Donna Lenz Wright/The Week
(Published March. 16, 2007, 2:38 p.m.)
The couple of warm days last week wet our whistles, but as fast as they came, they went.
Now we're holed back up in our houses with our furnaces on.
But rest assured, winter's hold is easing. Nowhere is that more evident than on area farmsteads where the spring birthing season is well under way.
On the Kliest goat farm, nine kids have arrived and nine more are expected any time-or that was the status at press time, but things may have already changed.
At the Jacques farm there are 20 babies on the ground with three more to come.
On the Smith sheep farm, 50 lambs have arrived with just a few more to go.
And on the Wuttke poultry farm, 50 chicks and poults have arrived and another 60 take turns pecking their way out of their eggs on a continuous rotating basis.
Many of the new critters on these farms have very special roles-they are being eagerly awaited for by hundreds of 4-H'ers across the county to raise up for the Walworth County Fair in September.
"The new livestock entering into this world are aimed at production meat, pets or whatever," said Tom Kleist, who is also the superintendent of the Wisconsin State Fair junior division and has been breeding animals for the Walworth County Fair and Wisconsin State Fair for 32 years. "This is the time of the year that everything looks forward to a new life."
"Every year is a new renewal," said Alyce Smith, who operates Cedar Bend Shropshires with her husband Gordon in Elkhorn. "It's so exciting ... it's a sense of pride to see them come."
Smith has been breeding sheep for the fair, "forever," she said. "Since I was a young 4-H'er myself, and now I'm a grandma."
"It's also a pretty awesome feeling knowing they're depending on you to take good care of them. Our mommies and babies are the most important-getting them off to a good start."
Unlike some farms, the Jacqueses bring every kid into the house for the first 24 hours and bottle-feed every kid from the first day, three to four times a day.
"That way we know exactly what they're getting and when they're getting it," said Cathy Jacques, whose family has been supplying 4-H'ers with goats for the past 17 years. "Plus we are food source. Being that we are showing them, we're their friends-uprights have food-it makes them much easier to handle.
"(Spring birthing) is exciting," Jacques said. "You can't help but smile when you look at those four-legged kids. They're so cute and so happy-a goat is a happy animal."
Back at home 4-H'ers are sanitizing feeders and waterers, preparing pens, stockpiling food, treats and bedding, predator-proofing and attending 4-H meetings, all in preparation for the arrival of their animals-their buddies and projects for the season.
Because they are 4-H livestock, their births have been carefully planned so their ages and sizes match fair requirements.
"The plans at our farm were made way back in August," Kleist said. "Part of our goals, especially in dairy goats, is to separate our kids into sheep classes in the show ring.
"Kids born in January and February become senior kids class, March are intermediate kids and April and May are junior kids."
Because 4-H'ers can generally only enter one to two animals in each class per breed, county fair breeders plan carefully so they can enter as many as they would like.
"You have to plan ahead," said Virgil Wuttke, another long-time fair breeder. "We've had the lights on, making sure they'll be the right size for the fair."
With poultry, hens can be coerced into laying earlier than they would naturally by manipulating the light so the days feel longer earlier than they naturally are, he said.
Even breeders who have years of experience still have to watch closely and remember that individuals still make their own rules-especially at this time of year where every move you make is so important.
Little mistakes can quickly become big problems leading to loss of money, time and, sometimes, the loss of life.
Other times mistakes of nature leave breeders in charge of figuring out how to handle a situation and doing it in a hurry.
"There are a lot of tricks to the trade I've learned down the line," said Kleist. "As soon as they're born, the first thing is clean off is their head-we have to get them breathing. If they're not breathing, we slap them around.
"Someone might think were killing them sometimes, but we're actually doing the opposite; it's the same as artificial respiration."
"You can't just go to bed at 9 o'clock," Smith says. "You have to set that alarm clock for 2 o'clock and go out in the cold to make sure everyone is all right and no births have started."
And there are inevitably times where kids and lambs don't come out front legs/head first like they should.
Just this season one of Kleist's does had a very hard triplet birth.
"(The first one) came out with just its head. Of course I couldn't push the top of its head; instead I reached in and pushed him back, but it still wasn't right. Finally we pushed him back in and got one leg and pulled him out, but he only lived a coupled days.
"The second one was big but I was patient and let the doe get herself in shape. When it came I had what I thought was the front legs, but it wasn't-it was breech. When the umbilical cord breaks and the head's still stuck inside, you've got to pull for all your worth and get that head out; that one is alive.
"The third one was already dead, but I got it out. Then mom-who was 9 years old-she died too."
Birthing problems on the farm are inevitable if you do it long enough-that's just the way it goes.
The Jacques family had this lesson hit home especially poignantly this year. Cathy's mother and father-in-law both passed away within a week of each other, while at home the farm was thriving with new life.
"You get life; the circle continues," she said. "It's something we've always said. My children have learned every year about life and death. It just happens. You have brand new life, and unfortunately you have death. The circle continues."
On the Wuttke poultry farm, birthing obstacles are very different.
"You learn by experience," Wuttke said. "Sometimes they get stuck to the egg or they just get too tired out."
Wuttke has tricks he's learned to help stuck babes out of their eggs, like moisturizing dried membranes with olive oil or removing tiny bits of shell, making the hole larger a little at a time.
"Just a little at a time," he said. "Patience-you have to have patience."
Newly hatched fowl needs to dry in the incubator. As they run around chirping and drying, their activity is an excellent accelerator for those still inside to get out of their eggs, he said.
"Sometimes I'll leave them in a little longer after they're dry to encourage the others out."
Poultry are especially susceptible to foot and leg problems, but Wuttke is a pro at creating braces and can fix a curled foot or splayed legs with the skills of an orthopedic specialist.
Once here, there's much more to do to keep these new lives living and ready for the 4-H'ers to come and take them home. There's bottle-feeding four times a day or more for those who, for any number of reasons, can't nurse; temperature checking; constant water and food needs; safety checks over and over all day and night; and the list goes on.
But if you ask anyone involved in spring birthing season, it really is all worth it. Springtime is a wonderful time on the farm, full of new life and new promises.
There's little as satisfying as watching, and being a participant, in creating new lives-lives that will go on to teach 4-H youth responsibility, commitment and pride.