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Milk Fever

I was 23-years old in 1962, the year I decided to expand our farm flock of several hundred white-faced ewes fivefold.  Fantasy, inexperience and a thick German bloodline blurred the consequence of not being Basque, Catholic, or Republican and expecting to thrive in the sheep industry on the high mountain desert of southeast Idaho.  But for as many years after as I was old then, I would challenge the whole slew of them – the Etcheverrys, the Oxarangos, the Garros, Resue Goldarez, and the Riches. 

Within two years I had expanded faster than the good sense of a business plan would have called for if I’d had one.  But if I’d had one, I’d never bought the sheep in the first place.  I only knew this land had what the sheep wanted: native desert grasses and browse that grew abundant in high elevations with lower rainfall leaving forests an ideal canopy for sheep grazing. My problem was I now needed more spring and fall range on the Minidoka desert, west of the home place in Aberdeen.

The Minidoka, a harsh, expansive desert landscape surrounded by volcanic eruption lies in the swale of the Snake River Plains.  To the north lie the snowcapped peaks of the Pioneer Mountains; to the east, Big Butte -- a high volcanic dome-- and farther east, the Caribou-Targhee National Forest where we moved the sheep in midsummer.

I’d heard the old bachelor sheepman Victor Boller had gotten married a few years back and his young wife Doris had convinced him to sell his sheep, buy cows, and stay closer to home to help raise their three young children.  I knew I risked being spotted in Rupert driving past competing sheep operations to get to his place and ask if I could buy his Minidoka range.  

I left early one morning, parked behind the house, knocked on the screen door and Doris invited me in.  She brewed some coffee.  Victor eyed me for several minutes after I made the offer, and then said he’d think about it.  I left their house feeling like he didn’t trust me- acted like I’d come to steal his wife or somthin’.

Two weeks later we’d trailed the sheep to Diamond Creek on the forest above Soda Springs.  By late Sunday afternoon I’d set up the tin-roofed camp wagon for Escol.  I told him I’d go to town for supplies and set out to make the fifty-mile ride on dirt and gravel roads to town.  While riding through the narrows along the Blackfoot River I decided to divert and drive the back way along Trail Canyon Road into Soda to see if Bollers were at the summer ranch house, and they were.

When I arrived Victor and Doris were out in the corral.  Their three young children were there with them. Roger was holding onto a two or three-day old calf while Rick and Christy were holding the other one.  They were struggling to keep them away from their mother.  Victor was on one knee pulling back the eyelid of the old jersey milk cow lying flat on her side.  “You know anything about milk cows?”  Victor asked me.

I’d milked seven cows with my mother morning and night through high school and blessed the day Dad sold them to help pay my college tuition, so had deliberately tried to forget anything I ever knew about milk cows. 

I stroked at my chin a minute trying to recall all the things Doc Bailey had tried to teach me in Veterinary Science at the University of Idaho.  The only thing I could think of off the top of my head was how to proficiently inject vodka into oranges using a syringe needle from the lab for later consumption at the football game at Washington State.

“Milk fever,” I blurted out. 


“I think its milk fever.  She needs sugar saline.”  I didn’t have a clue, but it was my best guess.

“Where can we get some?” Doris asked

“Uh, maybe from the vet – down at Grace.  Don’t know where else you could get some on Sunday.”  I pushed my hands deep into the pockets of my jeans and dug the toe of my boot into the dirt, not daring to look up.

“I’ll go,” said Doris.  She started running toward their pickup and turned her head back toward us.  “You kids stay here and take care of Bonnie’s calves.  I’ll be back in an hour or so.” 

She gunned the engine of the pickup truck leaving a trail of dust roiling behind her.  As she drove out of sight Victor said, “shoulda had her pick up some milk powder for the calves ‘case Bonnie doesn’t make it.”  And I was thinkin’ I never put that much effort into saving a milk cow.   

The children were all crying by then, still trying to hang onto the calves.  I helped Victor herd the calves into the shed.  He latched the bottom half of the door and told the kids to go inside the house and to quit their blubbering – that we’d get the cow fixed up good as new. 

“What’s Milk Fever?” he asked after they were out of ear shot.

I didn’t really have a clue, but now, looking back, could have written the book on it that day. “Cows can get it after they’ve had a calf, especially two calves like she had.  It’s something they get when their body gets depleted from nursing.”  I kept looking at the ground.  “I don’t think sheep get it.  Only cows – mostly milk cows,” I said.

It was an awkward hour or so.  Victor asked me about how the sheep were doing, how many I had, and then asked me if I had any kids.  I told him I’d gotten married a few years back but didn’t have kids yet.  Looking toward the house he told me I might want to think that through real careful before I took on that kind of responsibility.  “It aint as easy as it looks,” he said.

When Doris returned an hour later the cow was barely breathing.   I found the vein in the neck that hadn’t collapsed, inserted the needle, and began draining the first bottle of saline into the old milk cow.  I watched as the fluid drained out of the bottle, and then watched for signs of life.  Bonnie lay still as death.  I could hear the hungry calves bellowing in the shed.  I looked at Victor, then at Doris and without saying a word I held out my hand for another bottle.  Sever minutes went by as the fluid slowly drained into her neck and the second bottle was gone.  When I looked up Doris and Victor again, they were looking at me with drawn faces. 

I checked for any signs my remedy might be working and saw none.   I handed Doris the second empty bottle and exchanged it for a third one.  The kids were back outside standing beside their mother, watching and whimpering.  Victor took hold of the saline bottle I’d been holding, allowing it to drain while I got the last one ready.  By this time I began to regret my decision to come through Trail Canyon.  The cow still wasn’t moving and I knew if she died I’d lose any chance of getting that desert rangeland.

It was sometime during the draining of the fourth bottle of saline I saw the cow’s leg move.  I saw her start taking deep breaths.  She was slow to respond but I tell you, it was one miraculous moment when that cow came back alive and jumped to her feet.  Victor grinned, and then laughed out loud.  The children and Doris cheered.  I could have hugged Doc Bailey if he’d been there that day.  He’d made enough of an impression on me to have that one little lesson stick somewhere between the hangovers and missing finals to go fishing. 

Victor shook my hand and sold me the Minidoka range; and his oldest son grew up and went into veterinary medicine and probably still thinks I’m the smartest sheep man he knows. 

Being a Sheepherder

Let me be clear.  I was not the man my father was.  Nor would I ever be.  It wasn’t the hard work I minded.  It was the way we rarely saw eye to eye about anything.  Allegorically, he’d build the outhouse while I dug the hole.  That’s how I saw it then, and to some degree, still do today though in a different light.  Truth was we weren’t much different than most family farms going transition. I resented his harsh criticism of everything I did and Dad’s frustration toward me continued to mount.  I was 23, had big ideas, and knew a lot more then than I do now.  Mom tempered the arguments between us best she could and I kept talking about leaving the farm.

 It was late summer of 1962 when Dad’s step-brother mentioned his neighbor at Rockford needing to unload his sheep operation.  Clarence said the old man was ill, his note was overdue at the bank and he was ready to walk away from it all.  I think Clarence saw it as a solution to our internal contention, though he never said so.  Twenty-one years later I would be able to understand the cycle.  Sheepmen don’t sell out their operations, they hand over the reins to their horse and the balance on their note at the bank to anyone who doesn’t know better.

Dad and I told Clarence we’d think about it.  Back then, it seemed to make perfect sense.  I’d started acquiring sheep in high school as an FFA project and seven years later was approaching 300 head that had morphed into a mix of Hampshire, Suffolk and Columbia breeds.  I had started out with 40 head of good purebred Suffolk ewes we carefully selected from the Ladlaw Flat Top Sheep Company near Sun Valley when I was about 16 years old.  Sometime later Dad and I drove to the Filer Ram Sale, an annual August event sponsored by Idaho Wool Growers Association where the big sheep outfits replenished their breeding stock for fall.  The sheepmen would arrive in the evening before the big sale, walk slow past pens full of Suffolk and Hampshire rams washed and groomed.  They’d take notes in the sale book that listed pen numbers and breeder’s names handed out at the sale barn door.  They’d gather Friday night at the local saloon to trade stories and then assemble the next morning on the bleachers around the small sale arena.  They’d come dressed in clean crisp blue jeans, short-sleeve cotton western-cut shirts wearing narrow-brimmed silver Stetson hats with a high crown. 

Rarely did the old timers bid on the first pen.  It was the pace setter reserved for buyers who weren’t the wiser, generally a pen of yearlings or ewe lambs acquired by other pure bred breeders as replacement stock.  After a warm-up the veteran buyers started bidding on pens they’d marked in their book the night before, writing down the winning bid price with a star or a check mark if they were the successful bidder.  At the end of the sale they’d check their total against the sales slip, then write the Idaho Wool Grower’s secretary a check.  I watched in awe as these guys loaded up 30 to 40 breeding rams in large trucks and livestock trailers to deliver to their ewes. 

My first year at the sale I ended up buying a first rate Suffolk ram from the Balanced Rock Suffolks outfit southwest of Twin Falls.  The owner, Toots Hoelzle, was a small determined woman with short dark hair, the slender body of a boy, a firm handshake and a sharp eye.  She handed over the registration papers during the process of Dad and me loading my ram in the back of our pickup truck.  “Little John,” she said.  “His name is Little John - from University of Idaho breeding stock.  He’ll be a good ram for you,” she said.  And he was.

A few weeks after Clarence had broached the idea, Dad called him and told him we’d take a look at that operation north of Soda and asked if he’d make the arrangements.  In early September we drove the hundred and fifty miles or so from the ranch and met Earnest Merrill at the narrows of the Blackfoot River.  He and Escol had herded the sheep from the forest allotments on Diamond Creek to the Allen Ranch to graze off their stubble fields.  We met him at the mouth of the Narrows where they’d bedded the night before.  Dad rode with Earnest Merrill in the pickup truck and I rode on the pinto alongside his herder, Escol, on his long-legged sorrow.  

By the end of the day we’d pushed the band of ewes a good seven miles, about a mile or so shy of the intersection of State Highway 34 at Suckertrap, south of Henry. I blocked the road while the dogs moved the sheep off the road and with Escol’s short, shrill continuous whistles the ewes began settling into Doyle Stile’s barley field, gleaning the grain spilled from the combine.  We had counted the sheep as they moved out of the field at the Allen Ranch that morning and I noticed Dad counting heads as they moved from the pavement onto the barley field.   We agreed on seventeen hundred, give or take. 

As we pushed the ewes off the road into the field the sun was dropping over the Blackfoot reservoir; the thin air was crisp with the cold of early fall.  We were at 6,200 foot elevation that holds no warmth when daylight wanes.  We had just finished counting when dark fell on us.  Dad shook Earnest Merrill’s hand and we headed back to the ranch at Sterling, north of Aberdeen, arriving sometime after 10 that night.

Mom had just started teaching her twenty-something year of fourth grade at Aberdeen Elementary, doubling as principal while fixing meals for me and dad.  When we walked through the back door, dinner was waiting on the table.  She was quick to usher us into the kitchen, anxious to hear the news of the day.  

Dad tried to make it sound like he’d spent the entire day hammering out a good deal.  He explained to Mom that we’d agreed to pay $40 a head for the seventeen hundred head of ewes, twenty thousand for the forest allotments, another twenty thousand for Eastern Idaho Grazing Association stock and Reservation grazing rights and the rest for the camp, horses, saddles and rigging. 

Dad knew, and I knew, it didn’t matter how it added up, it was going to be the hundred and twenty thousand Merrill’s owed Idaho Bank and Trust no matter which way we sliced and diced it.  I remember just as we were leaving the sheep that night, Earnest Merrill laughing and saying he’d throw Escol Vigil into the deal at no extra charge.  Naturally Escol could choose what he wanted to do but said he’d stay.  He would prove, before the next day was out, to be the most valuable asset we had acquired.

I went to bed that night tired and happy.  On our drive back to the ranch earlier, Dad and I had talked through our plans for the next several days without arguing.  I was mulling it over in my head as I tried to sleep that night.  I guess you could say I was literally counting sheep while trying to fall asleep.  I’d load the twenty five or thirty bucks I had corralled first thing in the morning and get them back to Henry to turn in with the ewes for fall breeding.  Dad would work with Teno, our hired man, to get machinery ready for potato digging. 

Next morning I woke before dawn, threw a few supplies and a clean pair of clothes in a cardboard box and fueled the truck.  I backed it up to the loading chute, then whistled and hollered at the bucks as they moved up the ramp.  I drove the two-ton truck we called “Hebe’s Special” out across the Indian Reservation, peering through the darkness at what I thought was the range we would be grazing on in about a month or so.   The stock truck was a combination of an International engine, a Ford chasse with a Chevy transmission cobbled together by Hebe who owned a salvage yard north of us.  It was one of the best trucks we ever had.  

I drove east toward the mountains that morning into a completely new life, never giving a thought to what I was about to unleash for the next twenty-some years of my life, let alone the next twenty-four hours.  This was my first day as a sheepman, and would nearly be my last.

Mid-morning I pulled up to the camp.  Escol was waiting for me.  The sheep had their nuzzles buried deep into the barley stubble. 

I said, “Good morning, Escol.  Good feed, uh?”

“Si Señor,” he answered. “ Muy contento oveja with mucho  cebada on the ground.”

Across the horizon to the east from where the camp wagon was parked were outcroppings of lava rock throughout the grain field surrounded by thin layers of topsoil where alfalfa would grow and barley wouldn’t.  Doyle Stiles, a second generation farmer from Soda Springs owned most of the dry crop farmland around Henry.  He’d lease fields with sprouts ripe for nibbling in the spring and spilled barley for gleaning in the fall at a cost of a couple of cents a head per day.   He’d leave the stubble through the winter, letting the straw break down and compost.  His hired man would plow it under in the spring and let it lay fallow for a year to let the moisture build up before planting it again.  About two years in five it would get a late June frost.  If they planted late or it was an early frost it would cause the grain to stool, but they’d lose a crop about one year in five when the frost came late after the heads had filled.    

I backed the truck to the rocks near the small pond at the northwest corner of the barley field. I lifted the back gate and turned them loose.  They were immediately more interested in their new female friends than the feed.  I watched them mingle for a while, watched as they drank from the pond then drove the truck back to the camp content and ready to start sorting out all that had transpired so quickly.  I parked the truck next to the camp wagon.  Escol had a small fire burning with a coffee pot perking.  He poured a cup of coffee into a tin cup and handed it to me. 

We talked about how many days we’d graze this field before moving southwest onto Eastern Idaho grazing allotment.  Escol was shorter than me, stocky with square shoulders and narrow hips.  He could have been anywhere between thirty and fifty years-old.  With Mexicans it was hard to tell because they never seemed to age.  He dressed in Mexican Cowboy fashion including a pair of silver spurs, long-sleeve western cut shirt and a nicely tooled leather belt.  I asked Escol how much he’d take for the spurs.  He only smiled and shook his head.  I would ask him that question a hundred more times before he went back to Taos, New Mexico for good eleven years later.  One day I received a package containing those spurs from his widow who wrote in her letter to me, “Escol wanted you to have these.”

I stared across the valley at the sedate reservoir, at low-flying hawks, and I asked Escol if there were any good fish there, pointing to the west.  He said there were too many carp.  I don’t remember how long it was before I looked east again but when I did I could see the sheep were acting strange.  They were beginning to stumble.  Closer to the pond I could see their knees buckling.  First one fell.  Then another.  Then several more.  As I ran closer I could see their bellies bulging. 

I yelled at Escol to help me.  I produced a dull pocket knife that proved difficult to puncture through the hide and stomach wall to release the pressure.  I made my best guess then made a stab, pushing the blade hard against their ballooned bellies.  I looked around me.  They were all bloating.

I saw several ewes standing uphill on the rocks to take the pressure of their hearts.  I had no idea what had caused the epidemic and while I have theories about frozen alfalfa or perhaps some kind of algae in the water that reacted with alfalfa and barley, to this day it remains a mystery. 

A bachelor’s degree in Animal Husbandry from University of Idaho added to a lifetime of working livestock with my dad made me no more the wiser.  I could only keep puncturing and watching the swollen barley spew from the wound I’d made.  And despite the triage we were administering, the sheep were dying everywhere.

I don’t remember if I cried that day, but thinking backing on it now, it makes me want to cry.  It’s hard to think about it; to recall enough of that day to tell the story in the horrific detail I saw.  The scene of hundreds of sheep in abysmal pain and dozens more lying dead in that field will haunt me for the rest of my life.  It had an equal effect on Escol.  Whatever his shortcomings as a human or a herder, he regarded the sheep like they were his own and he took it personally.  When the dying finally ended that morning, near a hundred head of ewes lay scattered across the land like a battle field. 

“What now?” I asked.  

“We skin them, Señor.” 

 I looked at him with a puzzled look.  Was he out of his mind?  Skin a hundred head of sheep?

“Ze sheep pelts are worth some money, Señor,” he said.  “Maybe not much, but something.  Is better not to waste them.”

So we went to work.  I skinned sheep with a dull pocket knife all afternoon, throwing pelts into the back of the truck.  By dark we weren’t even half finished, my hands were swollen, I was cold, tired, and ready to quit. 

Not just quit for the day, but quit for good.  I went through the conversation I would have with my father in my head as I drove into Soda Springs after dark.  I stopped at the gas station on the main east-west highway in Soda.  It was closed.  The streets were empty.  I looked around for a pay phone and found one on the corner by the park across the street. 

Collect call from Tom.  Will you accept charges?


Mom, is Dad in?

Hi, Tommy.  How’s it going over there?

Not good.  I need to talk to Dad.

Well, he’s out in the shop.  I’ll have to go get him. 

I’ll wait.  I waited.


Dad.  I’m done here.  It wasn’t what I’d practiced to say, but it’s what came out. 

Sheep were dyin’ everywhere this mornin’.  They all bloated on barley.  It’s a mess.

There was a long silence.

Well, how many’d you lose?

Hundred head give or take.

How many you got left?

Well, around sixteen hundred.

Okay.  There was another long silence.

Well, you lost about 15 head out of the 300 head you have over here today, which is about the same percent as what you lost over there, so get back out there tomorrow morning and go to work.

And he hung up the phone.

I set down the phone in the cradle, went back to my truck and drove three blocks to rent a room for the night.  I still wasn’t sure which direction I’d go the next morning.  The Ender’s Hotel is located at the north end of Main Street next to the Union Pacific railroad line.  The rooms were cheap and I was tired enough it didn’t matter much where I slept.  I carried the cardboard box up the narrow stairway with my change of clothes inside.  The Ender’s was suited for that kind of luggage.  Likely a few patrons who stayed at the Ender’s didn’t have a change of clothes at all. 

Some hours after I fell asleep the whistle on the night train blew and the metal bed frame with box springs holding the sagging mattress began to shake.  It sounded like the train was going through my room.  I looked at my watch.  It was two-thirty in the morning. 

At six I grabbed some breakfast from the café below and with fresh determination I drove the fifteen miles north to Escol’s camp.  He was up.  The sky was overcast holding in the damp.  I drank his coffee and told him we needed to finish skinning, that I’d find a tractor and clean up the dead carcasses. 

By eight o’ clock that morning, my dad drove into the field of death.  Through the years I have wondered if he came because he thought I’d leave, or Mom told him he had to, or he just thought I needed his support.

I was relieved he was there.  Without saying a word to each other I immediately felt an immense load lift from my heavy heart.  He chewed on his cigar while he assessed the scene.  He rounded up a tractor from Doyle Stiles and started moving carcasses out of the field while I continued to skin sheep with that lousy dull pocket knife.  I had hoped he would offer to help me, but he never did.

At noon, Escol fixed us something to eat.  When we sat down Dad started re-telling a story I’d heard before, but needed to hear again.  He was looking at Escol as he talked, yet I knew he was talking to me. 

I listened about how his father was a hard-headed, mean-spirited German.   Dad rarely had much good to say about him.  Fredrick Stroschein had moved his family from Wisconsin to Wyoming, where Dad was born, then to Idaho when Dad was a baby.  When Dad was about five years old, he and his brother, who was eight or nine at the time, were left out on the Arco desert near Big Butte for weeks at a time to tend their flock of sheep.  My grandfather would take them food and supplies every few weeks and check on them.  They would sleep in a tent, cook on the fire, and move the sheep every few days to find new forage. 

He told how in late summer they were told to herd the sheep back to the home ranch – where we stilled lived.  Dad told us how they moved the sheep for several days without finding water.  As they approached the irrigation canals near Sterling, the thirsty sheep rushed in a panic for water, pushing each other into the deep canal.  Dad told us how the lambs lost their footing as the larger ewes pressed to get a drink.  He told us how heartsick he was to see so many of the lambs he’d spent the summer caring for drowning in the canal. 

I watched as Escol nodded his head.  And I realized I wasn’t in that place yet.  Through all this I had felt my pain for me.  I wouldn’t become a sheepman until I felt their pain and suffering the way Escol did, and the way my father did at his young age.

I knew I had a long journey ahead to get to that place.  I finished my dinner and went back to work skinning carcasses.  It wasn’t the lousy five bucks I’d get for the pelts that was so important to Escol, it was the respect he thought the sheep deserved.  It took a lot of years for me to fully understand that. 


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