PANORAMA - The accidental sheperds

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Eager for food and attention, seven 'bummer” lambs at Upper Dry Creek Ranch watch every move Cheryl and Robert Cosner make.

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Upper Dry Creek Ranch owners Cheryl and Robert Cosner walk through the rolling spring green of their land on one of their multiple trips per day to pastures full of ewes and lambs.

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Cheryl Cosner laughs as one of seven hungry 'bummer” lambs tries to suck on her hand.

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Shepherds Robert and Cheryl Cosner survey their ever-growing flock.

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Robert Cosner helps a lamb, born earlier that morning, to its feet after spray chalking its side with the number of its mother to track the care and nutrition provided to the lamb.

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Cheryl Cosner laughs as a curious lamb tries to escape.

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Cheryl Cosner lovingly nuzzles a baby goat grazing with the flock at Upper Dry Creek Ranch.

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The Cosners pull out a package of frozen ground lamb from their freezer.

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'Bummer” lambs, hoping to be fed, greet Robert and Cheryl Cosner at the barn door.

‘They're like puppies, said Cheryl Cosner, hands on hips and her grin bright. "Like bad, little puppies, with no mother to teach them manners."

Naughty or not, the seven "bummer" lambs are more than ready for company and proffered fingers to suck on.

The woolly babies, looking like they've just stepped off a toy store's shelf, were each born as one-third of a triplet set at Upper Dry Creek Ranch this spring. They're here, penned in the barn, to get a decent start on life, Cosner said. "The ewe only has two teats, meaning if she has more than two lambs, someone is not getting fed."

Gathering up and parenting hungry babies is just part of a typical spring day at Upper Dry Creek Ranch, known to its owners as 2,200 acres of heaven on earth.

Washington State University alumni Cheryl and Robert Cosner always planned to be in agriculture, but the couple thought it would forever be hay and grain. "Full fledged," Robert said.

Five years ago, the couple packed up their three children and stock, leaving behind an extended-family farming operation in the Goldendale, Wash, area. They landed just a few miles south of Milton-Freewater at a ranch that once belonged to a renowned Milton-Freewater family, the Olingers.

The property stretches a few miles in from U.S. Highway 11 to nearly Tollgate, providing multiple areas to raise the cattle, roosters, goats and sheep that roam the family farm.

The pure-bred Coopworths were an accidental addition, Cheryl said, her large blue eyes widening as she looked backward in time. "They started as a hobby."

An artist as well as a farmer (she directed Carnegie Art Center in Walla Walla for nearly three years and has a masters degree in marketing and agricultural science) Cheryl was exploring fiber art possibilities when she picked up four of the New Zealand breed of sheep. Then came another 25.

"What if … " Cheryl remembers asking Robert as they played with a calculator one night. "What if we could make this work?"

The multiplying began, and now the ranch is home to 250 ewes, a few rams and a great number of babies. Lambs are everywhere, running after their mamas, napping on the rolling knolls, dodging rambunctious baby goats that share the field.

On this day, a mid-morning walk reveals a new member of the family. Robert scoops up the baby, about three hours old, to spray-chalk her with the number of mama, sheep No. 703 in this case.

The Cosners walk to the sheep's grazing area about five times a day during lambing season to ensure no baby is missed. Each is numerically marked on one side and hash-marked on the other to indicate how many babies were born to that mother. "If we see a lamb with two marks, but Mom is only walking with one, we'll ask her where that other baby is," Cheryl said.

"We have 28 ewes left to lamb. Lambing started April 13th … we'll get about 50 more lambs. We're not getting a lot of sleep, she added with a laugh. "Last night, for my birthday, I asked if I could please go to bed early as my present."

The Cosners sell the yearly shearing, or "clip," from their flock to markets around the region, some going to Pendleton Woolen Mills, and much of it going to a mill in Northern California that specializes in all-natural bedding products. This year's woolly harvest weighed nearly 4,000 pounds with mature ewes contributing up to 12 pounds each.

That's one side of the sheep ranching business - as picturesque as a Hollywood production, as hardworking as a country song.

The other side involves a knife and fork.

Many people have a misconception of lamb meat that stems from the World War II era, Cheryl pointed out. Dry, stringy, strong and flavorless at once - "That's not lamb, that's mutton. No one wants to eat mutton."

What Upper Dry Creek Ranch produces is not the same animal, she insisted. Lambs, other than breeding ewes and rams, are ready for butcher at about nine months of age, Robert added. "They grow fast."

When sheep get to market, the processed (there are all kinds of way to avoid saying "slaughtered," Cheryl explained. "People don't want to hear that word.") animal has been aged into an artisan meat that is mild in flavor and high in conjugated linoleic acids, best known for fighting cancer and muscle-building properties.

The Cosners are determined to grow the best meat possible. That goal begins with using one breed of sheep only, so that every cut of meat is similar in taste, texture and size.

The forage factor is hugely important, as well. Upper Dry Creek Ranch sheep dine on a number of edibles, the herd eating about 27 tons of food a week. Groceries consist of carrot and onion waste, brought in to add energy for birthing and nursing moms. The four-legged lawn mowers also graze on grass, chicory, Scotch thistle leaves and other flora.

The sheep do a little community service, getting transported to other areas for grazing. This herd of 240 ewes and 380 lambs is due at a vineyard soon, ready to mow down steep, hilly areas that only grow grass and weeds.

The Cosner sheep also have appointments for area alfalfa fields. It's a time-honored method that saves a farmer's time and fuel, Cheryl said. Plus, sheep are light enough to not damage fields and gentle enough that they don't pull up the plants.

Even better, the animals eat weed species that can reduce the hay growers' need for herbicide applications in the spring.

It's all in the plan for sustainable farming and the give-and-take cycle between land, animals and humans. Added bonuses include always-clean feed and unlimited access to it, not always the case with hay-fed, the ranchers said.

No grain or grain byproducts are fed to their sheep, Cheryl said. "All grass. Only grass, ever. At a certain point, the sheep convert the grass to fat. Because we've been doing this so long, we know at what weight and frame size they will quit growing up and start growing out."

That layer of fat is essential to flavor, and getting the right mix is a matter of science, genetics and "finish" or "feel," she added. "You don't need a lot of fat."

Plenty of buyers seem to agree with their methods. The Cosners sell to hotels, restaurants, wineries and private buying clubs, as well as customers who visit their website to place orders. The sheep are processed near Portland, returned to commercial freezers on the ranch and vacuum sealed, untouched by human hands, Robert noted.

Not every sheep becomes someone's dinner. Some inevitably become family pets and live out their days on the ranch, often hanging out close to the house.

It's not quite the life picture Robert had in mind when he met his bride-to-be more than 25 years ago at a county fair. He was all about cattle and referred to her sheep as "meadow maggots" back then.

Ranching as they do became the dream, the couple agree. "I've never been bored in my life," Cheryl said. "We love the challenge."

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