Spring time in central Wisconsin is a time filled with a variety of emotions, sights and sounds. Most farmers are chomping at the bit to get into the fields while others are patiently waiting for their livestock to give birth. This spring was no different for us, well besides the excessive wet conditions and the loss of two ewes to a wolf.
Those of us that work with livestock know that it is not a matter of if an animal will pass, but when. Death on the farm is something that few ever talk about because of the emotional impact it has on the quiet, private, hardworking and dedicated people who care for the livestock every day.
It started March 20 when we had a cow die due to birthing complications. On the bright side, we were able to save the calf! Shortly after, we had a cow calve while we were all at work. She struggled giving birth and we unfortunately lost her too. We were left wondering, as most farmers are when death happens, what we could have done differently and how we could have saved them.
Fast forward about five weeks. While we had some control in the prior instances, this time it wasn’t anything that we could have prevented. That is the part we just can’t get out of our minds.
My father-in-law and nieces worked hard to prepare the summer pasture for the sheep just as they do every spring. This yearly routine has become a tradition for them and one that they truly look forward to. The sheep are kept close to the house until they all have given birth and the babies are ready to be weaned. Usually the ewes are ready for pasture by the end of April. This year was no different even with all the rain.
My husband and father-in-law loaded all the ewes into the trailer and hauled them down to pasture for the summer. For the ewes, this is the best time of year as they get to frolic through waist high grass and enjoy the wonderful sunshine. They were on pasture for less than a week when tragedy hit.
With a heavy heart, my father-in-law told us two ewes were killed by a wolf. The wolf came on to our land, jumped over the fence and took their lives without hesitation.
As a family, we went out to investigate further. The sight of the ewes laying there with their throats ripped out will stay with me forever along with the devastating look on the faces of my father-in-law and husband.
Thankfully, from my involvement with Farm Bureau I knew there was a protocol that needed to be followed but, that didn’t make the process any easier. I hope no one reading this will ever need it but just in case you do, here is the information on how to report a wolf kill: http://dnr.wi.gov/files/PDF/pubs/ER/ER0103.pdf.
When something tragic happens I typically shut off all emotion until the situation is dealt with. That evening was no different…that was until I heard my father-in-law explaining everything to the Department of Natural Resources over the phone. Hearing the shear emotion in his voice on the phone was one thing, then knowing he would have to tell his granddaughter (my niece), since one of the ewes was hers, was almost too much to bare. Just writing those words takes me back to that moment and I find myself struggling to keep the tears at bay…more than a week later.
Everyone has their own views and opinions on wolves in Wisconsin. I have heard stories before about farmers dealing with wolves and the emotion that is hidden behind them. Last year Taylor County Farm Bureau president Ryan Klussendorf testified at the Wolf Summit and shared his story about how wolves have impacted his family’s quality of life (sleeping with the window open year round, only allowing their kids to play by the buildings and overall loss of sleep).
A few weeks ago, Jack Johnson, another County Farm Bureau board member lost a calf to a wolf. These losses are not only financially devastating, but emotionally. We have felt that emotional impact on our family.
That night changed many procedures for us. The ewes are no longer on summer pasture but back up by the house. The cattle are still on winter grounds (close to our bedroom window so we can hear if anything strange is happening) and haven’t been moved to pasture yet. There have been numerous conversations discussing how we will move forward.
We consider ourselves lucky that it was only two ewes killed and not more. I’m thankful for the DNR warden who we worked with. He said he has been working for almost 30 years and has pretty much seen it all in that time. He appreciated my father-in-law’s level headedness and even temperament even though his heart was broken over the loss of the animals.
My husband and in-laws keep their thoughts and emotions to themselves. I am more inclined to share mine. I have never been one to keep my mouth shut and to their dismay I am sure I never will be. In today’s agriculture world, we can’t afford to keep our mouths shut because when we do, that allows other people to make decisions and tell our story for us.
The emotional toll that wolf kills have on a farm family is rarely talked about and I am trying to change that. Imagine your family having to live on edge because you never know when a wolf might strike. That’s now the reality for our family and many others in northern Wisconsin.
These ewes are so much more than livestock and a paycheck, they are our hope for the next generation of farmers in our family, they are the glue that has held a family together, created lasting memories, and lots of laughter along the way. When we buried those ewes, I said a prayer and fought the tears from falling and that’s a moment I will never forget.
If you have been through a similar situation you need to share it. Unless you speak up we can’t do anything to prevent this from happening again. Reach out to your County Farm Bureau, get involved in their policy development committee, attend your county Farm Bureau annual meeting, but mostly contact your lawmakers and tell them how wolves are impacting your farm and family. They need to hear us loud and clear.
Ashleigh Calaway serves as the District 8 Coordinator for Wisconsin Farm Bureau. Ashleigh and her husband, along with her husband’s family, raise beef cattle and sheep in northern Wisconsin. They are also the proud parents of their two-year-old daughter, Alena.