Thursday, March 6, 2008

Tales of Lambing Horror 2

Last year, our second as shepherds, we hemmed and hawed about breeding the yearlings. There are pluses and minuses to breeding "one-winter" ewes. On the plus side are lambs (When you feed $4 bales of hay to your livestock all winter you'd like a little something in return... like, um, their firstborn!) and also bred one-winter ewes tend to have big healthy twins their second year out. On the minus side are the increased risk of complications and fine-line nutrition adjusted for growth of mother without promoting an enormous fetus.

Anyway, after the requisite hemming and hawing we decided to go ahead and breed 'em (we had 3) and what could happen? Well, we put them into their breeding groups. All was well and good. Then Andy, our wonderful shearer, came and we got to see just how small and vulnerable the girls looked under their massive, shaggy coats. We got cold, cold feet.

One-winters ewes are supposed to come into heat later than mature ewes. So we thought we might have a chance to make things right. After much slipping, chasing and dragging and hauling, we managed to get the three teenagers out of the breeding pens. (You'll notice that every sheep story includes the lines... after much slipping, chasing, dragging and hauling .....?)

But for Snazzy Pants, our little black and white spotted ewe, smallest of the three One-winters, it was too late. This soon became painfully apparent. By March, Snazzy looked a little wider than her sisters. A little wider became hugely wider became... uh oh!

Now, we had read about lambing and all the complications that might arise from one-winter breeding. Prime among these was the lamb being too big to birth easily. Snazzy was small, her belly, huge. We waited and worried all the way into spring. What else was there to do?

Of course, Snazzy went into labor when I was home alone with the kids. I had that feeling.. the something's going to happen with the sheep today feeling... (The way this feeling has developed in 2 short years, I'll soon be able to read tea leaves, taro cards and the predict the weather better than the Farmer's Almanac!) Sure enough, Snazzy was in labor. Smack-dab in the middle of the pasture. Her two yearling buddies were pressing in close trying to figure out what was up. I moved the other ewes into a different section of pasture and sat in the shadow of a maple tree to keep an eye. (Interestingly, the kids did not want to have any part of this lambing. They had been around for Copper's two and I guess that was all they could take of placenta's and blood and anxious waiting.)

Well, the ewe lamb came out fine. Too fine. She was tiny. I mean 3 pounds worth of teeny tiny cuteness, a little black mini sheep, but game enough to try to stand immediately. Snazzy was a little freaked out, a little clueless. She stood at a distance and watched the little thing struggle around in the dirt. I went over and wiped the lamb to dry it, and as soon as I did this, Snazzy's instinct seemed to kick in and she came over to smell and then lick the little one. Things seemed okay. The lamb stood and staggered towards its mother, but Snazzy stepped back, kept stepping back. She was in the middle of the pasture and of course I couldn't catch her (No slipping, chasing, dragging possible alone). Also I didn't know if I should intervene. Wouldn't nature take it's course?

It didn't. The staggering and backing away continued. And continued. And continued....

Every shepherd is faced with a dilemma like this. Do you jump right in and do something? Do you trust in the wisdom of the animal? (After all, perhaps Snazzy knew something about the situation/lamb that I didn't) Do you call for help?

I went for option number 3. I called Dan at work. "Everything will be fine." Was his distant response. "Don't worry." (Have I mentioned that this is Dan's response to pretty much everything?) I called a local shepherd that I had heard of but never met. She wasn't home. I called a local dairy farmer. She didn't know anything about sheep. I called a friend who had once had some 4H lambs. She came right out. Now we had a clear case of the legally blind leading the totally blind. We were able to catch Snazzy (With much slipping and sliding, dragging, etc.) and bring her and the lamb into the barn.

We were able to hold Snazzy still so that the lamb could... Wait a minute! here was another problem: Snazzy had not "bagged up"; her udder was nonexistent as far as I could tell. She had not yet cleared the afterbirth and so the hormones that create a visible udder had not done their work.... yet. (I now know to give pregnant ewes extra doses of Selenium to condition them to expel the placenta easily. But back then, I thought the sheep mineral mix would be good enough.)

What now? My friend, who had raised "bottle babies" thought I should give the lamb some milk replacer. It had been about 3 hours by now and the little thing HAD to eat! It was still gamely trying to get something out of Snazzy, who at least let it try now. But she seemed to have nothing there, not even a hint of udder.

I mixed up some artificial colostrum and gave it to the little thing. I did this reluctantly, images of driving the two hours to work with the lamb bleating for milk in the back seat, waking at all hours of the night to feed yet another "baby", the tip-toe of hooves on our already-scarred wood floor. I did not want-- COULDN'T-- raise a bottle baby. Snazzy had to come through.

We were in an anxious holding pattern for a while, but after about 5 hours and many episodes in which I held Snazzy still while the little lamb tried her best to get Snazzy's Oxitocyn flowing, we had milk! Phew!

And the little ewe lamb, Olive, turned out to be an incredibly hardy and charming creature! She lives on Three Dog Farm now.

This isn't really a "tale of lambing horror" so much as a tale of minor everyday shepherding "stuff". There is no "by the book" as far as I can tell. But we learn from each new wrinkle. And there is nothing quite like the frantic, happy wag of nursing lamb's tail! Nothing at all.


Twinville said...

Awwww, what a cutie! Thanks for your wonderfully detailed writing. I felt like I was right there with you feeling the worry, tension, and joy.

Christy said...

Oh, I can see these decisions being so hard to make. When too step in and when to let nature take its course. It can't be easy at all.