By Randy Eros
There is a bit of a time lag between when I sit down to write this column and you sit down to read it. With any luck, you will be watching pastures grow and listening to robins by the time you get this. But right now, I’m looking out of my frost-covered office window and hoping it will warm up to -30 degrees C before I have to go out to feed the sheep. They say Canadians don’t really have average weather, just the mid-point of two extremes. This was certainly the case here on the prairies this winter. A record warm January followed by a record cold February, let’s take -20 degrees C and call that average.
Hauling livestock in the winter months can be a real challenge as we try to ensure the comfort of our animals. This means finding a balance between protecting the sheep from extreme cold while still giving them adequate ventilation. Several years ago, I was able to find the Canadian average by giving a load of market lambs a bit of both extremes.
I have a homemade stock-rack for the back of my pickup that is perfect for hauling 10 lambs. Made from 1”x1” steel tubing, it weighs a fair bit but is pinned together so it is easy enough to get on and off the truck. For winter use, I screw plywood on the sides and top and it’s good to go. Or so I thought.
I was up early on the morning in question, well before daylight, to load my lambs for an hour-long trip to the abattoir. The lambs scooted up the ramp onto the truck just like they knew what they were doing. It was a bitterly cold morning, and the small vent on the top of the stock-rack seemed like a bit too much ventilation for the weather. A quick look around the farmyard yielded a nice-sized piece of plywood to cover the opening. It stuck out a foot and a half on either side of the box, and gave the whole outfit a bit of an aerodynamic look. I kind of liked this, and I put in a bunch of extra screws so as not to lose the new piece of plywood on the highway.
So there I was, scooting along the highway, the sun rising behind me, enjoying the drive. I was only about 10 minutes from the abattoir when two tractor-trailers went by in the opposite direction, one right behind the other. I didn’t think much of it at the time, just held firmly onto the steering wheel to hold my truck straight against their slipstream and carried on.
A few minutes later I caught sight of movement in my side-view mirror and looked over to find a lamb staring at me. My first thought was, “How did that lamb get its head out of the box?” A moment of confusion on my part, and then I looked over my shoulder to see all 10 lambs looking at me from the box of the pickup! No stock-rack; it was just gone, a victim of great aerodynamics and too many screws.
Somehow, I curbed the instinct to slam on my brakes. I put on my flashers and slowly reduced my speed. It was early enough that there was not much traffic. So there I was, crawling along the highway at 20 kph with a load of lambs standing in my open truck box. I had to decide what to do next. If I pulled over, what was I going to do?
On I went, holding my breath. Maintaining a speed slow enough that the wind chill wouldn’t be any worse than a normal prairie winter, but fast enough that the lambs wouldn’t take my slowing down as an invitation to leave the security of the truck box.
There is only one stoplight in the town that is home to our abattoir. I figured that a full stop was out of the question, so I was going to take it as a slow right turn, no matter what colour the light was, and hope the traffic would allow for this. As I approached the intersection, the light turned red and I adjusted my speed to allow one vehicle to pass just ahead of me. As I did what can best be described as a fast, rolling stop through the intersection, I realized the car I had let go ahead of me was the local RCMP. Still holding my breath, but now for another reason, I carried on.
Luckily there were no flashing lights, and the lambs got to enjoy an uneventful drive through town. As I pulled into the abattoir’s fenced compound, I finally took a breath. A truck with a stock trailer full of cattle pulled in behind me and the driver watched while I backed up to the unloading ramp. I opened the tailgate and the sheep jumped off and ran right into the holding area, no worse for wear. Just like they knew what they were doing.
The cattleman must have mistaken my relief for relaxation; he rolled down his window as we crossed paths and said, “Boy, sheep sure are a lot easier to haul than cattle.” I just nodded, smiled and waved.
As expected, I found my stock-rack sitting, upright and undamaged, in the ditch right where the two trucks had gone by. I figure the gust from the first one lifted the rack because of the extra plywood and the second one added just enough lift to get the whole thing airborne. A few lessons learned: first, always strap down your stock-rack, and second, leave the aerodynamics to the engineers and pilots.
It’s been long enough now since this happened that I am comfortable talking about it, but I still think of that cattleman who watched me unload. I wonder if he ever gave up on cattle and became a shepherd. You know, because they’re so easy to haul and unload!
Randy Eros and his wife, Solange Dusablon, and their son, Michel, own and operate Seine River Shepherds near Ste. Anne, Manitoba.