We went razor clamming again last weekend, and the weather was amazing! Not a cloud in the sky, no wind, warm and sunny. The dogs were happy to get some long beach runs after a lot of winter cabin fever. When we go out of town, sometimes my parents farm sit for us. But sometimes they are also going clamming, or taking an RV trip somewhere else. I wasn’t sure if they were going to join us, so I had booked a farm sitter to feed the animals while we were gone. They ended up not going clamming, but I don’t like to cancel farm sitters after they’ve blocked out their schedule for me, so I kept the engagement.

I have always been lucky with house and farm sitters; I know quite a few twenty-something young women with animal experience through dog show and farming channels. Most of them are in college, have flexible schedules, are happy to make some extra cash, and enjoy the stint of taking care of our farm. I try to pay them well, about triple what they likely make at their minimum-wage college jobs, including travel time to get here. I figure I am paying for reliability, and their animal experience; and I want them to like doing it so they are happy to come back for future jobs. It’s a small price to pay for the insurance of somebody good looking over the animals every day.

This time was no exception, I booked a young woman I’ve used before; someone I’ve known since she was in gradeschool, and who is actually a friend of the family. She has horses and dogs, plenty of livestock experience and a love of animals, and she lives nearby. I checked in with her midweek, and then again Friday night before we left; via Facebook, which is the easiest way to communicate with Millennials. She confirmed both messages, and that she was set to come Saturday afternoon, twice on Sunday, and once Monday. So, we were good to go.

Over the weekend, I thought about checking in with her. But, I don’t usually do that. I try to resist the urge to over-worry. I don’t want to be “one of those people” who just can’t get away from the farm, physically or mentally. The point of going on vacation is to be on vacation. Sometimes when we are camping we’re out of cell phone range anyway, so often I can’t check on the farm sitter easily, and have to just trust they’ve got things handled. I decided no news is good news, which has always been the case in all our past trips. All the farm sitters I’ve ever hired have done a great job, often dealing with some of the many weird curve-balls farm animals can throw; using good judgment and a good head for animal husbandry. My mind drifted to the what-if-she-doesn’t-come scenario, but I stopped myself before I could play it out. Ridiculous, she just confirmed the night before, so everything is fine. I am not going to touch my smart phone during vacation unless there is a voice mail.

You can see where this is going.

We headed back Monday, arriving home about 3pm. Some part of my gut was still a little concerned, so the first thing I did when we got home was go into the barn. I immediately saw the farm sitter’s cash on the freezer, right where I’d left it. It was the first place my eyes went, and I swear in that moment, I just expected to see it there. Before I saw anything and everything else. And in that split second, I realized what my intuition had been warning me about over the weekend: she didn’t show up. All weekend. Holy shit.

Numb, I just turned on the faucet and started filling water buckets and hay troughs. I had nineteen pregnant ewelambs in the barn; ironically they were in there so they could get extra feed in late pregnancy. The mature sheep in the field were fine, I had put enough hay and water out to last them. But the ewelambs in the barn only had enough hay in their troughs to last half a day. So, they would have run out of hay by Saturday evening, and missed four feedings before we arrived Monday afternoon. I mentally calculated how long their water buckets likely lasted- probably through Sunday, if they didn’t spill them earlier. Some lambs had managed to jump out of the pen and break into hay bales I had set out to be fed to them. And of course, they’d made a holy hell wreck of the entire barn- hay, poop and pee everywhere, all sorts of things spilled and scattered, all the water buckets upturned. One ewe was limping, likely from hurting her foot jumping the fence.

I re-penned them all, fed them hay and grain, and refilled all their water buckets. Some of them drank right away, but a lot of them didn’t. In the rest of the afternoon and evening, they drank about 15 gallons of water, so that tells me they were thirsty, but maybe not overly so. They go through about that much each day normally. They were happy to get a fresh bale of alfalfa cut open for them, but didn’t seem too worse for wear. Later that night, they were all chewing their cuds and reposing, seemingly back to normal.

So, hopefully it was a near-miss. They are five weeks away from the beginning of lambing, so just now heading into the high-demand time of pregnancy nutrition. I suspect if anything, they burned body fat to maintain their lamb fetuses. So the lambs are probably ok, but the ewes’ bodies will have taken a hit. Tonight, four nights later, I had one ewe looking off and not interested in grain; so it’s possible this has triggered ketosis in her. Or, acidosis if she over-ate following the fast or during the break-out. She is a pretty fat girl who looks like she’s carrying twins. So, I’m treating her aggressively. I will be so heartsick if this causes any losses.

Our chickens were ok, they had a full feed hopper and water trough to supply them. Our guardian dogs missed two meals. I keep them fairly chunky in winter to make sure they are well-insulated against the cold. I fed them both pre-prepared dinners right away, and more the next day; to make up their calorie loss. So, this fast was probably far from life-threatening for them. But still. I just hate the idea of the animals going hungry; it’s just such a big welfare breach in my mind. Bronte is still recovering from her spay, so also not an ideal time to stress her nutritionally.

Once the crisis was mitigated, and we unpacked from camping and ordered a pizza, I contacted the farm sitter to find out what happened. What happened was she forgot. She forgot between Friday evening when she confirmed she was on, and Saturday evening when she was supposed to swing by the barn for the twenty minutes it would have taken her to feed the ewes and the dogs. She feebly explained she was just “so busy.” I reamed her ass. But she already knows what a tremendous failing this was, and how awful she’d feel about her own animals not being fed for two days. She already knows. I didn’t have to tell her, but I did anyway. Just because, when you’re twenty-something and you screw up catastrophically, I think you need to hear it played back to you. I imagine she does feel awful, that she is feeling the full weight of this blunder, and will for some time to come. She apologized profusely, took ownership of the error, acknowledged its seriousness, and offered to do whatever she could to make up for it. Only, there is really nothing that can be done afterwards in these situations. If I lose any sheep, I may request that she come work off their value in farm chores. Hopefully she’ll reflect on how she can build better reminder systems for herself in the future, when she has something important to remember to do.

What’s done is done. I’ll do everything I can to monitor those ewes and nurse them through whatever health issues this may have triggered; and hopefully things will be ok. It could have been worse, I could have come home to dead or dying sheep. The lesson for me is, I’m just going to have to check in with farm sitters daily in the future. Even if that means driving into town where there’s cell phone reception when we are camping in remote places. A check-in process would have prevented this. And, then I reflect that even the most responsible farm sitter could get in a car accident, and not be able to notify me of unavailability. Things do happen. A daily phone check would catch this; and then I could call in a favor from a friend, a neighbor, or another farm sitter, to fill in. It’s such a delicate balance, mitigating the most common risks, and allowing yourself to not stress about the corner-case ones; not driving yourself crazy with worry, or being afraid to ever leave the farm or trust anyone to care for your animals. But, I’ll never be able to not worry some when I go out of town after this! Ah, the ups and downs of farming, nobody ever said it was easy!