FARM LIFE

A day with a growing brood at Ossineke home

A curious trio of rabbits spend Easter weekend on a peaceful family farm near Ossineke.

OSSINEKE — Nicholas Ratz, 12, and his brother, Josh, 10, live in the rolling countryside surrounding lovely Ossineke.

A recent decision to join 4-H led them to a new endeavor: raising sheep.

Clara Newhouse, 14, the daughter of a friend and neighbor, spends a lot of time at the Ratz house — or, more accurately, outside the house — caring for and playing with the animals that are scattered like hen feed about the yard.

The mom of the mix, Susan Ratz, quietly praised the younger humans for the roles they play taking care of all the animals in the yard, especially the three rambunctious lambs that have clearly staked their claim as the life of an already joyous party.

The sheep are kept in a small barn when the family is gone. They seem comfortable in their small pen in the yard, but cheerfully hop over the wires and trot to their human friends when the mood strikes them.

A three-day-old chick speaks its mind in the careful arms of Josh Ratz.

Stanley, the biggest of the three, with a knack for butting visiting strangers in the head with his wooly face, is the ringleader, Susan said, while Oliver is the most social, definitely a little lover who dotes on attention and occasionally throws a tantrum like a 4-year-old, refusing to get up and walk if he’s not getting his way. Wilbur, though every bit as friendly as his adopted brothers, is also the most likely to be off doing his own thing, looking for snips of green grass or hanging out with a soccer ball.

“Sometimes, Oliver headbutts me softly when I give him a hug,” Nicholas said, scratching his friend’s head.

Oliver was adopted about a month ago, when he was only three days old. For the first few days, Susan took him to work with her, dressed in sweaters and diapers. The other two sheep are a little older, but still “kids,” at 2 and 3 months old. By the time they’re fully grown in a few years, the sheep will weigh a couple hundred pounds, Susan said.

The Ratz brothers were inspired to get a lamb because Nicholas wanted to do 4-H, and also because “I wanted a sheep companion. I saw a video about sheeps, and I like them,” Josh said.

“I like them because they’re cute and they always sound like they’re complaining,” Nicholas added. “They’re the sassiest farm animal.”

Sarah Ratz, keeping an eye open for foul play, stands amid the family’s yard life as her son, Nicholas, offers saltine crackers to his feathered friends.

Clara has been interested in sheep for a while, and has friends who have raised them. Though she’s been involved with 4-H before, this is her first year doing market.

Clara, Josh, and Nicholas will care for the lambs over the summer, preparing them to be shown at the county fair in August. At the fair, the lambs will be taken through showmanship patterns for the judges and put up for sale.

Josh shrugged when asked if it would be hard to let the lambs go, but Susan confided that all three of the adolescents have been begging their parents to buy their lambs back when the time comes.

Mom does the morning chores, Susan said, and Clara and the boys take care of the animals in the afternoons, feeding and playing with them for several hours each day. The younger lambs are still bottle-fed, although Stanley has been weaned off of his favorite treat.

“Clara’s friendship with Stanley is broken,” Nicholas said sorrowfully. “She told him no more bottles, and now he won’t go within like a foot of her.”

Repurposed Sprite bottles come in handy as Josh and Nicholas Ratz feed their hungry lambs, Oliver and Wilbur. Sheep brother Stanley, recently weaned off of bottle feedings, stood nearby and watched.

After owning his sheep for less than a month, Nicholas rattled off the needs of a sheep like a pro.

“You feed it hay and sweet feed, kind of like grain and molasses,” he said. He listed the many ingredients used to fill bottles for the younger lambs, finishing with, “and then you shake it.”

Other residents of the yard, not content to let the sheep get all the attention, filled the air with quacks and clucks and cock-a-doodle-doos. Josh pointed out Wonder, a special duck with a flipped-wing deformity that will keep it from ever being able to fly. He keeps an eye out for the family favorite, making sure other ducks don’t bully him.

“We have a special creature in our family,” Josh said affectionately.

“Getting pecked by a duck is so weird,” Nicholas said, calmly holding out his hand for more pecks. Chickens and ducks milled around his feet, ready for the crumbled saltine crackers that were soon offered. The feathered family members are fed every day with food scraps added to the chicken bucket after the humans’ mealtimes.

Rabbits moseyed in several pens, noses flickering in curiosity. The younger ones, about 2 months old, are socializing well and like to snuggle on laps in the living room, Sarah said. The rabbits got a lot of attention after they were born, but, with the sheep’s coming, they receive less, a fact they bear with no outward emotional trauma.

A set of 3-week-old ducks — already a good 18 inches tall — and a herd of miniature chickens live, until their feathers come in, in a brooder box in the basement of the house. Most of the chicks, a mere three days old, were born in an incubator on the kitchen counter. Some of the chicks, Susan admitted, she purchased the day before at a farm supply store.

“What are you doing to do? You go in there and they’re on sale …,” she said, admitting that the chicks are a little bit of an obsession for her.

Nicholas, holding a handled cardboard box, teased his mother about her weakness for chicks.

“She buys them in a box, like they’re eggs,” Nicholas said. “Which really makes you think … which came first, the chicken or the egg?”

The mother of a few humans and adopted mother of 30-some backyard critters, not to mention a handful of dogs and at least one hen-picked cat, looked with calm affection at her charges as they milled happily about the brown-grassed yard.

“We started with four ducks. It escalated quickly,” Susan said, clearly not disappointed by the menagerie her yard has become. She grew up on a small farm, herself, and is thinking of adding turkeys to the mix sometime soon.

“Let’s get some of those big ones, that are like up to here,” Nicholas said, holding his hand at waist level. He thinks he may someday want to own a turkey farm.

Clara has her future with animals all mapped out, she said. She hopes to eventually become a veterinarian specializing in horses.

In the yard, the chickens and sheep followed the boys like a pied piper, clearly accustomed to the humans who think hanging out with a yardful of animals is a good way to spend an adolescence.

Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693 or jriddle@thealpenanews.com.