sold three lambs to friends who savored the succulent, fatty meat.

Last summer we had an especially weak and pathetic batch of “bummers.” They reminded me of street urchins, bony and skittish and tough. Deprived of colostrum from mother’s milk in the first hours of life, bum lambs can suffer severely compromised health and immunity. After weeks of bottle feeding, vet bills and administering shots trying to save one that went off the rails, a mountain lion discovered the low charge on the electric fence one night and slipped in to kill all five.

Now our five lambs spend the nights locked inside the barn on a bed of fresh straw. Ed imitates the lion he imagines sniffing the air menacingly just up the hill from the barn, picking up the scent of our lambs and waiting patiently.

Sometimes for no apparent reason a lamb will wake up one day listless and harebrained, walking aimlessly until it finds a corner it can jam its head into. One morning Ed came back from the barn to tell me, “The sick lamb was standing with one leg in the water, which is filthy, facing into the corner, wondering if she has a will to live.”

He’d gone online to research lamb health and learned an alliteration every farm vet and sheep rancher knows: “sick sheep seldom survive.” He also learned that some sheep lack the will to live.

“It really bothers me that lambs don’t have a will to live,” he confided. “Every living creature on earth has a will to live. Spiders have a strong will to live. My honeybees have the will to live.”

“Everything’s been bred out of sheep except the ability to put on weight,” he lamented.

It would be more accurate to say four and a half sheep live here, because one is a runt. According to Ed’s research, some are just born half-size and slow to grow. But she’s charming like the lamb in the nursery rhyme and beguiled Ed into bringing her home from the ranch. She likes to butt heads with our blue heeler Pepper, who for his part treats her more gently than the others.

Colorado lamb is prized by chefs from New York to Texas to California and even overseas. But eating lamb fell out of fashion sometime in the mid-20th century, and surveys by the American Lamb Board, headquartered in Denver, show that close to 40 percent of people haven’t ever tried it.

I don’t remember eating lamb until we raised our own. Its dazzling flavor, and the fact I can raise it in my backyard, has made me a fan. I marvel at how the animals transform a few acres of grass into the tenderest, richest meat I’ve ever tasted. I’m mystified when people tell me they don’t like lamb.

These days it’s making a comeback, if local menus are any indication.

After the trouble with roses, Ed wants to trade in lambs next year for a cow to graze the property. I’m skeptical. I like the lambs’ smaller size, docile nature and their novelty as a main course. I like to watch them gamboling from the barn to their orchard pasture, with Pepper nipping at their heels.

Marilyn Gleason writes Eating Local periodically for the PI’s Food pages.


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